Secrets of the Hive is a Smithsonian Institution documentary directed by Dennis Wells. It focuses on the decline of the honeybees and reviews potential solutions to restore pollination service provided by these important domesticated insects.
A major emphasis of the documentary is on the Africanized honeybees. These bees are a result of a failed experiment that started with good intentions in Brazil. Researchers in 1950s wanted to introduce the genetic vigor lost in honeybees due to domestication. Trials to selectively breed a honeybee variety that is better adapted to tropical conditions got interrupted when hybrids of European and African bees escaped and spread into the entire South and then North American continents. These bees have the bad temper of African bees adapted to survive in tough environments where animals such as the notorious honey badgers exist.
It appears, the experiment that got interrupted in 1950s is now happening naturally in Puerto Rico. Dr. Tuğrul Giray of University of Puerto Rico has noticed that since late 1990s the behavior of the killer bees have changed into a more passified mode. Note that domestication in animals almost always start with selection of “behavior”.
In his highly influential 1997 book “Guns Germs and Steel” Jared Diamond lists prerequisites for animal and plant domestication. For animals many of them are behavioral traits. Gentle behavior is foundational for bee domestication.
Outside of our domesticated honeybees (Apis mellifera) there are about 20,000 wild bee species. There is a huge potential to breed new pollinators that can solve our agricultural needs. For instance, hydroponically grown tomatoes can be pollinated with bumblebees in greenhouse conditions where honeybees fail miserably. Commercial onion agriculture is another industry reliant on honeybees. Honeybees dislike potassium rich onion nectar but when their hives are placed in the middle of an onion plantation they visit the flowers reluctantly. Honeybees will visit onion flowers to collect both nectar and pollen, but only nectar foragers will visit both male-sterile and male-fertile lines crucial for hybrid onion production. Apparently there is a huge need for domestication of new pollinators.
Africanized bees have one of the most prolific workers among social insects. Since their unintentional introduction into South America it has been reported that the pollination distances of many bee-pollinated tree species increased by many orders of magnitude. Scouts and workers of these bees can travel several kilometers. They can carry pollen among trees very far from each other increasing gene flow rates. Unlike native pollinators who can avoid open spaces workers of the Africanized bees can forage among highly disturbed forest fragments. Many tropical trees occur at very low densities spaced further apart from their potential mating partners. In Costa Rica pollination distances of younger palm trees growing in second-growth forests were reported to increase up to 3 kilometers compared to older trees that were born before the arrival of Africanized honeybees. Similarly, another Amazonian rainforest legume tree was reported to gained higher pollination services.
In addition to pollination bees can display many other diverse behavioral traits. For instance they can be used as bio-sensors. Police units have trained bees to find narcotics and even explosives. Such is the power of the many.
Social insects like bees and ants can attain very large colony sizes due to haplo-diploid reproduction strategy. In such colonies only the queen reproduces and all workers are female. However there are solitary bees whose sex ratio are more balanced. In these bees the familiar sexual roles resume: males display and females choose. Male displays can take many diverse forms including visual and chemical.
Male orchid bees for example have fantastic capacity to find certain odors. Their reproductive success depends on mixing and creating complex odors to impress females. The rich natural history between orchids and their specialized pollinators was covered by Charles Darwin in his fantastic book “The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilized by Insects” published in 1877.
When we think of pollination, we as a reflex tend to think of bees. However, we mustn’t base all of our agricultural pollination in only a few species. There are so many other wild insects that can be much more efficient pollinators such as flies or butterflies and beetles. Additionally, bats and birds can be important for some crops. You love tequila? Well then you must love bats as well!
Finally, numerous times the question may have come up in conversations. What is the difference between bees and wasps? Well, let’s watch and learn: