UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones
The honey bee is one of humanity’s greatest allies, providing pollination services for food crops and natural ecosystems statewide and nationwide. The domesticated honey bee provides greater economic benefit to people than any other arthropod found in Florida.
Estimated benefits: $23 million in revenues from honey, a large fraction of the $650 million spent on contracted pollination services in the U.S. each year, as well as benefits from pollination services that occur as a side effect of honey production.
The domesticated honey bee was introduced to North America from European sources in the early 1600s -- Spanish explorers brought hives to Florida and English settlers brought honey bees to Virginia. The insect has contributed to the Western hemisphere’s economic development ever since.
Today in Florida, domesticated honey bees pollinate an estimated three of four agricultural crops, including some of the state’s most valuable commodities – strawberries, blueberries, squash, watermelons and avocados among them. Florida is also the nation’s third-largest honey producer, a significant provider of “rental hives” used for contracted pollination services in other U.S. states, and an important overwintering destination for bee colonies owned by beekeepers in colder climates.
Common name: Honey bee, though it’s a little more accurate to say “Western honey bee,” because there are several species of honey bee that are native to Asia but are absent in the U.S.
Scientific name: Apis mellifera. There are at least 20 recognized “races” of Western honey bee, each associated with a particular geographic region, and all of them so closely related that they can interbreed and produce viable offspring. Because these bee-race distinctions are important to beekeepers, scientists have adopted the practice of adding a third term to the scientific names of some Western honey bees, to indicate their geographic origins.
It’s believed that the first honey bee colonies brought to the U.S. in the early 1600s contained the honey bee race known as Apis mellifera mellifera, which comes from Northern Europe and is sometimes known as the “European dark bee.” The typical honey bee found in the U.S. today represents a hybrid of several European strains, including Apis mellifera mellifera, Apis mellifera ligustica (from Italy,) Apis mellifera carnica (from the Austrian Alps,) Apis mellifera caucasia (from the Caucasus Mountains) and Apis mellifera iberiensis (from Spain).
Good Bug or Bad Bug? Good Bug.
Admittedly, honey bees can and do sting people on occasion, and, according to the USDA, roughly 0.1 or 0.2 percent of the U.S. population is allergic to bee venom. So, honey bee stings are a legitimate health concern, and do impose medical costs on some residents. Still, it seems clear that the honey bee delivers far greater benefits than detriments to the human race.
What It Is: The honey bee is an insect, part of the order Hymenoptera. Within the Hymenoptera order, the honey bee is part of the family Apidae, which includes about 5,700 species of bees – its members include honey bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees and many others. This family includes a large number of important plant pollinators, but it is a diverse group, including bees that live in colonies and others that lead solitary lives and nest in burrows, bees that sting and bees that do not possess stinging apparatus, bees that collect food from flowers and bees that steal food from other bees.
From that varied palette, the honey bee emerged as perfectly suited to aid humanity – this species pollinates crops, produces honey, and lives in colonies large enough to make it worthwhile for people to maintain their own colonies of the insects. (In other words, if honey bees lived alone in burrows, it would take so much effort to gather and process a quart of honey that perhaps no one would ever bother to try.)
Within a honey bee colony, diversity continues to be the theme – each colony contains different types of bee, called “castes.” Each caste has a specific role: The queen produces eggs; drones are males that fertilize the queen; workers are females that forage for food, defend the hive and tend nurseries where eggs and larvae develop. An average Western honey bee colony contains one queen, a small number of drones, and anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 workers, depending on the time of year and the colony’s overall health status. The reason honey bee colonies grow to be so large is that the queen may lay 1,500 eggs every day.
What It Does: Among the honey bee “castes,” worker bees perform the tasks that primarily interest humans. More specifically, older workers, sometimes known as “field bees,” spend much of their time visiting flowering plants and collecting two items they bring back to the hive – pollen and nectar.
In an average day, the field bee might make a dozen or more trips from the hive to forage. During a typical flight, she might venture up to five miles from the hive, visiting thousands of flowers, all of them representing the same plant species. (The field bee might visit other species later, but she’ll focus exclusively on one plant species per trip.)
The field bees collect pollen to bring back to the hive for use as food for larvae and adults; they scrape pollen into special areas on their rear legs called corbiculae and form it into lumps. When they do, the bees may inadvertently sprinkle one flower with pollen from another, causing cross-pollination – a phenomenon that is a necessary step to reproduction in about 250,000 flowering plant species worldwide. Honey bees provide a substantial amount of the pollination needed for at least 13 major crops grown in Florida.
Field bees collect nectar by lapping it from flowers with their long tongues and storing it in an internal pouch called the crop. After foraging, each field bee returns to the hive and joins with others that have just returned. They expel the nectar from their crops and re-consume it, repeating the process to partially digest the nectar and promote the transformation from nectar to honey. Then, teams of workers fan their wings to circulate air and cause water to evaporate from the honey until it reaches the perfect consistency to store for future use. (If honey contains too much water, it’s more likely to support yeast growth and ferment or spoil.)
Who Is Affected: It’s no exaggeration to say that almost everyone who eats food is benefitted by the honey bee. A common estimate is that one in three U.S. crops is pollinated by bees, but in Florida the ratio is three out of four.
Where It’s Found in Florida: Everywhere. Currently, Florida has almost 4,000 registered beekeepers, representing more than 500,000 honey bee colonies, though not all of them are present in the state year-round. Those numbers represent a dramatic increase from a decade ago, when the state hit an all-time low of 650 registered beekeepers and 150,000 colonies. (The state is also home to an undetermined number of feral honey bee colonies.)
Beekeeping in Florida has become a highly organized and codified enterprise. An entire chapter of the Florida Statutes sets forth laws governing honey bees, assigning the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to handle most tasks associated with beekeeping regulation. The department operates a registry that all beekeepers with hives in Florida must join. (Because honey bee health is so important to Florida crop production, FDACS has the power to inspect hives and even order them quarantined or destroyed, if they harbor pests or pathogens that could threaten other honey bee colonies.)
How It’s Currently Addressed: Although beekeeping has much to offer hobbyists and professionals, interest dropped precipitously in the second half of the 20th Century. In 1947, there were 6 million honey bee colonies nationwide; the number is now about 2.5 million.
Recent statistics from Florida suggest that beekeeping is on the rebound, at least in the Sunshine State, but the industry faces new challenges here:
Tracheal mites and Varroa mites were first reported in the state in the 1980s, small hive beetles were first reported in Florida in the 1990s, and in 2006 news reports told of a complex phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, or CCD, in which bees die mysteriously within their hives or abandon established hives and depart for unknown locations. Beekeepers combat Varroa mites and tracheal mites with pesticides, increasing their production costs. Researchers are intently studying the CCD phenomenon, trying to determine its cause(s) and appropriate remedies. At about the same time, winter mortality for U.S. domesticated honey bees surged to 30 percent nationwide, baffling veteran beekeepers accustomed to a rate of 10 to 15 percent mortality per winter.
Additionally, in the 1990s, the presence of Africanized honey bees in Florida and other parts of the U.S. has complicated beekeeping and increased the need for safety precautions, particularly for beekeepers in temperate areas. To learn more about Africanized bees, read our review of the 1979 disaster film The Swarm on the Bug Week website, part of an ongoing review series, “Regular-Sized Bugs on the Big Screen.”
Native to Florida? No. All races of the Western honey bee are native to Western Europe, the Middle East, and the African continent, particularly its east coast. There are no honey bees native to North America in the present day, although scientists have identified an extinct prehistoric species.
Nonetheless, many Americans probably believe that the honey bee is a native insect – it’s an understandable belief, considering how long the honey bee has been present in the U.S., how visible individual honey bees are in many environments, and the fact that the U.S. is home to feral honey bees, presumably the result of domesticated bees swarming and establishing new colonies in natural areas.
Big Money Associates: Human beekeepers deserve some of the credit for the successes of the Western honey bee. Florida is one of the six states with the greatest number of registered beekeepers – the others are California, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Texas, which collectively represent two-thirds of the nation’s registered beekeepers.
Interesting Fact: In Florida, more than 315 species of native bees pollinate crops.
Estimated benefits per year: It is not possible to state with certainty the overall economic benefits that honey bees provide to Florida, because bees from managed colonies roam large areas when they forage, pollinating food crops, ornamentals and wild plants in such numbers that the activity cannot be documented accurately.
It is often stated that one of every three crops grown in the U.S. relies on honey bees for pollination; in Florida, that ratio is said to be three of every four crops.
Contract pollination services represent the most valuable honey bee endeavor that can be tallied up easily. Nationwide, contract pollination services accounted for revenues totaling $655.6 million in 2012, though there is no separate figure available for Florida. Just 10 crops account for 96 percent of U.S. contract-pollination revenues; in descending order they are: almonds, sunflowers, canola, grapes, apples, sweet cherries, watermelons, prunes, blueberries and avocados. Four of those crops – grapes, watermelons, blueberries and avocados – are grown in Florida.
Florida is the nation’s No. 3 honey producer, after North Dakota and South Dakota; in 2015, the state produced 11.9 million pounds of honey, with a farm gate value of $23 million. Florida also boasts one of the highest productivity rates, in pounds of honey per colony.
Although pollination services and honey production are the two benefits most commonly associated with beekeeping, the insects support several other commercial activities. Beekeepers sometimes collect and sell beeswax, pollen, royal jelly (a substance fed to developing honey bee larvae, particularly future queens) and propolis, also known as “bee glue,” (a sticky material made from tree sap used as a wood varnish.) One other product that beekeepers sometimes offer, though it’s a bit more complicated to obtain – bee venom, which is used in medical research and taken by some arthritis patients, who believe the venom eases their symptoms.
What Is UF/IFAS Doing About It? The UF/IFAS Entomology and Nematology Department operates the Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory (HBREL), which was established in 2006 and is currently administered by Jamie Ellis, the UF/IFAS Gahan associate professor of entomology. Ellis is joined by visiting scholars, post-doctoral associates, graduate and undergraduate students, and technical and support staff. It is one of the largest facilities in the Southeastern U.S. dedicated to the study of domesticated honey bees and wild native bees, and is the focal point for much of the UF/IFAS academic activity relevant to beekeeping.
The HBREL addresses issues related to honey bee husbandry, colony management, honey production and the economic and regulatory issues that concern commercial honey producers. Lab personnel have devoted an increasing amount of time in recent years to bee health issues, notably factors that may contribute to elevated colony losses nationally, such as challenges from the pathogenic Varroa mite, and exposure to certain pesticides.
Other efforts at HBREL emphasize outreach activities; the largest of these is the annual Florida Bee College, held at UF’s Whitney Lab at Marineland, Fla. since 2008, with a second event held at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center since 2013. Bee College offers something for everyone, from the expert to the novice, to young people ages 6 to 12, who can attend the Junior Bee College. The Bee College also includes the state’s largest honey show, a popular event that displays the wide variety of honeys produced by Florida bees.
The laboratory also has a website, http://www.entnemdept.ufl.edu/honeybee/index.shtml, which includes an extensive selection of educational materials, covering topics such as starting and maintaining health honey bee colonies, Florida laws and regulations, videos on pests and pathogens affecting honeybees, and links to important additional resources, notably the UF/IFAS African Honey Bee Extension and Education Program, which helps beekeepers understand the challenges posed by Africanized honey bees, and how adjustments in management practices can help ensure safe and productive beekeeping.
What Can YOU Do About It? Florida home and business owners can support honey bee populations by minimizing their use of insecticides and other lawn-care products that could kill bees. They should also read and follow label directions when using any insecticide – remember, “the label is the law.”
For residents who are prepared to take on greater expense and responsibility, a more direct way to support Florida honey bee populations is to become a beekeeper. There are many sources of help and information available, including this blog post, “Is Beekeeping Right for You?”
To learn more about Western honey bees in Florida, visit this “Featured Creatures” document produced by the UF/IFAS Entomology and Nematology Department.
To learn about Africanized honey bees, visit this “Featured Creatures” document.
For an in-depth guide to more than 300 bee species found in Florida, visit this web page.
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