Other Environmental Themes

Flying Swiss Army Knives

Of all the pollinating species, bees are by far the most prolific. Due to their skills at extracting nectar and transporting pollen, they've been called "flying Swiss Army knives." Their front legs can pry open plants like bottle openers, while the hind legs of certain bees are specially designed to collect pollen. Some species even have "baskets" for this purpose. The flabellum, a flap on their tongues, can secure nectar from otherwise inaccessible cavities.

A single honeybee colony can cover a 60-squaremile area in the pursuit of food. Collectively, these creatures, which were brought to North America from Europe in the 1600s, have spread across the continent, and they now number in the billions. Honeybees are common throughout the world, and their expansion owes much to their adaptability. Simply put, no other animals pollinate a broader range of flowers.

Although the U.S. honeybee population has declined since 1947, honeybees are still responsible for pollinating more than 90 cultivated crops in this country. The value of their pollination services is worth 50 to 60 times more than the honey, wax, and other products derived from them.

Honeybees are just one of an estimated 30,000 bee species worldwide, and their proliferation around the globe can be a mixed blessing, as they often replace local pollinators that distribute pollen more efficiently. Honeybees take three times as many trips as carpenter bees, for instance, to fertilize all the seeds of a gourd flower.

Meanwhile, the labors of lesser known bees are often unrecognized. Farmers in the American West, for example, did not appreciate the value of wild native bees until chemical spraying in the 1950s and 60s killed them and hurt alfalfa crop yields. The spraying of conifer forests in New Brunswick, Canada in 1969 inadvertently killed the native bees that pollinated blueberry plants, causing a 75 percent crop loss the following year.

While the demise of domestic and wild honeybees has rightfully raised concern, attention should also be given to obscure bee species providing vital services that are often ignored.