Bees, of course, are at the heart of beekeeping in the production of honey, but they also provide many other services essential to human activities. Alongside other pollinating insects and animals, they play a key role in the ecosystems. Without pollination, we could not have got a multitude of other services provided by nature, such as the supply of certain foods and natural fibres (agriculture), or the maintenance of biodiversity and beauty of our landscapes. Finally, bees are also indicators of the state of our environment.
Bees and Biodiversity
If the flowers are so diverse and full of colour, it is mainly because they have evolved to attract bees. Eighty per cent of flowering plants depend more or less on insect pollination to reproduce. Half of pollinators of tropical plants are bees.
It is possible to multiply plants without pollination. A new tree can, for example, be obtained from transplanting or from cuttings. However, the new tree will be genetically identical to the original tree. This would not be a problem if the environment underwent no change. But this is not the case. In case of disturbance, such as a disease, a genetically identical tree plantation would be very vulnerable. The genetic diversity within a species increases resistance of the species, and ultimately of the ecosystem to hazards. Pollination is the only way to mix genes and maintain genetic diversity.
There is therefore a complex relationship of interdependence between bees and most plants. Without bees, the diversity of plant species and diversity within a species may not be as high.
Bees, agriculture and food security
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), out of the 100 cultivated species that provide 90% of world food, 71 are pollinated by bees. In Europe, 84% of all cultivated plants (264) are pollinated by insects, primarily bees. In Wallonia, this includes crops such as rapeseed, some vegetables (peas and beans), fruit crops (apple, pear, cherry, plum, strawberry, gooseberry, raspberry, etc.), and glasshouse horticulture (tomatoes, zucchini, aubergine, peppers, etc.).
Honeybee is responsible at the most for only 15% of the pollination, the rest is mainly the result of foraging of wild bees, including bumblebees.
Finally, pollination affects both the quantity and quality of crops. Inadequate pollination of certain crops results in lower yields. Globally, the contribution of bees in crop pollination is estimated at €153 billion (in Europe, €14.2 billion), or 9.5% of the market value of agricultural production, or even 35% of world food production in tonnes.
Honey and other products from beekeeping
Honey is produced by bees from the nectar that they collect from flowers. Here, only the honeybee produces it in large quantities that can be used by humans, because honey serves as a food reserve for the hive during winter.
In Europe, the beekeeping sector has 600,000 beekeepers and produces about 200,000 tonnes of honey per year. Honey is only one of many products that can be harvested. Others are wax, pollen, propolis, royal jelly and venom. Some of these products are also used for their medical properties (apitherapy).
Some bee species can serve as indicators of the state of our environment and the impact of our practices and products on the ecosystems. How? Through the study of honeybee colonies, analysis of the collected pollen, honey, nectar, wax and bees found dead.