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Honey bees play essential role as crop pollinators

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It could be argued that a bee is one of the most identifiable insects. In fact, the insect is often used in print media, movies and advertisements. Most people become aware of the bee when they are very young. Bees belong to the order of insects Hymenoptera, which also includes ants and wasps. There are more than 20,000 types of bees, but the focus of this article is on the honey bee because of its importance in agriculture. Although widely popular for their honey, the bee's greatest contribution to agriculture is as a crop pollinator.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service, in 2014 honey bees made 178 million pounds of honey worth an estimated $384 million. In addition, bee pollination accounted for about $15 billion in added crop value. Pollination is vital to the approximately 250,000 flowering plant species that depend on pollen transfer. University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum, Ph.D., once told the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture that bees "are in effect six-legged livestock that both manufacture agricultural commodities honey and wax and, more importantly, contribute agricultural services pollination."

Bee Facts:

  • Because honey bee colonies can be extremely large, only a pest management professional or experienced beekeeper should safely remove a honey bee nest.
  • Honey bees do sting, but they only sting once. The sting can be extremely painful if the stinger is not immediately removed from the skin. People allergic to insect stings will have a more severe reaction.
  • A honey bee's wings flap 11,000 times per minute, which is why it sounds like they are "buzzing."
  • Honey bees have six legs, two compound eyes (one on each side of the head) made up of thousands of tiny lenses, three simple eyes on the top of the head, two pairs of wings, a nectar pouch and a stomach.
  • The USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is organizing a national bee genebank as part of the agency's response to ongoing problems facing the country's beekeepers. The genebank will be located in Fort Collins, Colorado, to help preserve the genetic diversity of honey bees, especially for traits such as resistance to pests or diseases and pollination efficiency.
  • A bee colony consists of 20,000 to 60,000 honey bees and one queen. Worker honey bees are female; they live for about six weeks and do all the work. The queen bee can live up to five years; her role is to fill the hive with eggs. She is the busiest in the summer months, when the hive needs to be at its maximum strength. She lays up to 2,500 eggs per day. The queen bee has control over whether she lays male or female eggs. If she uses stored sperm to fertilize the egg, the larva that hatches is female. If the egg is left unfertilized, the larva that hatches is male. In other words, female bees inherit genes from their mothers and their fathers, while male bees only inherit genes from their mothers.

Will Chaney serves as a pecan management systems senior research associate and has been with the Noble Research Institute since 2008. He received his bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Leadership and his master’s degree in Horticulture from Oklahoma State University. He grew up on his family’s land in south central Oklahoma. His areas of interest are centered around integrating agricultural animal production and tree crop production into a silvopasture system.