The Need for Bees


No other insect has achieved the popularity of the honey bee.  In fact, there are few other animals that have had as great an impact on human civilization as honey bees.  Much is owed to these industrious insects which have shaped modern agriculture and human culture.

The Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera L.), commonly called the European Honey Bee, is one of the first animals cultivated by humans. Humans first learned to rob from wild colonies but eventually learned to carefully collect and care for honey bee colonies. For thousands of years, humans and honey bees have been mutually entwined to the benefit of both species. Before widespread cultivation of sugar cane, honey was one of the most widely available source of sugar to developing communities, and beeswax candles were a primary source of light for western civilizations before gas lanterns and electric lights. Beeswax also has been used in preserving and packaging a variety of materials. Some ancient cultures considered honey bees to be sacred, and catholic cathedrals usually kept honey bee colonies to supply candles for worship and sweetener to the community. honey has long been used for medicinal purposes, and it was the necessary ingredient in making mead, which was often the only alcoholic libation available.  Honey bees have benefitted from humans as well.  Humans have spread honey bees wherever they have settled, and the adaptable honey bee has been able to naturalize and establish wild colonies on every continent except Antarctica.

Beekeeper in suit working a hiveHoney bees produce tangible goods such as honey, wax, and propolis. The U.S. honey crop is valued at over $300 million annually (USDA Honey Report, 2019), and wax and propolis are used in an array of home goods such as candles, cosmetics, and health products, the total impact of which is not measured.  The greatest economic impact of honey bees is through pollination of agricultural crops.  Production of about one third of the human diet requires insect pollination, and honey bees perform the majority of pollination for these cultivated crops. Globally, three out of four species of cultivated crops are animal pollinated, and honey bees are able to pollinate most of these crops.  In the United States, honey bees contribute an estimated $20 billion to the value of U.S. crop production annually. Some crops such as almonds, blueberries, and cherries rely almost entirely on honey bee pollination.  By enabling the production of such an array of crops, honey bees have diversified the human diet, which provides high quality nutrition that promotes human health and longevity.  Honey bees also contribute to livestock production through pollination of forage plants such as alfalfa and clover.  Wildlife benefit from honey bees through the pollination of many wildland plants and as food to a large number of insectivorous predators.

Honey bees influence human culture in many unexpected ways.  Most languages have honey bee colloquialisms such as “busy as a bee” or “the bee’s knees.”  Bees are the subject of art, old and new, adorning cave walls from over 7,000 years ago and in impressive works of the Renaissance like the massive Baldacchino that stands over the papal alter in St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. Honey bees have inspired music and song lyrics across many genres and are the subjects of festivals and celebrations across the globe. Honey’s medicinal properties make it integral to spiritual ceremonies for cultures worldwide, and honey bees themselves are used as healing agents treating human ailments through Apitherapy.  Honey bees even have been used as tools of war, deployed to attack the enemy, thwarting invasions and defending ancient cities.

So important are honey bees to humans that news of honey bee losses has made international headlines, raising global concerns about environmental sustainability. As a result, conservation of this species and other pollinators has become a priority for human civilizations worldwide.

The Clemson Apiculture and Pollinator Program was developed to provide an educational platform for beekeepers to help them maintain healthy stocks of honey bees in South Carolina, because the goods and services that honey bees provide to citizens of this state are critical.  The program also was formed to increase awareness about the importance of native pollinators and protecting invertebrate biodiversity as a function of maintaining productive ecosystems and vibrant communities.