I was first introduced to the notion of beekeeping, not for honey, but for pollination. I was lamenting to someone about my lovely veggie garden that didn't really produce any veggies. Off-the-cuff this someone said 'oh, you need a beehive' and something about that stuck.
Later, I started researching about what the sort of increase in pollination you can expect from an on site hive can be, and I began to get really excited about it. Quick searches were showing that pollination can increase from 30% to 100%. Many of the stats were from Government Ag Dep*1, and all of them showed a good-to-excellent increase of pollination directly attributed to on site beehives.
A gentleman came up to us on the weekend and spoke about being a canola cropper for a number of decades - and a beekeeper by default. He told us that before he started up with beekeeping, he was bringing in a yield of 600 kilos per/acre of canola a season. After he sited his hives, he was yielding 1000 kilos per/acre*2. That is an increase of more than 65%!
We have found the same in our garden. Each year we planted tomatoes, I would get about 2 per vine. Now, every flower produces a tomato and I get 8-10 tomatoes on each vine. So much Passata!
Why are bees so interested in pollen you may ask? Well, the plants and bees of the world have evolved together - bees need the high-protein pollen to feed the brood (they mix it with honey to create beebread) and the flowers need the bees to move the pollen around from flower to flower to fertilizer their sex-organs so they can reproduce by making fruit and later, seed. As they say, when you are deep in the bush, and you hear the melodic buzzing of insects, remember - that is millions of insects and plants trying to get laid! But, I digress. As the bees collect pollen in, they get brushed with it as well, and this travels with them to the next flower, where it brushes off and creates cross-pollination for flowers.
This is also why flowers have evolved to produce nectar. There is no benefit to the plant to produce nectar - in fact, it takes quite a lot of energy for the plant - but it is produced as a reward for a pollinator and many pollinators have evolved to use nectar as a food source. A bee will smell the sweetness of the nectar, and as it is always located at the bottom of the flower, she alights on the flower and rustles around in it to get to the back of the flower. This means that the pollen at the top of the flower will rub off onto her body, and since bees like collecting either pollen or nectar from the same type of flowers (rather than going from species to species) the plant has a double insurance policy of becoming fertilized, optimizing the chance of reproducing.
It isn't just bees that are pollinators: bees - solitary, bumble, carpenter, leafcutter and honey, hoverflies, but also butterflies and moths, a number of wasps, ants, thrips, bee flies, fruit flies, midgies, beetles, birds, possums and bats can be added to the list. Many species of plants can not reproduce without a pollinator, which includes most of our fruit and vegetables, and a number of crops that are fed to stock animals. And of course, they pollinate plants in the bush, in parks and gardens that provide the beauty of our landscape, oh, and the oxygen we breathe!
This year, Europe is predicting that there is a honeybee shortage ranging from less than a quarter needed in some areas to provide pollination services for food crops.*3
Our ladies are in a major decline and we need to seriously respect what they do for us but I think that is a post for another day.
Pic: Hoverfly approaching wattle flower.
*2 1 Acre = 0.4 Hectare