Most of us know the importance of bees. We appreciate they are critical for the biodiversity of our planet, and that it is due to their hard work pollinating crops that we can enjoy a third of the food we eat. It is because of the bee that we have life-changing medicines, and our tea can be sweetened with honey. Some might even know about a bee’s wacky waggle-dance, which she performs to show her sisters the location of a new nectar source.
But did you know that there are over 200,000 species of bee, in all sorts of colours, some with iridescent stripes that refract light to produce rainbows like an opal? Or that some are as large as the palm of your hand? Have you ever considered that a bee is a long-haired vegetarian – a “hippy wasp”? These are just a few of the remarkable bee idiosyncrasies revealed by conservation biologist and award-winning author, Thor Hanson, in a Zoom talk I recently had the pleasure of attending.
Thor began his lecture by taking us back in time, to the mid-cretaceous period. During this age of dinosaurs, the vegetation was only seed plants and spore plants. Flowers at this time were a novelty… until the bee! Having evolved from the carnivorous wasp, the bee instead relied upon the products of flowers for food. Bee pollination of this flora encouraged the rapid evolution of flowers, meaning this tiny insect is the main contributor for the diversity of flowers we see today.
Jumping forward in time, Thor explained how a recent study on the Hadza people – an indigenous hunter-gatherer group in Tanzania – showed that the bee was responsible for human evolution, too. The study revealed that honey made up 15% of the Hadza diet, so was a major source of their calorific intake. Science has shown that changes in behaviour like the invention of hunting and the taming of fire for cooking have evolved our skulls because the brain grows from the influx of calories. So if our ancestors searched for and consumed honey as regularly as the Hadza do today, then following bees has influenced our evolution.
Nowadays, the bee is still just as revolutionary. Yet, the ‘four P’s’ (pathogens, parasites, poor nutrition and pesticides) are causing bees to decline. Just days ago, after an ongoing fight from bee-enthusiasts for months, the UK government finally decided against the use of a pesticide for sugar beet which damages the bee’s nervous system. They did so somewhat reluctantly, while it has already been banned in the EU for 3 years. Having to fight so hard to protect the bee population with these tiny changes shows we still have a long way to go.
Being locked down and encouraged to stay at home this year has left many of us feeling more disconnected than ever with nature. But Spring is coming, and so are the bees. In the preface of his book, Buzz, Thor writes: “Bees today certainly need our help, but just as importantly, they need our curiosity.” So, when you’re next outside for your essential exercise, make sure you look out for the “hippy wasp”, and appreciate her in all her quirky glory.
Slideshow images from USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.