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Human-insect interactions: Bees

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April 3, 2002 Posted: 11:36 AM EST (1636 GMT)
Human-insect interactions: Bees

By Michael McManus
CNN Student News

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Dr. Gabriela Chavarria was in Costa Rica on an expedition several years ago, collecting bumble bees for study. She explained that on that particular day, she "was stung well over 100 times." In the same breath, she emphasizes that most bees don't sting, and it's at that moment the blind passion she holds for her work becomes evident.

Chavarria has been studying bees most of her life, and in many instances, the bees were just as busy studying her, usually determining that she was a threat to the colony.

"Bees will only sting if, one: they are provoked, and two: they feel threatened," Chavarria says. There are about 25,000 described bee species worldwide. Four thousand of those species make their homes in the United States.

CNN Student Bureau's Michael McManus talks with Smithsonian Institution researcher Dr. Gabriela Chavarria about honeybees

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Bees are the most famous of pollinator. Without pollination, most plant life on would not grow.

"Insects, including bees, are the little things that run the world," Chavarria says. "All bees pollinate and plants need pollination to reproduce."

Bees have so called "pollen baskets" under their legs. This is a crevice in the bees' body where they can hold large amounts of pollen. The insects feed on pollen, but in doing so transfer it from flower to flower.

"Thirty percent of the world's crops and 90 percent of wild plants need to be pollinated," Chavarria says.

"Humans depend on pollination and we don't realize that," she says. "We take it for granted that one in every three bites of food you eat comes to you courtesy of a pollinator."

Bees have so called "pollen baskets" under their legs.  

Pollination is very important, but most think of another thing when talking about bees, something you'll find in almost every American cupboard: honey. It's used in everything from candy production to tea, and, probably something even more interesting, honey will never go bad. Honey will last ten, twenty, even thirty years!

So which bee is the best producer of honey? Look no further than the "Killer Bee," a species of bee that has picked up this unfortunate, and often inaccurate, nickname.

For the most part, Killer Bees are innocent of what their moniker would like us to believe. These bees are actually Africanized honeybees, and they were introduced to the United States by accident.

About 40 years ago a scientist in Brazil wanted to mate the typical honeybee, which is tame and humble, with the African honeybee, which is more aggressive, but at the same time a hard worker and a big producer of honey. Things didn't work out though, Chavarria says.

"His idea was to create the perfect bee, but some escaped and found paradise in the North American and South American climate."

Chavarria says the Killer Bees do have one weakness: cold weather. They will never migrate into the Northern parts of the United States and Canada simply because it's too cold.

Weather aside, there are more important issues affecting bees. The technologies created to make flowers brighter and last longer are the same advances killing off the pollinators.

Chavarria is concerned about all the pesticides used on crops and in gardens. Many of these pesticides kill all insects, whether they're good or bad for the plant. Another advancement hurting bees is in the plant itself.

"Many crops and plants are producing less pollen now, and that means less food for bees and other insects." Without pollen, many bee colonies will either move on or die altogether.

Michael McManus is an anchor for CNN Student News.

• Dr. Gabriela Chavarria
• Department of Entomology, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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Updated September 21, 2002

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