Found on every continent except Antarctica, bees are vital pollinators, making possible much of the food humans eat. In recent years, however, crucial bee species have experienced significant loss. Since the 1990s, the bumblebee population has plunged almost 90%. Additionally, since 2006, a malady called Colony Collapse Disorder has afflicted honeybee populations.  Join Active Minds as we dive into the world of bees and examine the factors that are affecting these important species.

Key Lecture Points

  • 25,000 species of bees have been identified, the vast majority of which are solitary bees. Less than 4% of species make honey and less than 3% live in hives.
  • Found on every continent except Antarctica, bees are vital pollinators, gathering nectar and pollen from flowering plants, making possible much of the food we eat as well as providing the beauty of flowers. Many plants are unable to reproduce without pollination. One third of our diet is pollinated by bees.
  • The bee species we are most familiar with are the honeybees that make the honey we eat. Honeybees were brought to the New World from Europe in the 1600s.
  • Honeybees live in large hive colonies with a complex social order based on 3 castes:  the queen, workers and drones, each with specific tasks and dependent on each other for the survival of the community. Bees communicate with dance, vibrations and pheromones. The honeybee’s waggle dance tells the hive the location of a new food source and is considered by scientists to be the most sophisticated form of non-human communication.
  • Colony Collapse Disorder is when an entire honeybee colony abruptly disappears, leaving behind only the queen and a few young. First observed in 2006, the exact cause is still being studied, but most experts agree it is the result of multiple factors with the chief culprits being pesticides, parasites and weakened immune systems due to poor nutrition.
  • Bumblebees are the only social bee native to North America. They build their colonies underground in an abandoned rodent hole or above ground in a hollow tree or in a cavity in a rock wall. The bumblebee colony has an annual life cycle and does not survive over the winter like honeybee hives do.
  • Since the 1990s the bumble bee population has plunged almost 90%. It is estimated that more than a quarter (28%) of all North American bumblebees are facing some degree of extinction due to habitat loss, disease, pesticide use and climate change.
  • In 2017 the rusty patched bumble bee was listed by the US government as an endangered species—the first wild bee in the continental US to gain such federal protection. The Center for Biological Diversity predicts more than 700 North American bee populations are in danger of extinction.

Exploration Questions

  • Describe the diversity of bees.
  • What is pollination and what is the role of the bee in this process?
  • Why are bees and other wild pollinators important?
  • What is Colony Collapse Disorder?  What causes it?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think pesticides like neonicotinoids should be banned?  Why?  Why not?
  • Have you ever seen a beekeeper tending hives or a field being pollinated?  What were your impressions?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • DK, Emma Tennant, Fergus Chadwick. The Bee Book. DK Publishing, 2016. 224 pages. This book gives the reader basic information on bees as well as how to create a bee-friendly garden, how to get started as a beekeeper and recipes for using honey in home remedies and beauty treatments.
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  • Winston, Mark L. Bee Time:  Lessons from the Hive. Harvard University Press, 2016. 296 pages. The author explains how bees process information, communicate and structure their work. He also suggests lessons bees can teach us about how to interact with each other and the natural world.
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  • Frey, Kate, Gretchen Lebuhn, Leslie Lindell. The Bee-Friendly Garden:  Design an Abundant, Flower-Filled Yard That Nurtures Bees and Supports Biodiversity. Ten Speed Press, 2016. 224 pages. The authors tell you everything you need to know about creating a bee-friendly garden, no matter how large or small a space you have, that is a welcome habitat for honeybees, native bees and other pollinators.
    Click here to order