“In the nice bee, what sense so subtly true From pois’nous herbs extracts the healing dew?” Alexander Pope
The importance of Bees in pollination of plants generally and the success of human agriculture specifically seems hard to overstate.
These complex industrious creatures that have been around for maybe 100 million years continue to defy our understanding and exceed our expectations in many ways. Though we do seem to have altered the environment and habitats of the world these days to the point that life for these important insects is less than what the job description of visiting flowers and supping nectar and honey with pollen for a life might suggest.
Not only their physical ability to fly has confounded us, which we are yet to understand or model successfully. Their memory and cognitive abilities expressed in their dancing to communicate the timing, quality and provide directions to sources of nectar puts them amongst the most intelligent tiny animals humans have studied.
The complex social structure of the Honey Bee has long served as a metaphor for human culture as well, despite some historical misunderstanding of exactly what was going on. The industrious ever toiling and apparently uncomplaining workers and distinct social organisation have been cited as an example for humans, or at least some selected groups of people, to follow since ancient times. Often little more than a thinly veiled anthropomorphism of the current human social status quo or as an example of the divine nature of feudalism. From the mellifluous to the queen bee, our language continues to draw from the bee for inspiration and ideas.
However modern recognition of swarm intelligence, the leaderless collective decentralised self-organising nature of most social insect colonies such as bees construct, has proven a boon to the development of computers and robotics for all manner of tasks, and the study of natural systems.
Though there are very many bees that are solitary or have only small colonies. What marks almost all of them as common is their specialised utilisation of nectar and pollen as food and by that their importance in the pollination of many of the worlds flowering plants.
The decimation of bee colonies in the Americas and Eurasia over recent decades has sounded alarm bells. Recent research again indicates that it could be human pesticides that are in part responsible for declining bee numbers and may play a role in the widespread and recent colony collapse disorder that has been plaguing the honey and pollinating bee industry in some areas.
Despite ongoing human ignorance and stupidity, other recently published research has shone some more light on another interesting aspect of bee life, the likely self-medication and use of propolis, a mixture of resins, phenolics and other constituents harvested from plants. In an intriguing study published in PLOS One, researchers report how bees, in line with other members of the animal kingdom, appear to actively seek out and utilise specific plant materials (in nature resins from Populus and other spp.) for treatment of active and potentially pathologic organisms in their environment. Increasing their resin collection by ~45% when their hive is infected with the pathogenic bee larva fungal disease commonly called chalkbrood.
The presence of non pathogenic fungus not eliciting the same response as the active one indicates some insight by the bees into the nature and threat of the substance by some means and altering their behaviour and collecting tasks. It seems even bees have knowledge of herbal medicines and when they might useful or necessary.
Previously others reported on the potential role of other specific secondary metabolites in nectar in reducing parasitic disease burdens, in this case the fairly toxic to mammals alkaloid gelsemine from the nectar of Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens). The alkaloid was found to significantly reduce the load of gut protozoans in vivo when consumed continuously as a small component of the nectar. Though interestingly did not appear to have significant anti-protozoan activity outside of the bee when researchers looked to measure the any protective effects of gelsemine on potential transfer of disease via nectar after being visited by different bees over time.
No doubt with a relationship spanning virtually the entirety of the existence of flowering plants, bees and plants have assisted in their mutual growth, diversification and spread, which in the case of the latter is to be the now dominant class of plants on the earths land surface. The complexity of interactions between bees and plants and by extension plants and animals that require plants for their survival, underpins so much of the survival and health of all terrestrial life. Which we are yet to fully understand, but can still appreciate.
The healing qualities of honey itself had been described millenia ago, and in the case of some honeys the complex interaction between plant and bees that leads to potent anti-microbial activity such as that produced from Manuka (in NZ) and Jelly bush (in Australia) has now been vindicated by modern science.
Each worker bee produces about one teaspoon of honey in their shortish lives. This remarkable product that has allowed bees to remain perhaps the one insect many humans continue to actually look to with some appreciation. Particularly compared to their usually despised but just as industrious cousins the wasps and ants.
More important but less tangible or as sweet as honey and our appreciation of them as suppliers of what seemed like the ‘ambrosia’ of the gods to the ancients, is the role they play in the pollination of flowering plants the world over.