Bees – An Essential Part of Your Food Security

Photo Credit: WWF

When you think about bees, what comes to mind? Honey? Beeswax? A painful sting? There’s more to bees than we know – much more. Aside from the delicious honey they make, bees are incredibly important to the environment; they are responsible for helping almost all the plants on Earth to reproduce, and without them, we would have much less food to eat. 35% less food, in fact.

Many people see bees as buzzing little insects to be afraid of. But bees are amazing creatures with the power to ensure food security around the world. This is why it is important for everybody to appreciate how much bees matter.

In this post, we’ll take a peek into the life of bees. We’ll explore why they’re so important to the planet and their role in keeping us fed. We also look at the threats African bees are facing and what we can do to play our part in protecting them.

Bees – an amazing part of our world

Bees come in all shapes and sizes, and not all of them sting or make honey. They live in almost every corner of the world, and many have evolved to work in harmony with the plants around them. Some bees have adapted to specific flowers, and others travel huge distances, carrying pollen far and wide.

Different bees

Did you know there are more than 20,000 different bee species on Earth? There are ‘only’ 11,000 bird species and 6,400 mammal species, making bees pretty special! But only a tiny group of them produce honey. That’s right, honeybees consist of just eight species (out of the 20,000 out there), with the thousands of others also responsible for pollinating billions of plants around the world.

Busy bees

Bees and people go back thousands of years. But we have only recently discovered just how important bees are. While the sweet honey made by honeybees has always been highly valued, only in the last few decades have we realised that bees are critical to plants and trees.

Hungry bees

As bees visit flowering plants to drink their favourite food – the nectar produced by flowers – the pollen lands on the plant. This special relationship means that bees need plants to survive, and plants need bees to reproduce.

Special bees

Without bees, millions of flowering plant species would eventually die out. Plus, as much as one-third of our food crops – mainly our fruits and vegetables – would become too expensive or too difficult to grow.

This makes bees very, very important insects to our food security.

Why bees are so important

Honeybees are critical to plant life on Earth. But they also play important roles in the environment, our economy and daily lives that many of us don’t get to see. Let’s look at some of the roles that bees play:

  • Vital pollinators

Bees are important pollinators. They help plants reproduce by carrying pollen on their legs and bodies. When the pollen produced by male plants comes into contact with the reproductive organs of female plants, new seeds or fruit can grow. While the wind pollinates many plants, many others require insects or birds to do the job. Without these ‘carriers, ’ many species would eventually go extinct, unable to evolve new pollination tactics.

Bees are the biggest pollinators in the animal kingdom, with trillions of worker bees carrying pollen between plants and trees as they visit their flowers to drink up the delicious nectar. You can learn more about pollination here.

  • Environmental warriors

By ensuring that plants can reproduce, grow and thrive, bees help to keep entire ecosystems on their feet. This ensures that plants avoid inbreeding, with different pollens from different species facing various threats contributing to plant diversity. Think of bees as the plant kingdom’s ‘matchmakers’.

Their vast numbers also contribute important minerals to the soil as they die, and their fighting spirit helps keep predatory or invasive insect species in check.

  • A critical part of the food chain

Birds, lizards, reptiles and other insects eat bees. Many of them have even developed special methods and adaptations to avoid being stung. Some animals, like the honey badger, work together with other species, like the African honeyguide – a bird that leads them to beehives – to feed on honey.

Without bees, many animals would be left without an important, protein-rich source of food, let alone the honey that bees produce. And nobody wants a world with no honey!

  • They’re responsible for a lot of our food

Possibly, the most important role that bees play in our lives is the one around our food security. You see, while many grains, cereals, and crops like wheat are generally wind- pollinated, not always needing help from other creatures, many of our other plant-based foods depend on bees to grow.

In fact, as much as 35% of our food would not be as accessible, available or even around without bees to pollinate them. While people are exploring other ways to assist in pollination for many plants, these methods are still years away from being even close to as effective or possible as bees.

We can see how important bees are, not only to the environment but to our survival. But to get a good understanding of how life would look in a world without bees, we need to think about what we’d lose if they weren’t around. You’d be surprised at what you’d miss out on!

Bees and your food – What you’d miss without them

While we don’t necessarily depend on bees for foods like wheat, rice, and corn, many of our favourite fruits and vegetables would struggle to survive without these little insects. In fact, almost all of our most important plant foods would either become too expensive to buy (because farmers would have to pollinate their crops manually) or disappear altogether.  Here are just some of the fruits, foods and vegetables that we’d probably have to say goodbye to in a world without bees.


Many vegetables produce flowers, which ultimately transform into the delicious, nutrient-rich, fleshy greens we need to stay healthy. If bees can’t pollinate them and help them produce fertile, varied seeds, many of our veggies would become susceptible to outside diseases and unable to reproduce.

  • Avocados – These trees are mostly pollinated by social bees and honey bees in different regions of the world. That’s right. Without our little bee friends, there would be no more avo on toast!
  • Tomatoes – While some tomato plants can self-pollinate, large crops and different varieties of these delicious fruits (which we often label as vegetables) require active bee pollinators to thrive.
  • Onions – These vegetables require cross-pollination between plants, or the male plants cannot fertilise females. Bees are among the only insects capable of doing so.
  • Potatoes – Even potatoes produce flowers that require pollination, allowing their roots to grow thick and delicious. Imagine a world with no chips!
  • There are many, many other veggies out there that depend on bees. From cucumbers, pumpkin and squash to carrots, eggplant and peppers, all of them need bees.


Just imagine life without fruit. No more sweet, juicy apples, bananas or pears and no more fruit juice. Bees love pollinating fruit trees and bushes with colourful flowers offering delicious nectar. These fruit favourites wouldn’t be around anymore without bees.

  • Apples & pears – Apple and pear trees need bees to pollinate them. In fact, many farmers place beehives close to their fruit trees to help bees pollinate more easily.
  • Plums & peaches – Even juicy peaches and plums need bees to pollinate their delicate flowers. The more bees around to mix and match, the more pollen there is between plants, and the more varied and healthier the fruit.
  • Strawberries, blueberries & cherries – Berries and cherries also need bees to help them reproduce and grow sweet, delicious fruit.

Other foods

Many of the foods we take for granted depend on bees. While you may not even realise it, your favourite treat, snack or guilty pleasure requires – you guessed it – bees to exist.

  • Coffee – Believe it or not, coffee beans come from a cherry, which grows out of a little flower. And who likes flowers? Bees! These plants need bees to pollinate them, allowing us to enjoy the countless varieties and types of coffee available today. Cuppa anyone?
  • Nuts – Almonds, cashews and some other nuts also depend on bees, though other insects like midges and wasps can do the same job, albeit in far fewer numbers.
  • And, of course, honey – Honey is the most famous bee-produced food out there. Workers bring nectar back to the hive and, after storing it in their stomachs, regurgitate it into honeycombs where sugars break down, the nectar dries out, and the delicious, thick compound matures. You can read more about how bees actually make honey right here. It really is an amazing process!

Bees are under attack

It’s clear that bees are one of the most – if not the most – important insects on Earth. Without them, millions of plants would eventually die out, our food security would dwindle, and entire ecosystems would slowly collapse.

Bees have been around for 120 million years, and yet, in just a few generations, their populations are now shrinking. As many as 50% of US honeybee colonies died in 2022, and around the globe, non-honeybees are disappearing at alarming speed. While we can’t be sure of the causes of these declines in the bee population, habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change are some of the suggested causes.

As expanding farmland, mismanaged natural resources, and drought threaten South Africa’s honeybees, our food security – which is already under pressure – will only continue to weaken.

Helping our African bees right here at home

In South Africa, where honeybees pollinate over 50 of our agricultural crops worth over R10 billion, people are working to restore the natural vegetation that supports them. Partners like the WWF Nedbank Green Trust and the Western Cape Bee Industry Association are working together to help ensure our food security by giving our African bees the help they need.

By spreading awareness and embarking on important projects like replanting indigenous plant species that support and sustain honeybees, these partners are ensuring there are enough of them around to keep on pollinating our crops. Other projects, involving freeing up water resources to help local plants thrive, reducing human threats to honeybees and training beekeepers in biodiversity hotspots, are already in full swing.

You can read about them here.

Conclusion – ‘Bee’ kind to bees

If we don’t act soon, we won’t just find ourselves in a world without honey; we’ll find ourselves living in one with low food security.

Start helping honeybees today. Learn about how you can make your garden more “bee-friendly”, know which products are harmful to bees and avoid buying them, and support causes dedicated to helping save bees and the environment they live in.