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1. The importance of bees

Ever wondered where all the food that you eat comes from? Well it might surprise you that a significant proportion is provided by bees one way or another.

If you look at the plate of food on your dinner table, bees have played their part either pollinating the many vegetables and fruits we eat directly, or pollinating the food for the animals that we then consume. And that’s not all bees do for us - honey and wax are two other important products that come courtesy of bees.

But honey bees are disappearing globally at an alarming rate due to pesticides, parasites, disease and habitat loss. If these little insects that help provide so much of the food we eat were to vanish, what would we do without them?

2. What bees do for us

An illustration of what all honey bees, and a colony of honey bees, do for us in the UK each year.

An illustration of what all honey bees, and a colony of honey bees, do for us in the UK each year. However, pollination is from all invertebrates, of which honey bees are a significant contributor.

Data source: The British Beekeepers Association

3. Pollination and food production

Pollination is the vital process in flowering plant reproduction involving the transfer of pollen grains from the anther (or male part) to the stigma (or female part) of the same, or another plant of the same species. The fertilised egg cells grow into seeds which are then spread in the many fruits and vegetables that we all love to eat.

This transfer of pollen can be done by the wind, birds, bats, mammals and of course insects; one of the most important of these are the honey bees that pollinate on a huge commercial scale. All sorts of fruit and vegetables are pollinated by honey bees, such as broccoli and squash, apples and almonds.

Pollination is not just important for the food we eat directly, it’s vital for the foraging crops, such as field beans and clover, used to feed the livestock we depend on for meat. Just as importantly, it helps to feed many other animals in the food chain and maintains the genetic diversity of the flowering plants.

4. The perfect pollinator

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A foraging honey bee may only be about 15mm long, but it is loaded with special adaptations designed to maximise the collection of pollen and nectar from flowers. Click on the labels to find out why each part of a bee is so special. (images copyright Getty and Science Photo Library).

5. The threats to honey bees

There is no doubt that honey bee populations are in trouble as Chris Packham explains in more detail below.

Image copyrights: number 3 (varroa mite) SINCLAIR STAMMERS / naturepl.com, number 5 (man holding dead bees) Laurent Geslin / naturepl.com, numbers 8, 9 and 10 Impossible Factual / Stephen Moss and all others courtesy of Getty.

6. Can bees be replaced?

In a world without honey bees which of these could take over the pollinating role.

Bumblebees

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Bumblebees

Bumblebees and solitary bees are good pollinators often of the same crops as honey bees.

Hoverflies

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Hoverflies

Hoverflies are considered to be important pollinators of both crop and wild flowers.

Butterflies

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Butterflies

Butterflies do pollinate wild flowers, but they are much less efficient than bees.

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Man

We could pollinate all the crops ourselves, but it would take a long time and lead to high price rises.