During your morning coffee, noon-time salad, or even that Thanksgiving meal, the honey bee is your constant companion. Why? Because honey bees pollinate coffee trees and countless other plants that yield the fruits and veggies that make it onto our plates every day.
“Grains don’t require honey bees, so we could have a lot of grains and very limited numbers of fruits, vegetables and nuts,” said Steve Sheppard, chair of the Washington State University Department of Entomology. “I think it would be a much less interesting diet, even if we could survive on it.”
That’s because honey bees serve as one of the biggest pollinators in the country, and it’s estimated that one-third of our diet depends on insect-pollinated crops, Sheppard said.
“Honey bees pollinate more than 110 crop varieties around the country,” said Brandon Hopkins, a research assistant professor in the WSU Entomology department. “A lot of people might be familiar with apples, cherries or almonds, but honey bees also produce and pollinate the seeds that grow other things. You may not think of bees as being responsible for broccoli or carrots or celery, but they pollinate the flowers that produce the seed that the farmers plant.”
All told, honey bees’ impact on our nation’s economy is between $15 and $18 billion each year.
The dairy industry, for example, also depends on honey bees: they pollinate alfalfa, a major source of food for dairy cattle, Hopkins said. Cheese lovers can thank honey bees for their cheddar.
For bees to be their most healthy and successful, they need a diverse pollen diet. Having multiple plant species to visit and harvest leads to better colony health overall, Sheppard said.
If you’re interested in helping bees survive and thrive, beekeeping is one venture to pursue, —but it can be tough.
“If you have the inclination, if you think it’s really cool to manage a box of stinging insects in order to get honey and help them out, that’s a great idea and you should do it,” Sheppard said. “You know, I do it. I love it. I would never tell anyone not to do it.”
But if managing insects isn’t for you, go with planting flowers and plants that bloom throughout the growing season instead.
“Our advice for people wanting to help the bees is to plant flowers,” Sheppard said. “Do what you can on your little patch of Earth to make a diverse food supply for them because, in addition to honey bees, you’ll also help all native pollinators.”
Home gardens do affect honey bee health, Sheppard said. He’s seen it.
“When I first came to Washington State University, we had bees in Pullman and outside of Pullman. Some of our most productive colonies were the ones in town because they had access to the yards of all the people living here that plant flowers,” he said.
You don’t have to be a vegetable gardener to contribute to what’s on the plate at dinner time. Simply planting flowers can bolster the health and happiness of those buzzing insects so integral to our food palettes and our economy.