What many of us do not realize, however, is the enormous value bees carry in various aspects of modern life including agriculture, scientific research, and even the economy. As Noah Wilson-Rich illustrates in his comprehensive and engaging new book, The Bee: A Natural History, bees have had and will continue to have a significant impact on us extending far beyond their ability to make honey.
According to Wilson-Rich, “In the year 2000, honey bees alone were estimated to contribute $14.6 billion to the US economy, and the worldwide figure is something like 153 billion pounds ($207 billion).” This is largely due to bees’ pollinating capabilities, especially considering that upwards of 130 fruit and vegetable crops are reliant on pollination by way of insects. Both honey and wax are valuable resources on a global stage, where wax has a variety of applications in “lubricants and polishes, in crayons and encaustic art…and in electronics.”
Due in part to their staggering numbers–with up to 80,000 individual bees per colony–bees help drive our agricultural system. In California where over a million bee colonies reside, bees play a major role in producing almonds that are exported throughout the nation and beyond. Bees also play a role in producing animal fodder by pollinating plants like clover and alfalfa, both nutritious aspects of farm animals’ diets. In this way, bees help us to produce other dietary staples like meat and milk.
Bees can actually be trained, and some researchers are working on training bees to approach a target flower for increased pollination efficiency. Bees are also used in research pertaining to age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease because of their short life span (a few weeks to a few months), and their unique social behavior makes them valuable research subjects in areas like communication and sociology.
Wilson-Rich outlines several ways in which the bee holds religious or symbolic significance in cultures throughout the world. For instance, there are actually several patron saints of beekeeping and saints who are symbolized by bees. Even St. Valentine is a patron saint of beekeepers in addition to being a saint of love; it is speculated that he is connected to bees because “the sweetness of honey is metaphorically related to the sweetness of love.” In Islam, bee imagery is used to represent principles such as hard work, loyalty, and devotion whereas bees are associated with obedience and seeking guidance from a leader in the Jewish tradition. Another little known fact: the name Deborah, which comes from the Judaic name, Devorah, actually means bee in Hebrew and is linked to a prophetess who led the Jewish people from 2654 to 2694 in the Jewish calendar.
Mark your calendars, July 8th is the beekeepers’ holiday in Bulgaria. In the tradition of this celebration, a bee ceremony is performed in which six women stand around a centered “Mother Queen” and sing a song to the bees, where the six women are meant to represent the six vertices of a hexagonal beehive cell.
To learn more fascinating facts about bees and their connection to us, look for our recently published book, The Bee: A Natural History by Noah Wilson Rich.