Honey is one of our earliest sources of sweetness. Depictions of humans gathering honey date back 15,000 years. The word “honey” pops up in the Bible 61 times. Jars of honey were discovered in King Tut's tomb. In Henry V, written in 1599, Shakespeare pointed out that we have much to learn from the social insects, whose colonies can number up to 80,000 individuals. “For so work the honey-bees,” he said. “Creatures that by a rule in nature teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom.”
For as long as honeybees and humans have coexisted, the latter have been fascinated by the former.
Today, the honeybees’ work—and our fascination with it—is more important than ever. One-third of the world’s food supply is dependent on the pollination honeybees provide. But harsh environmental changes, rampant use of pesticides, and the spread of diseases are causing bees to die off at an alarming rate. In the past year, American beekeepers have reported losing, on average, an astounding 42.1 percent of their hives. (Read more: What happens if honeybees disappear?)
What can you do? Plenty! Plant or volunteer in a bee-friendly garden. Attend meetings of your local beekeepers’ association. If you spy a swarm, call a beekeeper—not an exterminator—to remove it. And keep your own bees. Regardless of where you live, there’s probably a place where you can keep bees. “Everyone should have two or three hives of bees,” Sue Hubbell writes in A Book of Bees. “Bees are easier to keep than a dog or a cat. They are more interesting than gerbils. They can be kept anywhere. A well-known New York City publisher keeps bees on the terrace of his Upper East Side penthouse, where they happily work the flowers in Central Park.”
At National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., we have two hives of bees on a balcony overlooking the Washington Monument, just down the street from the hives at the White House.
In 2009, the United States Department of Agriculture declared that the third Saturday of every August would be recognized as National Honeybee Day. We put together some of our favorite photos of the beautiful insect to celebrate its importance in our lives and to raise awareness of its plight.
Editor's note: This story originally published August 15, 2015. It has since been updated.