Tag Archives: crops

Which came first, bees or crops? Why does it matter?

Abstracts:
Flying insects, particularly bees, transfer pollen to flowers to facilitate plant reproduction. The Western or European honeybee (Apis mellifera) may get the most attention because of the honey they produce, but other bees pollinate vegetables, berries, and other fruits on which we all depend. Adding the natural history of bees to the agricultural history of food production underscores the fragile relationships between pollinator, plants, and humans.

Les insectes volants, en particulier les abeilles, transfèrent le pollen aux fleurs pour faciliter la reproduction des plantes. L’abeille à miel occidentale ou européenne (Apis mellifera) attire souvent le plus d’attention en raison du miel qu’elle produit, mais d’autres abeilles pollinisent les légumes, les baies et les autres fruits dont nous dépendons tous. Ajouter l’histoire naturelle des abeilles à l’histoire agricole de la production alimentaire souligne les relations fragiles entre les pollinisateurs, les plantes et les humains. (Google Translation)

Fliegende Insekten, insbesondere Bienen, transportieren Pollen zu Blumen, um Pflanzenreproduktion zu ermöglichen. Die Westliche oder Europäische Honigbiene (Apis mellifera) mag am meisten Aufmerksamkeit genießen aufgrund des Honigs, den sie produzieren, aber auch andere Bienen bestäuben Gemüse, Beeren und andere Früchte von denen wir alle abhängig sind. Das Hinzunehmen der Naturgeschichte der Bienen zur Agrargeschichte der Nahrungsproduktion unterstreicht die fragilen Zusammenhänge zwischen Bestäubern, Pflanzen und Menschen.

Keywords:
bees – pollination – crops – beehive – agriculture – the environment

Flying insects, particularly bees, transfer pollen to flowers to facilitate plant reproduction. The Western or European honeybee (Apis mellifera), native to Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, often receives the most attention because of the honey that results from their pollen-storage system. Yet other bees bear the burden of pollinating vegetables, berries, and other fruits on which we all depend.

Stereograph of an apiary in the Foothills of San Gabriel (Mission San Gabriel Arcángel), Los Angeles County, California, circa 1878. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Plants and insects developed mutually beneficial relationships over millions of years. The plants depended on insects to reproduce through the transfer of pollen from pollen grain to flower stigma, as the insects ate the plants’ pollen and nectar. Bees, a flying insect, became distinct by gathering and storing pollen to feed themselves and their young. DNA research confirms that bees coexisted with flowering plants from the beginning of flowering plants 130 million years ago. Archaeologists find evidence of bees in fossilized resin (amber).

Baltic Amber with Fossil Inclusions. Size 5,5 cm. April 22, 2014. Wikipedia Commons.

All bee species (about 20,000) evolved along with plants in localized biospheres, but only those classified in the genus Apis are technically honeybees. Millenia before humans moved Apis mellifera around the globe, squash bees, bumble bees, and solitary bees, among many others, pollinated crops, including crops native to the Americas, i.e., squash, pumpkins, cranberries, tomatoes, avocados, and potatoes, to name a few. Native bees pollinate plants in their ecosystem more efficiently than does the popular Apis mellifera. In fact, the imported European or Western honeybee completes with the native species for pollen, and humans give Apis mellifera an advantage through special treatment to ensure honey production. This puts other bees more proficient in plant pollination at a disadvantage.

Stereograph of an apiary at Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire, circa 1875, with elder Henry Clay Blinn holding a frame. The individual beehives appear to be made of stackable boxes with removable frames in the style patented by Lorenzo L. Langstroth in 1852. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Do museums interpret the complexity of human intervention in the natural process of pollination?

Often interpretation focuses on honeybees, and the artifacts of the beekeeper who worked with them. In North America, colonists imported Avis mellifera to ensure access to honey and to sustain crops imported with the bees. When honeybees swarmed into hollow trees, the beekeepers sometimes cut out the tree and moved the pollinators closer to their gardens, orchards, and clover fields and moved the honey source closer to their kitchen table.

A hollow log-type beehive that likely began as a refuge for a swarm of honeybees in the “garden state” of New Jersey, U.S.A. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.


Humans intervened further in the lives of pollinators by designing different types of homes for bees. The most lasting example of innovation resulted from close and persistent observation of bee behavior. Lorenzo L. Langstroth’s 1852 U.S. Patent for an improved method of constructing beehives revolutionized beekeeping at the time. Langstroth established the concept others have called “bee space” and his basic removable-frame-in-hive design remains an industry standard.

At least one patent holder took inspiration from bees’ natural homes, but only the form, not the function. An 1869 U.S. Patent confirms that tree-hives captured the imagination of Charles E. Spaulding. He explained that his “honey-boxes of a round form…conform more nearly to the natural depositories of the wild bee” and that they “correspond to hollow limbs, which are sought out by the bees in their natural or wild state.” Spaulding, a cheese-box maker in Theresa, New York, thought in the round anyway (the common form of cheese boxes), but his improved hive suited human need more than that of bees. Security features to reduce the likelihood of theft and exterior artwork advertised his product while appealing to consumers. Bee behavior influenced his innovation little.

C. E. Spaulding, “Bee-Hive,” U.S. Patent 89,896 (May 11, 1869, antedated April 8, 1869). The top half contained the honey-boxes, the bottom half, the hives. The top could be rotated to close the passage between hive and honey. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Rarely do museums address the other side of the honeybee story.

Pollinators evolved with other native vegetables and fruits. Intimate relationships between native bees and native varieties developed over time, and native bees do not naturally pollinate invasive species. Neither do honeybees (technically an invasive species in parts of the globe) pollinate native species that they did not evolve in tandem with.

In fact, honeybees undermine the natural relationship of native species because honeybees compete for pollen to produce honey which can undermine the work of less numerous native pollinators in their natural habitat. Humans bear some responsibility for ensuring balance between the bees that exist to pollinate, and those that exist to produce honey. Exploring this reality increases opportunities for history museums to interpret the environment, and agriculture.

In museums that do not interpret agriculture as either their focus or as a topic relevant to their mission, staff can still link their collections to link natural history and the history of domestication. Specifically, advertisements or decorative arts featuring beehives provide a hook to discuss relationships between honeybees, domestication, natural and domesticated plant pollination, and human manipulation of the process. Discussion of foodways in historic houses may naturally lead to the topics of bees and pollination. Those discussions can provoke more thought by distinguishing between food on the table, between imported plants compared to native species, and between imported and native bees. Namely, crops such as grain (wheat, rye, oats) and maize (corn) remained dependent on the wind to move pollen. Humans cultivating these crops did not have to manage hives as market gardeners and truck farmers did (and still do). These comparisons beg for explanation of both natural history and the history of domestication.

Practice your powers of observation by identifying the fruits in this painting by a Mexican artist, and then explore the types of native species that cohabitated with them. Find a still life of foods from your museum’s home (or use your own well-researched foodways program as the basis). Then put the food on a plate in a historic house interpretation that prompts conversations about plant propagation through the natural act of pollination specific to your site (bee-specific about both the local and the imports). That paints the most comprehensive picture of bees and their direct relationships to food supplies historically and today.

Bodegón con frutas (con alacrán y rana) [Still life with fruit (with scorpion and frog)], 1874, by Hermenegildo Bustos (1832-1907), Guanajuato, Mexico.  WikiCommons.

In conclusion, most market-garden and truck-farm crops (i.e., cabbage, green beans, and black-eyed peas); berries (i.e., strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries); and orchard crops (i.e., apples, grapes, pears, peaches, and plums), depend on the mighty pollinator, the native bee, to survive and thrive. Bees also pollinate crops that livestock eat (buckwheat, clover), and crops that produce the fibers we wear (cotton and flax). Bees also pollinate the flowers of matured plants that then yield seeds for the next year’s crop. For these reasons, native species play a significant role worthy of consideration to enrich conversations that the honeybee otherwise dominates.

Sources

Goulson, Dave. A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees (2014); for an excerpt see Goulson, “The Beguiling History of Bees,” Scientific American (April 25, 2014),

Horn, Tammy. Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation (2005), 

Langstroth, Lorenzo L. “Improved Mode of Constructing Beehives.” Patent No. 9,300 (October 5, 1852),

_______. Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey Bee: A Bee-Keeper’s Manual (originally published in 1853),

Spaulding, C. E. “Improvement in Bee-Hive.” Patent No. 89,896, May 11, 1869, antedated April 8, 1896.

Debra A. Reid
Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan