A Day to Say Thanks to the Honey Bee

National Honey Bee Day, August 15, was formerly known as the National Honey Bee Awareness Day. It started in 2009 as a day to recognize the contribution of honey bees to human life and to celebrate beekeepers throughout the nation. There are an estimated 2.7 million honey bee colonies in the U.S. today. Their value, through pollination of food crops, is estimated at $20 billion annually. Approximately 30 percent of human food consumed is produced from plants pollinated by honey bees. Much animal fodder, including clover and alfalfa, also depend on honey bee pollination.

Built for the Job

The honey bee (Apis mellifera) is well adapted for pollination due to its size, shape, and specialized body parts. The female worker honey bee is covered with branched hairs that catch pollen grains on one flower and transfer it to others. Once the worker bee brushes her body against the female part of another flower, the pollen grains are transferred and cross-fertilization, also known as pollination, occurs. In addition, the hind legs of the worker honey bee are equipped with pollen “baskets” to allow pollen to be carried back to the hive as a food supply. Pollen is a critical food source for bees, containing 20-60 percent protein and 40-60 percent simple sugars, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and other components.

You may wonder why some of your favorite honey is named for specific plants or flowers, like orange blossom honey, blueberry honey, or lavender honey. This is because honey bees are “flower consistent”, often returning to the same type of plant for pollen and nectar.  Research has shown that it takes several trips to the same flower for honey bees to adequately perform pollination. Through this repeated process, the honey bee returns plant-specific nectar back to the hive that becomes part of the honey taste. The plants that honey bees pollinate have often adapted to be more attractive to bees in terms of color, scent, and shape, which encourages their frequent visits.

Although a great deal is known about the honey bee’s contribution to human food and crop pollination, less is know about the role of the honey bee as a pollinator of other non-cultivated plants in the natural world. There are a wide range of wild or native bees that effectively perform pollination, in addition to beetles, flies, butterflies, and moths. However, the dependable, well-studied honey bee—and the dedicated beekeepers throughout the U.S.—truly deserve recognition on this National Honey Bee Day for their overall contributions to our abundant food supplies.

Taste the Local Terroir

When purchasing honey, it’s important to consider buying local, according to Karen Hall, outreach coordinator for the Central Virginia Beekeepers Association. “Hobbyists account for roughly 40 percent of the national honey production, with fewer than 2,000 commercial beekeepers making up that remaining 60 percent of production. Honey bees just can’t make it alone anymore,” she explains.

“It only makes sense to support those beekeepers who care for the bees that so enrich the environment and produce so many of the crops we enjoy,” she adds. “Besides, local honey is like local wine; it takes on the color and flavor of its local floral source—effectively a 2-3 mile radius from its hive. No one has honey ‘exactly’ like your local beekeeper. Taste the variety!”