20 May 2020

Biodiversity Month: World Bee Day, of all bees

Today is celebrated the World Bee Day. In 2017, the UN designated May 20 as World Bee Day and since then this day has been celebrated all over the world. The aim is precisely to raise awareness about the importance of pollinators, the threats they face and their contribution to sustainable development.

But who are the bees and why are they so important?
No other insect is as familiar as bees. Honey production and pollination have made bees longtime human companions. A few thousand years ago this proximity was limited to the collection of honey from "wild” bees. The proximity grew progressively, and it is estimated that about 5000 years ago, what would become beekeeping started, that is, the creation of bees and their domestication. Currently the world production of honey is around 1.9 million tons, of which about 250 thousand tons are produced in Europe.

But if, on the one hand, we respect and know the honey bee reasonably well, also called the honey bee or by the scientific name Apis mellifera Linnaeus, 1758, we know little about the other species of bees and their value for our daily lives through pollination. Yes, because there are more than one species… in Portugal alone, more than 700 species have already been inventoried and it is estimated that there are more than 20 000 species of bees worldwide. And most bees don't even match the bee stereotype. When we think of bees, we often think of huge honeycombs, swarms of hundreds of individuals and painful stings for us that result in the death of bees. However, only social bees produce honey to feed the hive and queen during the winter. Most bee species are solitary bees, that is, they do not live in colonies, do not have a queen, nor do they produce honey. Approximately 70% nest in underground dens and also do not produce wax to build the cells inside the nest, using different materials, which varies with the species. Solitary bees also vary in size, the smallest is just 1.8 mm long and lives in Australia and the largest known bee is 63.5 mm and lives in Indonesia. But in addition to its diversity of sizes, colors and shapes, there are plenty of reasons to admire, respect and care for lonely bees. They are much more efficient pollinators than honey bees. Just as honeybees spend a large part of their time from flower to flower collecting nectar and pollen, however, as they have no corbicle or "pollen basket”, that each time they visit a flower, they drop a lot more pollen than honey bees. This "lack of material” and a somewhat disastrous way make pollinators much more efficient and much needed, of enormous importance at the ecological level and for human populations. They are also harmless because they do not have a stinger, and their presence is safe for both humans and pets, which is not always the case with honey bees. In any case, honeybees only attack when they feel threatened, and the attack is aimed at defending the hive, often resulting in their death. So if you don't bother them it is very unlikely that you will be stung by a bee.

During the month of May, the Center for Research in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources of the University of Porto in partnership with Lipor promote knowledge of the diversity and importance of insects.

Sónia Ferreira

The figure shows 11 of the more than seven hundred species of bees present in Portugal. From left to right and from top to bottom: Apis mellifera Linnaeus, 1758 (honey bee), Epeolus sp., Nomada striata Fabricius, 1793, Andrena thoracica (Fabricius, 1775), Hylaeus meridionalis Förster, 1871, Sphecodes puncticeps Thomson, 1870, Terrestrial Bombus Linnaeus, 1758, Colletes sp., Bombus ruderatus (Fabricius, 1775), Megachile sp. and Andrena sp...

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