Agriculture that Depends on Honey Bees
One out of every three bites of food Americans consume comes from a plant pollinated by bees or other pollinators. Economically, it’s estimated that $15 billion crops annually are pollinated in the U.S., with bees doing almost 80 percent of the work.
Not only does the bee’s pollination result in higher number of fruits, berries or seed, but it also harvests higher quality produce. Efficient pollination from the honey bee also serves as a protection against pests for the crops. Without bees to pollinate, many plants – including food crops – would die off.
So you could say agriculture and honey bees have a critical mutual relationship. Without bees, the global economy would take a huge hit. As it is, the recent decline of honey bees has resulted in lower crop yields and increased production costs.
While we don’t need bees to pollinate every single crop, here is a brief list of some of the foods that are strongly tied to honey bee pollination.
Each year the U.S. produces about $2.3 billion worth of almond crops. California yields an average of 1.5 billion pounds of nuts per year.
One of the most important crop and honey bee pollination partnership is with California’s almond production. California is responsible for producing 80 percent of the world’s almonds. This crop is entirely dependent on honey bee pollination. Without the bees, there would be no almonds. In order to assist in pollinating the more than 790,000 acres of almonds, about half of the honey bee population in the United States is brought to the California fields. This results in more than a million colonies of honey bees.
For apples, pollination is the most critical event in their yearly production cycle. Apples begin as flowers on an apple tree. For a flower to transition into an apple, the pollen produced on one apple tree must be transferred to the flower of another tree. It has been found that 97 percent of the insects visiting these fruit blossoms are honey bees. Without the help from bees, the flowers would bloom and die without a chance to produce an apple.
Avocados are a partially self-pollinating crop. However, help from the honey bees have been shown to boost both the yield and quality of avocados. It has been estimated that up 90 percent of an avocado crop would be lost if there was no bee pollination. Further, a report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service has indicated that 90 percent of avocados grown in the U.S. rely on honey bees for pollination.
Blueberry plants are insect-pollinated. The blueberry flower produces both pollen and nectar, with pollen being produced for up to five days. Honey bees visit the blueberry flower to collect both nectar and pollen. Of all the insect pollinator visitors to the blueberry plant, honey bees make up 95 percent.
Since cantaloupe plants have heavy pollen, insect pollination is necessary. Honey bees visit cantaloupe blossoms for both the pollen and nectar. With increased honey bee pollination, certain varieties of cantaloupe grow in volume, weight and sweetness.
Cherry crops require cross-pollination to survive and reproduce. The average blossoming period for pollination is about seven to eight days, with several factors that can affect this. Bees transfer pollen within and between the flowers. The more flowers that are pollinated by bees means more cherries on each tree. Cherries that don’t receive adequate pollination fail to develop. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating about 90 percent of the cherries in the U.S., according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service.
Cucumber plants produce both a male and female flowers. The large and sticky pollen must be transferred between the two to create a cucumber. Honey bees have proved to be the most effective pollinators for this job. Multiple visits from honey bees result in properly shaped cucumbers, and a larger crop. Over 40 percent of flowers that have received one visit from a honey bee will produce a cucumber. Further, multiple bee visits to an individual flower will increase the amount of cucumbers and number of seeds per produce. In a study between screening out insect pollination on cucumber vines and open-pollinated vines, the screened vines produced no fruit while the open vines produced about six fruit per foot.
Kiwifruit flowers depend on insect pollination. The male and female flowers are located on separate flowers on different plants. The insects need to collect pollen from the male flowers and carry it to the female flower for pollination to occur. Honey bees have long been the top insect pollinator for this job. A single bee visit increases the fruit weight and seed count.
Raspberry flowers are partially self-fertile. The plant can produce some fruit without bee pollination. However, honey bees produce more and bulkier berries through pollination. Bee pollination also results in fully formed fruits, avoiding deformities. The raspberry flowers are typically very attractive to bees because of the large amount of nectar. Because of this, bees don’t have to visit as many flowers to effectively pollinate.
Honey bees are the most important pollinators for squash, pumpkin and gourds. These plants produce separate male and female flowers for pollination, with the number of males outweighing the females to help ensure successful pollination. When bees pollinate these plants, the number and weight of fruit produced increases.
Strawberry flowers are hermaphrodites. However, pollination from honey bees results in greater outcomes. Pollination by insects increases the quality and shelf life, saving hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. Strawberries pollinated by bees are more vibrantly colorful than other berries and have fewer deformities. Because they are firmer, their shelf life is about 12 hours longer than those that were wind-pollinated. If pollinators weren’t involved, growers would lose 11 percent of the fruit’s value, which would have cost the U.S. farmer $264 million in 2011 from spoilage. Honey bee pollination has also led to 39 percent higher sales value than wind-pollinated berries.
Watermelon’s pollen is sticky and can’t be blown by the wind, so insect pollination is critical. Each watermelon plant has a separate male and female flower that opens immediately in the morning and closes early in the afternoon, making initial morning bee activity very important. Bees need to visit an individual flower eight times to help produce a well-shaped, large fruit.
Besides these few agricultural crops listed above, the honey bee also has an important role in pollinating native plants that serve as habitat and food sources for our wildlife across the nation. Some of the food used to feed livestock must also by pollinated be bees. All in all, honey bees are essential to our agricultur