18 Aug 2023

Understanding the significance of honeybees in ecosystems, their role in the maintenance of global food security, and current risks to their populations

Honeybees provide countless advantages and resources vital to both the environment and humans—from improving ecosystem sustainability and agricultural productivity to producing honey products that humans have enjoyed for thousands of years. On World Honeybee Day (19 August 2023), let's look at the crucial role honeybees play in our environment, the resources they provide to humans, and the threats their populations currently face globally.  

Facilitating forest regeneration, increasing adaptation to climate change, and nurturing biodiversity are just some of the many ways that honeybees help to enhance the sustainability of ecosystems.1 Did you know that in addition to ensuring the sustainability of ecosystems, honeybees can act as important biological indicators/detectors of environmental pollution (usually observed through high death rates or residues in honey, pollen, or larvae)?2 Humans rely on honeybees and other pollinators for the continued production of nearly three-quarters of the world's fruit- and seed-supplying crops.3 These hard-working creatures boost agricultural production and provide the agricultural industry with services necessary for global food security worth over $215 billion USD!4

Honeybees are social insects and live together in nests or hives. The number of honeybees living in one hive varies depending on the time of year but can range from 25,000 to 100,000 bees.5 Within any hive, there are three different types of bees: a queen bee, thousands of female worker bees, and, in the summertime, hundreds of male drones. Female worker bees are responsible for secreting wax to create honeycombs, searching for pollen and nectar, and turning nectar into honey, while the sole function of the male drones is to fertilize the queen bee. Unfortunately for the drones, as the weather gets colder, the female worker bees drive the drones out of the hive and guard them from re-entering, resulting in their death and protecting the bees' limited food supply of honey over the winter.6 Impressively, honeybees are the only type of bee that maintains their colony, relying on stored honey and clustering together to keep warm rather than hibernating throughout the winter months.7

To create honey, which is essential for bees and highly valuable to humans, honeybees mix nectar (retrieved from plants) with enzymes released by glands in their mouths. This mixture is stored in a wax honeycomb and once ready, is capped with beeswax. Remarkably, capped honey can be kept almost indefinitely. Edible honeycomb was even found in the tombs of Pharaohs!8 Honey contains small amounts of proteins, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, other organic acids, and multiple phytochemicals—i.e., compounds produced by plants that act as antioxidants. The composition of honey is directly linked to the flower source and geographic origin of the honey, climatic circumstances, as well as seasonality. Studies have shown that honey's biological activity is dependent upon the bioavailability, or amount of a substance that reaches the circulation, of different phytochemical components and the way that they are absorbed and metabolized in the human body.9

Apitherapy is an alternative form of medicine that utilizes bee-derived products, including beeswax, pollen, propolis, royal jelly, and even bee venom, for the prevention or treatment of many diseases. Indeed, the world's most ancient medical literature highlights the antibacterial and wound-healing properties of honey.10 In addition to this, the constituents of honey have reportedly demonstrated antifungal, antiviral, antidiabetic, antitumor, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer properties.11  Interestingly, many athletes consume bee pollen (a combination of flower pollen, nectar, and bee saliva) as a food supplement believed to improve sports performance!12

In recent decades, honeybee colonies have faced many threats, resulting in the decline of their populations. These threats come predominantly from human activity, with the most well-known contributing element being pesticides. Insecticides and fungicides are particularly harmful, containing chemical constituents that can make bees more susceptible to parasites and diseases. The population growth of honeybees is also impacted by the development of urban and single-crop agricultural landscapes. These developments decrease plant biodiversity, reduce the availability of land for nesting, and limit passage between natural habitats. Changes to human behaviour are necessary to help rescue honeybee populations, including the use of alternative pest management techniques and the development of systems to keep track of populations.13 So, how can you help?

  • Plant flowers that honeybees love, including traditional cottage garden flowers and native wildflowers like primrose, buddleia, and marigolds to provide the bees with nectar.
  • Buy or build an "insect hotel" by tying together twigs and hollow stems like bamboo. Place this in a hedge or bush or hang it somewhere to give bees and other insects a home.
  • Leave sugary water for tired honeybees: mix two teaspoons of white granulated sugar with one teaspoon of water and put it onto a plate or leave it on a flower to help tired bees recover!
  • Shop for honey locally and choose organic honey to ensure that bees are pollinating in areas that refrain from pesticide use.14

World Honeybee Day helps us to appreciate the importance and necessity of honeybees in global ecosystems and the multitude of valuable resources they provide to humans.

If you have questions about this topic or a related subject, feel free to contact us at food.assuris@intertek.com or visit us online at https://www.intertek.com/assuris/food/.

  1. What's the buzz about bees? (fao.org)
  2. Honey bees as bioindicators of environmental pollution (bulletinofinsectology.org)
  3. What's the buzz about bees? (fao.org)
  4. What is happening with the bees? | Yale Environment Review
  5. Bee Facts – Canadian Honey Council
  6. About Honey Bees | Types, races, and anatomy of honey bees (uada.edu)
  7. Bee Facts | British Beekeepers Association (bbka.org.uk)
  8. Bee Facts | British Beekeepers Association (bbka.org.uk)
  9. Antibiotics | Free Full-Text | Physicochemical Characteristics and Bioactive Compounds of Different Types of Honey and Their Biological and Therapeutic Properties: A Comprehensive Review (mdpi.com)
  10. 5-libre.pdf (d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net)
  11. Antibiotics | Free Full-Text | Physicochemical Characteristics and Bioactive Compounds of Different Types of Honey and Their Biological and Therapeutic Properties: A Comprehensive Review (mdpi.com)
  12. Beehive products (fao.org)
  13. What is happening with the bees? | Yale Environment Review
  14. Our tips on how to bee friendly | WWF
Isabella Vicente Intertek headshot

Isabella Vicente
Junior Associate, Food & Nutrition Group
Intertek Assuris

Isabella is a Junior Associate at Intertek Scientific & Regulatory Consultancy, working within our Health Claims and Clinical Trials group. Isabella is currently working towards her B.Sc. degree in Nutritional Sciences and Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Toronto.