Bees: the ingredient your coffee needs most

The next time you’re enjoying a good cup of coffee, thank the bees.

Yes. The bees.

Every cappuccino, every latte, every short black has one thing in common, apart from the actual coffee: they require bees to get from the plant to your mouth.

And there’s a big problem with that. If you haven’t heard lately, bees are dying in big numbers and if that trend continues, you might start experiencing a coffee shortage worldwide.

That’s a lot of information to take in. Let’s back up a second.

Why are bees so important for coffee?

As you might remember from primary school, bees are pollinators. They gather pollen from one flower or plant and take it to another. This isn’t just so they can go back to their hives and create delicious honey – the pollination of other plants means they can grow better.

That’s exactly the case with coffee. The flowers that grow from coffee plants are rich with sugar and high quality nectar. That’s a gold mine for bees, who then gather the pollen to take back to their hives. As a result, coffee plantations can grow in yield due to the effects of this cross-pollination.

Pretty simple: the more bees you have visiting a coffee plantation, the more coffee you’re going to get.

If you’re interested, you should check out this study that found coffee plantations visited by bees end up growing much more plentiful crops.

So, bees help coffee. Pretty simple, right?

Except it isn’t. Because if you haven’t noticed, bees are dying around the world in record numbers. And like most of the other animal-related deaths and phenomena occurring around the world, we have our old friend climate change to thank. (Which, if you’ll remember, is also posing some threats to coffee growth as well.)

For about the past decade, bees have been dying at a huge rate. In the United States alone, bees are dying at a rate of 30% per year with economic damage in the billions.

It was pretty freaky, actually. A few years ago there were all these stories of bees dying and scientists just not figuring out why. It’s like something out of a dystopian science-fiction movie.

But we have a better idea now. Over at Mother Jones there’s a great article that delves into why bees are dying: insecticides.

However, new research has also shown bumblebee hives have been dying since the 1970s. Bee hives are dying in Europe, Canada and elsewhere.

But there’s actually some hope.

Bees in other parts of the world are surprisingly resilient. In fact, African bees – which live in sub-tropical areas – are more aggressive and resilient to insecticides. Scientists are already working on ways African bees can help those in the United States and Europe.

So, you don’t have to worry about your coffee plants going bust just yet. But keep an eye on things – if the bees start disappearing, your coffee could be next.

  • Rolley

    I don’t wanna take anything away from this article, it’s all good material; but if you’re interested more, you may want to look into what type of bees frequent our beloved Arabica most. In some cases (in my case and I’m assuming others), it’s native Australian bees that visit the Arabica tree flowers more than any honey bee (European). A lot of people are so unaware of bees that they don’t even know we have over 1500 types of native bees in Australia. Most of them are solitary, which doesn’t matter. I grow K7 and Catui varietals of Arabica in Qld, and VERY interestingly, the largest of the solitaries – the Great Carpenter Bee, frequents my coffee trees every flowering season while the biggest visitor (not in size but number) are the social stingless bees – I have two sometimes three hives of Tetragonula, and these beautiful little gentle bees get all over the flowers of the Arabica. You can literally go rub your nose in the flowers and the little bees just fuzz around and move.
    In Australia, there is much we can do for native bees to help ensure that they survive human impact, and benefit our gardens and crops. Be mindful that while our Australian natives bees aren’t subject to the die off that European bees are having, they suffer for other reasons including a loss of habitat (deforestation), and consequently social stingless bees try to build their hives in silly places like underground water meter boxes, where of course they get flooded and die. Keeping hives of social stingless bees is easy from the sub tropics to the north, no permits required, gentle safe bees to go and watch (I even have a hive at my front steps). In terms of the solitary native bees, looking into what other plants attracts bees like the Great Carpenter will help if you like to grow coffee. This might involve not being such a clean freak in your yard, have an area where you can let certain weeds bolt, the carpenters are attracted to some pretty pesty weeds also at my home. (Unrelated tip; if you also grow Tomatoes, the native bee Blue Banded is your number 1 pollinator, puts the European Honey Bees to shame).
    Bees. :) Happy coffee drinking fellow coffee lovers.
    Some reading for those interested in Native Bees of Australia: http://www.aussiebee.com.au/keyfacts.html