The Many Benefits of Bees
By Tanya Taylor
Bees are vitally important to our well being, and not just for the sweetness of their honey. For thousands of years people have kept bees to obtain the healing and nutritional benefits of their products. But even more important is the fact that honeybees are essential to the growth of the plants that give us both food and beauty. These industrious little insects flit from flower to flower spreading pollen from one plant to another. This process of pollination is what makes crops thrive so that they can produce fruits, vegetables, flowers, nuts, seeds, beans, and much more. In fact, bees are responsible for pollinating over 80% of all the food crops that we consume. Without bees our nutrition would suffer and our world would be less beautiful.
Here on Ibiza the bees pollinate different plants throughout the year, and this is reflected in the taste of the honey that they produce. In Autumn they are drawn to algarrobas (carobs) and rosemary, while in spring, they enjoy the sweet taste of orange blossoms and frigola (a form of thyme). In addition to delicious honey, the bees bring us a wealth of other products that are beneficial to our health.
Michelle Gaitan is an apitherapist here on Ibiza, and she points out that honey, in addition to enriching our lives with its sweetness, is also naturally antibacterial. Propolis is a strong antiseptic that bees produce from their immune system, and it is particularly effective for treating mouth and throat infections. Pollen grains and Royal Jelly are highly nutritious food additives that are packed with vitamins and micro-nutrients. Even the bees’ venom can be administered in the form of acupuncture. Michelle creates natural remedies from these amazing products which she harvests from her own lovingly raised bees. She says that, “These precious gifts from the bees are super concentrated and produced by living creatures, so we should use them with respect and moderation.”
Her attitude is in harmony with traditional practices that kept bees in a way that did not exploit them. However, as with most forms of modern agriculture, beekeeping has become industrialised, which has led to poor quality refined honey from bees that are treated like a commodity rather than as living creatures. This is unfortunate (and unhealthy), but it pales in comparison to the serious global danger that imperils our bee populations. Since 2006 there have been warnings of a worldwide bee crisis, and their numbers continue to drop at an alarming rate. Industrial agricultural uses toxic pesticides which are believed to be the main culprit in the demise of the bees. In addition, many large farms plant genetically modified (GMO) “mono-crops” that don’t reproduce, and these offer no pollen for the bees to feed on. Combine these factors with habitat loss, plus climate change, and it’s clear that the bees are fighting a difficult battle to survive.
Without the precious pollination provided by these hard-working insects, we could be heading towards an agricultural apocalypse. Some crops like oats and wheat would still be available, but most vitally nutritious foods would disappear without this natural process of fertilization. Bees are also what is known as an “indicator species”. This means that they reflect the current state of our environment, so if the bees are dying then so is our planet’s delicate ecosystem. Fortunately there has been a growing awareness of the problem and solutions are being put forward by governments and conscious people. The European Union and some other countries have banned the pesticides that harm bees, and each one of us can take personal actions that can make a big difference.
Buying locally grown food is not only better for your health, but it strengthens the island’s ecosystem and provides sustenance for the bees. Ibiza’s beekeepers care for their bees, and the result is good quality honey that is highly nutritious. Contrast this with commercial ‘honey’ which is highly processed, and can contain as little as 10 percent actual honey (the rest is sugar). Habitat loss can be a problem for bees, so planting some wild flowers in an open area on your land can provide a small haven for them. If you want to make a real commitment to helping then you could start your own beehive.
The setup is quite simple and the Associacio d'Apicultors d'Eivissa offers a range of government-supported courses, activities and workshops for anyone wishing to learn about beekeeping. Their mission is to regulate beekeeping on the island, monitor bee numbers and ensure high standards of care using sustainable methods.
It is also important to know the difference between bees and wasps before raising the swatter or ousting a swarm with smoke or poisons. Wasps are the nasty cousins of bees. They are brightly coloured with a tight waist, unlike the bees which are rounder and darker in colour with a slightly furry appearance. Wasps do not do any pollination, but they will aggressively go after your food. They will also aggressively go after you if you come near their nest, and each one can sting numerous times. Bees are much more peaceful as their main focus is on flowers. They are generally not aggressive and will only sting as a last resort for protection... and when they sting they die.
The esteemed American actor Morgan Freeman has set an example for positive action on this issue by converting his 50 hectare Mississippi ranch into a sanctuary for bees. The property manages 26 large beehives, and Freeman has re-planted it with bee-friendly trees and plants such as clover, lavender and magnolia. He is passionate about bringing light to this situation: “People do not realise that bees are the foundation of nature’s abundance and the key to our vegetation.” He and many others understand that these special insects work tirelessly to keep our planet thriving, and it is essential that we support their survival in every way that we can.