Cover Story

Honey Bees: The World's Most Important Insect

by Audrey T. Hingley, Contributing Writer


When most people think about honey bees, they think about honey. But honey bees are much more than a honey source: they may be the world’s most important insects.

“The primary benefit of honey bees is pollination. We have 80 different crops in Virginia dependent on the honey bee to produce fruits, vegetables, and nuts. We depend on them for our food,” explains Keith Tignor, a biologist and state apiarist (beekeeper) with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Some crops are wind-pollinated but others, like apples, are heavily dependent on bees for pollination.”

Honey bees pollinate plants, flowers, orchards and farm crops, and also benefit forests, meadows and wetlands. Beekeeping dates back to ancient cultures in the Middle East, where migratory beekeepers transported bees on Nile River barges. Introduced to North America by European settlers, honey bee colonies were shipped from England to Virginia in 1622. Honey bees were valued by American colonists for everything from beeswax for candles to honey for sweetening food to honey’s medicinal uses. 

But bees’ value as pollinators far exceeds their value as honey producers: in 2000, pollination by honey bees added over $14 billion dollars to America’s agricultural economic value via improved product quality and increased harvests. In 2002 the added value to Virginia’s apple industry alone was estimated as $23 million. So when CCD (colony collapse disorder) appeared in 2006, worldwide attention was focused on dramatic honey bee losses. Scientists still don’t know the exact cause of CCD; suspects include increased urbanization, disease, parasitic mites and pesticide use.

“We still have questions about what’s causing CCD. It will be difficult to produce food if we see a continuing bee decline. Our main concern is, if this is happening with a managed population, what’s going on with the wild populations?” asks Tignor.


State Apiarist Keith Tignor

Another threat beekeepers still grapple with is the varroa mite. Originating in Asia, the mite was introduced here in the 1990s and has since spread around the world. Varroa mites weaken bees’ immune systems and carry viruses.  

“We saw other mites in the ’80s but since the varroa mite we have gone from an annual loss of 5 to 7 percent [of honey bees] to a 30 percent [annual] loss of bees,” Tignor explains. “In the pre-mite era in Virginia, we had maybe 98,000 hives; by the 1990s we had about 20,000 hives. In 1996 and 2004, particularly, we lost maybe 80 percent of feral bees and 60 percent of managed hives.”

He adds, “If you were a business person and every year you lost one-third of what you had and had to replace it, how many years could you do that and stay in business? Beekeepers were becoming very discouraged. We lost a lot of experienced beekeepers.”

Of Virginia’s approximately 3,500 beekeepers, only 2 percent are commercial; 92 percent are small-scale. Commercial beekeepers’ primary income comes from bees and have 500 or more hives; sideline beekeepers hold full-time jobs but have bees who generate some income; and small-scale beekeepers typically have 1-50 hives. Commercial beekeepers’ income can include selling honey, beeswax, royal jelly (a high-nutrition food supplement) and pollination services.

Migratory beekeepers move honey bee hives so crops have enough pollinating insects for maximum production. Every February beekeepers from around the country transport billions of bees to California almond farms that produce 80 percent of the world’s almonds.  

“None of our Virginia beekeepers go out to California but [some] Virginia beekeepers ‘follow the bloom’ to New York or Maine for blueberries or apples,” Tignor notes.

Although California almond farms rely on migratory beekeepers, Tignor says moving “stresses out the bees,” and moving bees four or five times annually can make them more susceptible to problems.

Tom Fifer, a beekeeper for over 30 years, keeps some hives at his Henrico County home for personal use but also keeps bees for pollination at several sites, including 35 to 40 hives kept year-round on Hanover County’s Dodd’s Acres Farm, a large fifth-generation farm operation.

“People don’t realize the importance of pollination. One out of three bites of your food is either directly or indirectly related to insect pollination,” Fifer, 75, says.

Fifer started his beekeeping avocation with three hives and says his greatest challenge has been “getting my bees off chemicals.”

“They sell chemicals to combat the mites; you put chemicals on in August after you remove any salable honey. I had three seasons where I could not get out to my hives to work them or put chemicals on them,” he recalls. “I lost about half of my colony but the ones that survived, I raised queens from them and split those hives from the survivors. Over a period of three years, their resistance built up so mites are not decimating my hives.”

Beekeeper Lannie Ballard, 73, agrees, explaining, “I do not use chemicals for my hives. I have about 40 hives, although I don’t know how many will survive the winter. I made the decision about eight years ago to not use chemicals. I feel if we keep using chemicals, we’ll never have bees that progress enough to resist problems on their own.” 

He adds, “I do lose some bees, but with chemicals they may have died anyway because of their gene pool, so what was I accomplishing? What I have done to increase the gene pool is to have some bees able to tolerate this stuff.”

Ballard developed a fondness for honey bees as a teenager and became a beekeeper when he moved to Rockbridge County 16 years ago.

“Honey bees have always fascinated me. I am fascinated with what they contribute. I look at them as one of God’s greatest creations,” he explains.

Ballard says people tend to lump honey bees in with stinging insects like yellow jackets and hornets, noting that honey bees are generally gentle and not aggressive.

“When I decided to get into beekeeping, getting stung did not enter my mind,” he admits. “I don’t know why. They are soothing and relaxing to work with ... I just wanted to work with them.” 

He adds, “My wife and I eat a lot of honey in teas and on cereal. Honey is the only food that will never spoil. It can ferment and will crystallize, but if you put it in a jar with warm water [it will be fine]. People with multiple sclerosis have also used bee venom as therapy.”


Ballard recounts anecdotal evidence of decreasing feral bees. He used to have several logging companies who would call him if they found a tree with bees in it.

“In the past three years, I’ve not had a call from them,” he notes. “They are not seeing feral bees anymore.”

Start-up costs for novice beekeepers can range from $150-$300. More people are being attracted to beekeeping but Ballard emphasizes, “It is work, you can’t just take them and set them outside. It will help your garden and your flowers but you shouldn’t expect to get any surplus honey out of it the first year. That first year you want to [get your bees] through the winter; in the second year they can produce honey.”

“My advice is purchase local bees,” Fifer says. “Even if you have to wait [for local bees], don’t be so impatient. Beekeeping patience is a virtue.”

Although challenges continue, Tignor says things seem to be getting better: “We’re now up to about 35,000 hives in Virginia. We’re seeing a wide range of people getting into beekeeping and we’d like to see more people get into it. It looks like things are improving.”


A typical feral (wild) honey bee nest can contain 30,000 bees, while managed honey bee hives can contain 80,000 bees. Colonies contain one fertile female, the queen bee; a large population of infertile female worker bees who do all the work of a hive, including collecting food from outside and creating beeswax cells; and fertile male honey bees known as drones. Drones’ only function is to mate with a queen; they die shortly afterwards.

Queen bees mate only once and store sperm for future egg fertilization in their bodies. A queen may live from one to five years and may lay 1,500-2,000 eggs per day. Since worker bees determine a queen bee’s development (by the type of food fed to larva), beekeepers “raise” queens by utilizing the bees’ natural systems. Keith Tignor of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services says beekeepers can determine which cells are workers or queens visually: “Worker cells are flat. The queen cells are extended out, up to 2 inches from the [honey] comb.

“Beekeepers set up hives that are queenless and provide the bees with a situation that will encourage them to raise queen cells,” he adds.

Honey bees store food to keep the colony alive from one year to the next. In contrast, bumblebees store honey for a short period of time just to keep the colony alive. During the winter, the honey bee queen is kept alive by worker bees huddling in a tight ball around her.

Honey bees look for a certain-size cavity to create their nests, but as populations increase in the spring and space is filled up with food and bees, worker bees can leave and form a new colony, called “swarming,” which occurs more often in wild populations. In managed populations, beekeepers can add more space to a hive to prevent swarming.

“The great thing about honey bees is you can take the hive you have and split it, setting up a separate population to increase the number of hives,” Tignor says.

If you decide to try beekeeping, beekeeper Lannie Ballard advises, “Join a local beekeeping association, meet other beekeepers and find out the costs, etc., before you buy your first hive.”


Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services:

Virginia State Beekeepers Association:

American Beekeeping Federation:


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