Many people, including gardeners, farmers, bee keepers, and others know the value of bees. These small members of the insect world are critically important to agriculture worldwide but sometimes their value is overshadowed by other agriculture factors such as fertilizers, pesticides, GMOs, crop diseases, drought, and more.

When Bees Came to Be

Bee on White Flowers

Bees are thought to have originated around 120 million years, branching off from their ancestors the wasps. Instead of preying upon other insects that may have been covered in pollen, the bee line might have arisen by going directly to the source – gathering pollen and nectar flowers.

Found on every continent except Antarctica, there are over 20,000 species of bees worldwide, from the tiny stingless bee Meliponini tribe) whose worker bees barely reach ¼” length to the leafcutter bee Melachile pluto) from Indonesia which is nearly 1½” long.

To shift the spotlight back onto these pollinators, to let them bask in the glory they deserve, and to help celebrate the significance of these insects that have existed on the planet since the start of the Cretaceous Period, World Bee Day is right around the corner.

A Slovenian Celebration Goes Worldwide

Carniolan bee on edge of hive

World Bee Day, an international day, is celebrated on May 20 each year. This day proclaims the importance and activity of bees in both hemispheres. In the north, bees are busy providing pollination services while in the south it’s harvest and production time for honey-related products. Highlighting their changing roles through the seasons as well as the explicit, urgent needs of bees around the globe acknowledges their importance on the planet.

Interestingly, the concept for World Bee Day originated in the small country of Slovenia. In fact, Slovenia has a long history of beekeeping. If you're in the looking to buy or try gourmet honey, the country uses a protected species, the Carniolan bee, to produce top shelf honey while also respecting our pollinator friends. Slovenia led the charge to have the United Nations raise awareness for pollinators.

Back in 2014, Slovenian beekeeper and president of the Slovenian Beekeeper’s Association Bostjan Noc heard a radio program about World Days and their meanings. He noticed that a day dedicated to bees was absent on the list. The importance of bees to food production and natural ecosystems notwithstanding, May 20 is also the birthday of Slovenian beekeeping pioneer Anton Janša (1734-1773).

In 1753, the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa appointed Janša as a teacher in the first beekeeping school of apiculture in Vienna. This small European country which is roughly the size of Massachusetts is known unofficially as the “Land of the Good Beekeepers.” Known for its quality honey products, Slovenia was the perfect country to lead this charge.

It took several years to gain a United Nations vote to support World Bee Day but in November 2017, 115 members co-sponsored a resolution to raise awareness about the plight of bees and other pollinators across the world and World Bee Day was created. Though bees are integral to food production and farming, they are also important in nature providing pollinator or food resources to many plants and predators, respectively. Nearly one third of the food produced in the world is dependent upon pollinators. Their steady decline, especially in heavy agricultural areas, is and should be alarming. Habitat loss, reckless use of pesticides, diseases, conversation of agricultural lands to development, climate change, and other factors have contributed to these declines.

Backyard Pollinators for Home Gardeners

To put the importance of bees and flowers in perspective consider that to make one pound of honey, a single bee would have to travel over 90,000 miles and collect pollen from nearly 2 million flowers. On each foray, a bee will visit between 50 and 100 flowers and over the span of its lifetime, a single bee collects enough pollen and nectar to make less than 1/10th of a teaspoon of honey.

Compared to a world scale, the backyard garden seems small and insignificant in the protection of pollinators. However, studies have shown that even small, apartment deck-sized gardens can contribute to the protection of pollinators. Planting flowers or shrubs that are bee-friendly and avoiding using pesticides at all or during times when bees are not active, are two small contributions gardeners can make. Raising awareness about the plight of pollinators in neighborhoods, schools, and communities is another way to highlight these small creatures that play such a significant role. Planting other flowering plants for pollinators such as beetles, flies, butterflies, and hummingbirds is also important to help protect these other insects and birds.

Though the origin of the idiom “the bee’s knees” is unknown, it doesn’t refer to a bee’s anatomy because bees have jointed legs and lack knees. The phrase might be attributed to a Ms. Bee Jackson of the Kit Kat Club, a world champion dancer of the Charleston back in the 1920s. Though bees don’t do the Charleston, they are known for their “dancing” as a way to communicate to other bees. Though most social media followers also probably don’t know the Charleston, they can communicate with other bee-enthusiasts by sharing #WorldBeeDay and #SavetheBees on their platforms and help contribute to the conservation of pollinators across the globe.