Why bees are important !

This is the Epilogue from the novel Post to Post Links II error: No post found with slug "honey-passion"

Bees have been discovered in amber over 100 million years old, frozen in time, as if immortalized in their own honey. Bees were buzzing around the first flowers during the age of the dinosaurs, when creatures such as Tyrannosaurus rex preyed on Triceratops.

Over millions of years most plant species then evolved to create flowers.

Nature had very good reasons for making this happen.

A hundred million years is not so very long in our planet’s history, yet a lot happened in fifty million, million minutes. Gondwanaland broke apart to gradually form the continents we know today. Great land masses drifted north and crashed together again, surrounded by the ever-changing oceans. Islands broke off and moved. The tropical islands of the Pacific were formed by parts of the continents breaking off, and also by crustal and volcanic activity.

Sixty five million years ago, in a few minutes, a massive meteor caused climate change and mayhem that signalled the demise of the dinosaurs and the birth of many new life forms. The flowering plants and buzzing bees lived on through the mayhem and into the next epoch.

Trial and error, survival born from success had proven the need for sex. Sex shuffles the deck of life – the genes of inheritance – passed on through the generations, giving a better chance of adapting and surviving. For animals and plants the age-old struggle for life has always had sex at its centre.

Plants appear to have no awareness of what all this means, but they are driven by a desire to increase their number. Sex is vital for them so that they can have healthy progeny which may be better survivors. They can spread their roots and shoots into new territory, but being rooted to the ground they cannot run about to hug each other in sexual ardour, so they must find other ways to shuffle the deck of genes.

Many plants, such as the grasses, gamble on casting into the wind billions and billions of their tiny masculine pollen grains hoping that a few, by chance, will land on the feminine stigmas of another plant of the same species. Most pollen is lost in this lottery but enough female organs are found that they can make seeds to spread their species still further.

But some plants found animal friends, especially bees, to carry their male pollen grains straight to the female stigma. The trick was to entice the friend with an attractive flower, a gift of fragrant energy-rich nectar to sip, and some nutritious pollen to be stuck onto their body. Now when the animal friend visits another flower there will be a good chance of botanical sex – or pollination as we call it. For the plant this was a more effective and efficient way of transferring their pollen. (For millions of years nature has always provided plenty of pollinators to do the job – until modern humans arrived.)

The colours and fragrances of those ancient flowers may have been something like our own favourite flowers. Indeed, flowers such as Magnolia have been around since the dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Humans often like to imagine that these flowers were made for us to enjoy. Maybe they were, but long before us, the plants had made a pact with the bees: “We grow these flowers to feed you with nectar and pollen, so then you can do something for us. All we ask is that you, our flying furry messengers of love, take our pollen to another flower and help us have sex.”

The collaboration between plants and animals over millions and millions of years created amazingly beautiful and complex designs for achieving mutual success. The plants achieved pollination and the pollinators collected food. Each of countless generations shuffling the deck a little more, sometimes being lucky and sometimes not. The lucky ones survived and lots of practise achieved great things. The flowers became so cleverly and elegantly designed that we can appreciate their beauty, and the bees became their supreme messengers of botanical love. And so, over millions of years, nature’s pact between the plants and the bees has become fundamental for so much life on our planet. (However, many humans do not appreciate the importance of this relationship.)

Some bees found great success by working closely together as a family, developing their own complex civilisations in colonies of many thousands of individuals. To care for each other the honeybees created intricate wax combs to raise their young and store their food of pollen and honey. For numerous millennia the bees have made honey from the flower nectars and plant saps to provide themselves with a naturally healthy food containing a complex mix of sugars, anti-oxidants and other bioactive agents.

Humans of various forms first strode onto the scene about a hundred thousand years ago. They surely wondered why the world was the way it was, but they had only the faintest inkling. Early humans were too busy keeping themselves alive to study such things, although it is very possible that more advanced cultures realised the basic reasons for a plant having flowers, the concepts of pollination, and maybe even the role of bees as pollinators. (Bandri and his tribe were closely integrated into their natural world, and did not need sophisticated tools to understand such relationships.)

Languages and tools helped to change our world and to change us. Communities gave us the opportunity to develop culture and knowledge, as well as the ability to love or to hate, to plan or to plot, to defend or to attack. There is scarcely any passion without struggle. We are also the only beings that can reflect on the past and think about what might happen in the future.

We needed to recognise and to know which plants and animals were food or were helpful, and which were dangerous. Cave paintings depict determined looking figures risking their lives to extract honey from precarious cliff-side bee colonies. Honey hunting represents one of man’s earliest pursuits and continues to this day in many countries. (Bandri and his tribe would have been active honey hunters of the plentiful colonies of honeybees, and also stingless bees.)

Honey was an energy-rich food, prized for its’ taste and symbolism. It was easily portable and long-lasting which means that it would have been a valuable aid when mankind was on the move, during hunting or warfare, and when migrating on land and sea. Honey was an important part of the diet for many cultures and it was frequently used as a medical aid. For millennia honey has had a special place in our culture and society.

Honeybees accompanied Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and during the mythical Golden Age honey dripped from trees like rain water. In ancient Egypt taxes could be paid in honey, and honey found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs has been tasted by archaeologists and found edible. After his death, Alexander the Great’s remains were preserved in a huge crock of honey.

Many cultures regarded honey as a sacred substance which should be the first food to touch the palate of the new-born baby. Cicero described how bees built a honeycomb in the mouth of the infant Plato, which predicted the singular sweetness of his discourses and his future eloquence.

Human civilization blossomed in Asia, around the Mediterranean, and in other regions about 2,500 years ago. There were great thinkers like Plato, Socrates and Aristotle in Greece, and Confucius in China. Ancient Egypt was soon to be conquered by Alexander the Great. Arts and literature were developing independently across the world. The Bronze Age was well-established and some cultures had sea-going vessels. Our story of Post to Post Links II error: No post found with slug "honey-passion" began during this period in history about 2,500 years ago, on the island of Sulawesi which is part of modern-day Indonesia.

Even in today’s technological age, it is still true that most people are aware that honey is made by bees. Honey is that idea of syrupy sweetness, a term of endearment, and wistfully in the half-forgotten phrase the land of milk and honey. The word honey is added to so many food descriptions and whenever it is convenient to add some sort of sweetener to a phrase. For many of us however, honey itself appears to have become just a minor commodity in a bottle on a supermarket shelf. A new reality however, is that in some countries, most of the honey on the supermarket shelves is not made by bees or is in some way adulterated by fraudsters.

In tropical regions such as south east Asia, the Indonesian and the Philippine archipelagos, three quarters of the plant species rely to some extent on pollination by bees and other creatures. Therefore, the future story of the bee is critical to the future of these countries, and if a society forgets the role of the bee then problems will follow. The primary native bee pollinators are the large wild honeybee (Apis dorsata) and the smaller Asian honeybee (Apis cerana). There are also small stingless bee species that are pollinators. In a healthy tropical eco-system these native bee colonies would be present in large numbers.

Some countries, such as Vietnam have a society that is generally aware of the role of bees and beekeeping, resulting in a positive pollination environment, and high agricultural yields for fruit crops.

In the Philippines however, the vast majority of the population, and even most farmers and their ‘advisors’, continue to remain disastrously unaware of the role of bees and pollination. The continuing depopulation of the native bees, caused by unmanaged honey hunting and other factors, is resulting in increasing ecological and agricultural damage. Many smaller islands have lost their populations of the large wild honeybee, and even larger islands are on course to loose their populations unless awareness and attitudes improve. Lack of understanding also means that the smaller Asian honeybee has been removed from about a half of the land area, and stingless bees are in decline. Largely due to insufficient pollination, the yields and production of many fruit crops such as mango and coffee have been in perpetual decline over the past decade, and consequently rural communities are suffering. This situation has been exacerbated by large-scale, factory-made fake honey which is sold in the supermarkets, and bought by millions of innocent consumers who are unaware of the fraudulent honey business. Sadly, state officials might be corrupt or intimidated, or may fail to understand and act on the issues. Further information is available on the website.. http://beephilippines.info

Other issues such as Colony Collapse Disorder are also revealing that we need to remember that honey is only available to us because the honeybees are also doing the vital job of pollinating the plants on which we depend.

Honey is part of this story of passion and tropical islands. I hope that it has described realistically the way in which the story of honey is linked to our own human story. Also, I hope it may help to raise awareness of our pollinators.

About Julian Wright

Julian Wright is a British agricultural scientist married to a Philippine teacher, who has a house and some land planted to coconuts and other crops near Dumaguete in the Philippines.
This entry was posted in Apis cerana (Ligwan), Apis dorsata (Putyukan), Apis mellifera (European), Bee populations, Crop yields & pollination, Educational materials, General posts, Honey. Bookmark the permalink.

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