Bees: a background

Bees are a group of insects that constitute some 25,000 species globally and are closely related to wasps and ants in the scientific order Hymenoptera. Bees share their ancestry with a kind of predatory solitary wasp that lived in the Cretaceous period. When the angiosperms began to appear during the Early Cretaceous some of these predatory wasps began to exploit new floral resources and became vegetarian.

At first, the bee species that developed were solitary but some started to nest together and eventually developed a social lifestyle and created the the sort of colony behaviour that is enacted today by bumblebees and, more strikingly, honeybees. The ancient and ongoing mutualism between bees and plants has led to the supposition that their relationship plays a critical role in the maintenance of plant diversity and reproduction, although just how critical is still largely unknown.

Arania Honey Hunters Spain

The cave painting at La Arana near Valencia in Spain is thought to be at least 6,000 years old. It depicts honey hunters climbing up to steal honey from a bee nest.

Humans’ relationship with bees, particularly honeybees (Apis mellifera), has existed for thousands of years. Honey hunting occurred in Europe at least 6,000 years ago and many languages share a common etymological root for the word ‘honey’, from Hungarian to Latin to Japanese, indicating the importance of bees in diet and culture. Today, it is accepted that the value of bees for honey takes less precedence than their value to crop pollination which is arguably the most discussed ethnobiological issue pertaining to bees. The importance of the issue is clear; an estimated one-third of the global human diet is reliant upon bees and the number of agricultural crops dependent upon pollinators is increasing far more rapidly than the number of managed honeybee hives that can provide pollination services to them. The annual contribution of bees to global agriculture may be in excess of US$217 billion and in the British Isles the economic cost of replacing bee pollination with hand pollination could cost £1.8 billion a year.


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