There has been a great deal of press lately about honey bees. It seems they are disappearing for unknown reasons. Many folks are unaware that the honey bee is an introduced species and not native to the Americas. That’s not surprising, for these insects have been here almost since the first European humans brought them. In its article commemorating the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, National Geographic rewrites the history book, looking at how the Europeans changed the American landscape permanently, engaging in “ecological imperialism.” The unlikely weapons were tobacco and domestic animals among others.
“But the largest ecological impact may have been wreaked by a much smaller, seemingly benign domestic animal: the European honey bee. In early 1622, a ship arrived in Jamestown that was a living exhibit of the Columbian exchange. It was loaded with exotic entities for the colonists to experiment with: grapevine cuttings, silkworm eggs, and beehives. Most bees pollinate only a few species; they tend to be fussy about where they live. European honey bees, promiscuous beasts, reside almost anywhere and pollinate almost anything in sight. Quickly, they swarmed from their hives and set up shop throughout the Americas.
“The English imported the bees for honey, not to pollinate crops—pollination wasn’t widely understood until the late 19th century—but feral honeybees pollinated farms and orchards up and down the East Coast anyway. Without them, many of the plants the Europeans brought with them wouldn’t have proliferated. Georgia probably wouldn’t have become the Peach State; Johnny Appleseed’s trees might never have borne fruit; Huckleberry Finn might not have had any watermelons to steal. So critical to European success was the honey bee that Indians came to view it as a harbinger of invasion; the first sight of one in a new territory, noted French-American writer Jean de Crèvecoeur in 1782, “spreads sadness and consternation in all [Indian] minds.”
Some twenty thousand species of bees inhabit the local meadows and forests, all are perfectly able to pollinate along with their sisters, the honey bees. They are not as organized, however, being less social in nature, not as numerous and more specialized. Besides insects, other pollinators exist (bats, birds, beetles, butterflies) and in total all represent a valuable resource. None have the pure pollinating potential of the honey bee, but all are in decline and to some degree threatened. Thus, the advent of National Pollinator week June 24-30, 2007, proclaimed so by U.S. Senate (S.Res. 580) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture according to the Pollinator Partnership. To a great degree this is in response to the National Academy of Science’s recent publication, The Status of Pollinators in North America.
The U.S. Postal Service will issue a sequence of stamps commemorating National Pollinator week on June 29, 2007. And renowned artist Stan Herd will create a one-acre crop art version of the dogface butterfly U.S. Postal Service stamp, one of four in the series. “The scale and process of crop art is unique. The artist creates a recognizable image from natural materials that can only be properly viewed from the air. The fascination and wonder inspired by these art works can be used to attract the attention of the public and the press to our dependence on pollinators and the need to protect and sustain their populations.” The coordinator of this project is Dr. Chip Taylor at the University of Kansas, known around the world for his efforts to protect and conserve the Monarch butterfly.
The honey bee, although originally an introduced “exotic” species, like the humans that brought it must now be considered an integral part of the environment of the Americas. And whereas it certainly was responsible for many adverse changes to the original landscape, its welfare is now forever linked with all the other pollinators that are responsible for food and fiber that all species depend on for their existence. It is doubtful that without beekeepers advocating for honey bees, the well being of all the other pollinators would be more in jeopardy as politicians traditionally rally round the wheel that “squeaks” the most. Thanks then to them for their contribution to National Pollinator Week. Perhaps the best thing any of us can do is to buy a jar of local honey at a local farmers market.