Bee basics

Pollinators play a vital role in maintaining a healthy and productive agricultural system. Bees and other pollinators help crops to flourish and thrive. At least one third of the human food supply from crops and plants depends on insect pollination, most of which is done by bees. As bees fly from plant to plant gathering pollen or nectar, the pollen they pick up at one plant brushes off on the next, completing the bees’ reproductive role in cross-pollination.

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Picture of a bee

Bee facts

The interaction between agriculture and bees is a natural symbiosis. Bees feed on pollen and nectar, while many crops need bees for pollination.

  • What are the basic numbers?

    There are approximately 20,000 different species of bees in the world. Most are solitary bees and only a few species actually form colonies. There are around 65 million hives worldwide.

    Some species may not yet have been discovered and many are either not named or have not been well studied. Bees are found throughout the world except at the highest altitudes or in polar regions. The greatest diversity of bee species is found in warm, arid or semiarid areas, especially in the American Southwest and Mexico.

    Only one species in Canada, the European or Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) is managed for honey production. While numbers vary from year to year, there are approximately 7,000 beekeepers in Canada with upwards of 600,000 colonies across the country, with over 60% of these colonies kept in the three Prairie provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba).

    The last few decades have seen a decrease in the number of people involved in the maintenance of bee colonies in Canada. However, the total number of honey bee colonies globally has increased by approximately 45% since 1969 according to FAO data. A similar trend has occurred in Canada.

  • Why are bees important?

    Bees are vitally important to the sustainability of Canadian agriculture because they pollinate a significant portion of our crops, contributing nearly $2 billion to crop pollination in this country alone.

    Without pollination by bees, many members of the agriculture value chain would be negatively impacted. Consumers would also be affected and not have ready access to many foods they enjoy that are dependent on bee pollination, including certain fruits and vegetables.

    As bees fly from plant to plant gathering pollen and nectar, the pollen they pick up at one plant brushes off on the next, completing the bees’ reproductive role in cross-pollination.

    At least one third of the human food supply from crops and plants depends on insect pollination, most of which is done by bees, especially the domesticated honey bee.

  • Are bees more important for their honey or for their pollination?

    The direct value of honey produced in Canada is estimated to be more than $100 million, while the annual value of insect pollination for Canadian agriculture has been estimated to be approximately $2 billion and over $200 billion worldwide. The value of pollination of wild plants to biodiversity has not been quantified.

    Each honey bee makes about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, but a productive hive (colony) can make and store up to two pounds of honey a day. Under good conditions, more than 100 kilograms of honey can be produced by a hive.

    Even these simple statistics do not fully explain the crucial importance of the honey bee to food production. Although some staple foods do not depend on pollinators (wheat, rice and corn, for example), without pollination several types of fruits, seeds and vegetables could not be produced in sufficient quantities (apples, almonds, blueberries, peaches, nuts etc.) and several types of fruits, seeds and vegetables could not be produced at all. The role of pollination is so important that bees are now bred specifically to offer contract pollination services. In many cases, the bees are collected, driven and/or flown across thousands of miles to pollinate crops.

  • What is the difference between commercially kept bees in hives and wild bees?

    Most species of bees are solitary bees and only a few species form colonies. Most wild bee species construct either single or complex nests in the ground. Other bees make or utilize crevices in rocks or plant stems, insect borings, and plant galls for their nesting sites. Of the many species, the Western or European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the most important domesticated bee that is used in beekeeping globally. The Eastern honey bee (Apis ceranae) is also kept in parts of Asia.

    Most of the beekeepers worldwide are amateurs with a few hives. Only a tiny minority keep bees commercially.

  • What can people do to help bees thrive?

    Research shows that establishing native plant gardens with a variety of simple wild flowers can have a big impact on pollinator health. You can create your own pollinator-friendly garden or window box using native plants.

  • What is a pesticide seed treatment? How do neonicotinoids work and what benefits do they bring?

    Pesticide seed treatments are one of the most advanced and environmentally friendly forms of crop protection.

    The chemical is applied to the seed as a coating prior to planting. This enables the plant to defend itself against pests that feed directly on the seed prior to germination of the newly emerging plant. These pests would otherwise destroy the crop, significantly reduce total crop yield and quality and needlessly sacrifice the productive capacity of vast amounts of soil and water.

    Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticide. There are three active ingredients used in neonicotinoid seed treatments in Canada: imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam (produced by Syngenta).

    Neonicotinoid seed treatments have proven to be extremely valuable to farmers. The insecticide is absorbed and distributed within the plant as it grows, affecting insect pests that feed on the growing plant. Due to the targeted application and uptake into the plant tissue, the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments reduces the number of pesticide applications and decreases the amount of pesticide used. Seed treatment application methods target the pesticide limiting exposure and minimizing risks to beneficial insects including bees.

  • What is the connection between neonicotinoids and bee losses?

    Here in Canada, for example, the number of honey bee colonies in Alberta continues to increase alongside large acres planted with canola, a crop that is treated with neonicotinoids in order to protect it from significant flea beetle damage. Overwintering losses in Canada are also not correlated with agricultural production and neonicotinoid use. For example, overwintering losses in British Columbia have regularly been well above the national average even though there is very low neonicotinoid use in the province, while provinces with the greatest use of neonicotinoids (Alberta and Saskatchewan) regularly have the lowest levels of overwintering losses due in no small part to a proactive Varroa mite control program.

    Similar evidence is also available from around the world. In Scotland there is poor bee health even though there is very low neonicotinoid pesticide use. However, there is a high incidence of the Varroa mite in Scotland which may better explain the poor bee health.

    In France, the level of colony losses is similar in mountainous areas to that on agricultural land.

    No correlations have been found between bee health and real world neonicotinoid use across the world, including in Europe prior to the implementation of the neonicotinoid restrictions.

    In Australia, neonicotinoid-based seed treatments are used widely but there have not been reports of significant declines in the health of bees. Indeed, many Australian beekeepers have exploited this by sending their bees to countries such as the United States in order to provide contract pollination services. Not surprisingly, the Government of Australia is keen to protect bee health and its prime goal is to concentrate on policies to prevent the Varroa from invading Australia and to have emergency plans for eradicating the Varroa mite should it eventually arrive there.

    In Madagascar, neonicotinoids are virtually unused but beekeepers have been suffering substantial bee losses since the introduction of the Varroa mite in 2009. In Switzerland, there have been reports of significant declines in bee health in upland areas of the country, yet neonicotinoids are not used in these areas. The Swiss Government reported in the summer of 2012 that pesticides were not the cause of declines in bee health.

    South Africa and Brazil both use neonicotinoid-based pesticides widely, yet these countries have good bee health. However, both of these countries have low incidences of the Varroa mite due to the increased presence of the Africanized honey bee which is able to delouse itself.

    The evidence overwhelmingly suggests there is no direct correlation between neonicotinoid use and poor bee health.

  • What do the experts say are the causes of bee losses?

    Many experts agree that bee health is likely to be affected by several different factors, especially when acting together. These include the following:

    • Pests and diseases, in particular the Varroa mites and the viruses they carry, and the gut parasite Nosema ceranae, which have been found in hives throughout Canada
    • Poor nutrition in some areas due to a lack of quantity, availability and quality of nectar and pollen in areas with limited biodiversity
    • Lack of knowledge of professional and hygienic hive management
    • Genetic uniformity of the majority of honey bees, leading to weakened resistance to pests and diseases
    • Stress caused by commercial transportation over long distances to pollinate particular seasonal crops
    • Unusual weather

    The scientific consensus from ongoing work suggests that while there is no single factor, the Varroa mite is the main factor involved in bee colony decline in certain parts of the world and overwintering losses here in Canada.

  • How can you ensure that seeds treated with neonicotinoids do not pose a risk to honey bees?

    While there is no such thing as zero risk and some pesticides are toxic to bees, it is important to note that bees are recognized as beneficial insects and are not the target organisms of these products.

    Without bees and other pollinators, many of the crops that our products are designed to protect would not exist. Since pollinators play a vital role in maintaining a healthy and productive agricultural system we all have a vested interest in protecting their health.

    The pesticide registration process requires scientific studies to evaluate the safety of pesticides to honey bees and other beneficial insects. These data are reviewed by regulators prior to the approval and sale of products in Canada and are also used to determine label directions and precautions to protect beneficial organisms.

    Syngenta also works closely with its customers to make sure that measures to reduce dust levels are applied throughout the seed care value chain. In collaboration with CropLife Canada and its members, we have also developed a set of Best Management Practices that provide guidance on the handling of insecticide-treated seed (with a focus on corn) in order to reduce exposure to honey bees during planting.

    Additionally, our research has found no impact to bee colonies exposed to neonicotinoid-treated crops, even when exposed for several years. These studies included exposure of bees to nectar, pollen and guttation water from treated crops, and dust during drilling. This has also been verified by independent monitoring programs that have demonstrated the safe use of these products.

  • What is Syngenta doing to protect bees in the environment?

    Syngenta is working with beekeepers, relevant authorities and other interested parties to tackle the causes of bee deaths. We are researching a range of solutions to combat diseases affecting bees, including new biological and chemical control agents to fight parasitic mites such as the Varroa mite and the gut parasite, Nosema ceranae, that are found in a large majority of beehives and are an important part of in the discussion about bee health.

    There is also a pressing need to alleviate the problem of food scarcity for bees and other pollinators. To this end, Syngenta launched Operation Bumble Bee in the UK in 2005. This involved planting field borders with combinations of nectar/pollen producing species that flower at different times of the year. Within three years, the project had increased bee populations several times over and helped to regenerate rare species previously close to extinction. Other pollinating insects increased tenfold, and the butterfly population twelvefold.

    Syngenta extended this work to the rest of Europe in 2008 by launching Operation Pollinator, which encourages bee-friendly farming and helps to ensure the availability of flowering plants at times when agricultural crops do not offer a sufficient supply of pollen and nectar for bees.

    Here in North America, we are supporting external research with universities to support the expansion of Operation Pollinator and other local initiatives to promote biodiversity and pollinator habitat on the farm. Learn more.


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  • Learn more interesting facts about bees
    • A queen bee, on her mating flights, will mate with a dozen or so drones, but then never mate again during her life. After mating, she is capable of producing over 1,000 fertilized eggs every day for 3-5 years.
    • The male bee (drone - smaller male bees that hatch in mid summer) cannot feed himself, but has to beg for food from worker bees (females).
    • To make 1 kilo of honey, a colony of bees will collectively fly about 40,000 kilometers.
    • When "scout bees" are searching for food, they follow a meandering path. However they are able to return to the hive in a straight line (“bee-line”) due to their unique navigating skills.
    • A drone can father many daughters, but never any sons. This is because drones are produced from unfertilized eggs.
    • The egg of a future queen bee is no different from the egg of a worker bee. It is the food (royal jelly) she is fed as a larva, which determines that she will become a queen.
    • Bumble bees never swarm - so you can encourage a nest or two in the garden without fear of this happening.
    • Bumble bees do not produce enough honey for commercial use, just a few grams at a time to feed their young.
    • Not all bumble bees sting. Drones have no sting at all.
    • Bumble bees are much less aggressive than honey bees. Generally they will not attack a human at all, unless their life is under threat.
    • Bumble bees do not lose their sting and will not die if they use it, as a honey bee will.
    • Encourage the bumble bee in your garden or farm and she will repay your kindness by pollinating your flowers, fruit and vegetables and giving you an excellent set on your blossom.
    • Like other bees, honey bees cannot see the colour red. However, they may visit red flowers because they are able to see the UV patterns in the flowers.
    • As with other types of bees, honey bees have 5 eyes: 3 simple eyes on top of their head, and 2 compound eyes, with numerous hexagonal facets.


Bees are interesting and complex insects, but they are not all the same. In fact, there are various other insects that mimic or closely resemble bees.

Honey Bee
Honey bee

The body shape is like the wasp but the colour is different. The body is brown or black with lighter coloured bands encircling it.

There are different types of honey bees. European or Western honey bees are best known as the makers of honey and widely used to commercially pollinate crops.

Honey Bee: Queen
Honey bee: Queen

The queen is the mother of the colony. She is about 25mm in length and has a long, tapered abdomen. Each colony has only one queen. She is fed and tended to by her workers and spends all her time laying eggs, one in each cell.

Honey Bee:Worker
Honey bee: Worker

The worker is a female bee. She is shorter than the queen, about 20mm in length. Her ovaries are not developed, therefore, in normal circumstances she cannot lay eggs.

Honey Bee: Drone
Honey bee: Drone

The drone is the male bee. He is bigger and stouter than his female counterparts. He is not quite as long as the queen, but looks bigger because of his shape. His function in life is to mate with the young queen.


Wasps are thin insects with a yellow body colored by black bands. The majority of wasp species (well over 100,000 species) are "parasitic". Almost every pest insect species has at least one wasp species that preys upon it or parasitizes it, making wasps critically important in the natural control of insect numbers, or natural biocontrol.

Hawk Moth
Hawk moth

Hawk moths have a large wingspan (90–130 mm) and are commonly observed raiding beehives for honey at night. They only attack colonies of the honey bee. Their thick cuticles and resistance to venom allow them to enter the hive and move about in hives unmolested because they mimic the scent of the bees.


Hornets are a larger species of wasps. The queen measures 25 to 50 mm long; males and workers are smaller. Hornets are carnivores, feeding on many species of insects considered pests in the garden or on the farm. They are also known to prey on honey bees.

The Africanized honey bee
The Africanized honey bee

The Africanized honey bee is the same species as the European honey bee. Introduced into Brazil from southern Africa, it is adapted to longer warm seasons than are European honey bees. Africanized bees do not store as much honey as European or Western honey bees.

Bumble bee
Bumble bee

The bumble bee is plump and furry, with black and yellow bands around the body and typically larger than a honey bee. They often build nests underground or in trees or thick grass and typically live in smaller colonies than honey bees.

Causes of bee stress

The interaction between agriculture and bees is a sensitive one. The balance is very precise, as is the ecology. Bees feed on pollen and nectar and many crops need bees for pollination; but the agricultural habitat does not always provide optimal living conditions for bees.

While the total number of honey bee colonies globally has increased by approximately 45% since 1969, in the past several years there has been a decline in the health of managed honey bees which has resulted in damage to colonies and populations. Many different possible causes have been suggested. The general scientific consensus is that the health decline is caused by several different factors acting together, principal among them are the parasitic Varroa mite, viruses carried by mites, the gut fungus Nosema ceranae, and the loss of suitable habitats and nutrition. However, these losses are not uniform across the globe and even vary within the countries and regions affected.

Picture of a bee
  • Mites and Parasites

    Honey bees are subject to various mites and parasites and there are several contagious bacterial diseases that attack bee larvae.


    Mites, viruses and diseases, particularly the newly arrived Nosema parasite, Varroa mites and the diseases they carry, have been found in hives throughout Canada. The Varroa mite was first seen in Canadian hives in the 1980s and has clearly become the common factor in bee colony decline in Canada and other parts of the world.

    A microsporidian parasite, Nosema, and several viruses cause dysentery and paralysis in adult bees.

    Three species of blood-sucking parasitic mites are particularly troublesome and are currently affecting wild honey bees worldwide: Varroa; Tropilaelaps and Acarapis. The honey bee tracheal mite lives in the breathing tubes of adult bees; the Varroa mite lives on the outside of larvae and adults.

    These mites have killed thousands of honey bee colonies in Canada during the past ten years.

    Scientific breeding programs are attempting to develop tolerant strains of domestic honey bees to replace the mite-susceptible ones. Some pesticides are available to control mites in the hive; however, mites have developed resistance to some products which has limited their effectiveness.

  • Monoculture and Habitat

    Habitat loss is a major problem for all pollinators. The loss of wildflower habitats and the growth of large areas of monoculture (in which only one crop is grown) are of particular concern.

    Agricultural crop

    In areas with poor biodiversity, including many urban areas, the quantity, availability and quality of nectar and pollen is compromised which can negatively impact nutrition for bees. If gardeners choose landscapes devoid of flowers and plants low in pollen and nectar, bees and other pollinators simply do not have enough food to survive.

    Many types of wild bees are dependent upon particular habitats and wild plants and suffer disproportionately from habitat and biodiversity reduction, whether suburban or agricultural.

    Syngenta supports projects to improve pollinator habitat.

  • Pesticides

    While bees are beneficial insects and not the target organisms of pesticides, some pesticides are toxic to bees and may result in bee deaths if misused and Best Management Practices are not followed.

    agricultural equipment

    Damage to bee health from pesticides has been very limited and is associated with instances of short term acute exposure which are rare occurrences.

    Neonicotinoid-based pesticides have been used safely around the world for more than ten years, including on millions of hectares of Canadian crops.

    Some theoretical research recently has purported to show that pesticides are directly responsible for bee losses, even when applied correctly according to the label. There is no in-field evidence to support this conclusion.

  • Bee/Hive Management

    The continuing presence of the Varroa mite and other parasites and bacteria in bee hives indicates that there is need for more tools to help beekeepers fight these increasingly serious infestations.

    Honey bee hive

    As owners of livestock, whose health is essential to agriculture, beekeepers would benefit from regulations to support bee health. Safety rules for bees are currently almost non-existent.

    Detailed knowledge of and adherence to professional and hygienic hive management and good beekeeping practices is paramount.

    For too long, beekeeping has been an underrated and undervalued profession, and this needs to change.

  • Colony Collapse Disorder

    Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive or honey bee colony abruptly disappear. While not found in Canada, CCD has gained much attention.

    honey comb

    CCD is a very specific phenomenon in which worker bees from a hive or honey bee colony abruptly disappear. While such disappearances have occurred throughout the history of apiculture, the term Colony Collapse Disorder was first applied to a drastic rise in the number of disappearances of honey bees from colonies in the United States in late 2006.

    Multiple possible causes of CCD have been identified. In 2007, some authorities attributed the problem to biotic factors such as Varroa mites and insect diseases (pathogens including Nosema apis and Israel acute paralysis virus). Other proposed causes include environmental change-related stresses, malnutrition, and migratory beekeeping. It has also been suggested that CCD is due to a combination of many factors and that no single factor is the cause.

    It is important to emphasize that, according to the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists, CCD has not been documented in Canada. Nevertheless, beekeepers in Canada have experienced higher than normal levels of overwintering losses due to Varroa mites, Nosema, as well as climatic factors.

  • Malnutrition

    In areas with poor biodiversity, the quantity, availability and quality of nectar and pollen is compromised which can negatively impact nutrition for bees.


    As noted in other sections of this site, the quality of nutrition for bees has been in decline for some years.

    Many native wildflower landscapes, which are important contributors to bee diets, have been lost due to farming practices and suburban building development.

    There are several efforts underway to improve bee nutrition in agricultural areas, including pollinator habitat projects supported by Syngenta. In urban and suburban areas, the planting of wildflowers and native plants (which provide multi-floral food for bees), will help to attract not only bees and butterflies, but also other pollinators and wildlife.

  • Transport

    Long-distance transportation of bees to perform pollination services is known to be a significant stress to bees.

    Truck in flowering field

    Bee rental for pollination is an important element of modern agriculture, which could not otherwise support current production levels with native pollinators alone.

    Transporting bees long distances, to perform pollination services is, however, a well known stress to honey bee colonies.

    Trucking and even flying whole colonies long distances to pollinate crops, where they intermingle with other bees, is suspected of spreading viruses and mites among colonies.

    Additionally, such continuous movement and re-settlement is a strain and disruption for the entire hive, possibly rendering it less resistant to various stress factors, such as disease or mite damage.

  • Climatic Factors

    The variability and inconsistency of seasonal weather patterns has been identified as a key factor in bee health, especially regarding their over winter survival rates. Climatic factors may also explain the arrival in recent years of new pests and predators that were not previously a factor.

    Honey bee hives in winter

    Honey bees are extremely sensitive to changes in the weather. Dry spells or too much continuous rain can negatively affect colony productivity. Higher temperatures and sufficient rainfall lead to increased nectar production in flowers and increased colony productivity. Unseasonably cool temperatures when bees are young will also impact bee health. While some immature bees will die, others will survive but be more susceptible to diseases as adults.

  • Genetics

    Over the centuries, beekeeping may have genetically weakened honey bee colonies. Unlike wild bees, domesticated bees are bred to be less aggressive and produce more honey, which can lead to a progressive weakening in their resistance to pests and diseases.

    Honey bee swarm

    As a result, large numbers of bees come from a few queen mothers, a process which can reduce genetic diversity in managed honey bee populations.

    Domestic and agricultural bee species in particular suffer from a lack of genetic variation, resulting in increased risk of hereditable diseases, loss of vitality or vigour, and heightened susceptibility to infectious diseases.

  • Predators

    Many animals prey upon honey bees, which weaken colonies.

    Image of a bird

    Certain amphibians and birds pick off foragers near the colony entrance and various insects attack adult bees when foraging and may enter the nest or hive and steal larvae. Foxes and bears are also predators and cause significant damage to hives, destroying numerous colonies on a yearly basis.

    For entirely different reasons, the most significant honey bee predators are humans, who are often unaware that most species of honey bee are not aggressive and will not sting unless they feel threatened.