Most people that I know don't really like bees (not even the bright, fluffy kind that make honey). Generally speaking, people think that bees are okay *in theory.* However, as soon as someone sees one *in reality,* they start screaming and running and trying to squish them with their shoe.
Admittedly, getting stung by and bee is not the most pleasant thing in the world, but bees are hardly the terrors that they are made out to be. In fact, bees are absolutely necessary to our survival. According to a Cornell University study, the value of honey bee pollination to U.S. agriculture is more than $14 billion annually. There are a number of crops that rely on honey bees -- crops from nuts to vegetables, and as diverse as alfalfa, apple, cantaloupe, cranberry, pumpkin, and sunflower. All of these require pollinating by honey bees. And of course, it's more than just the money. If we want to be able to actually eat any of these items, bees are pretty much a necessity (and I didn't even mention the honey, which we wouldn't have without bees).
So, just how necessary are they? Researchers estimate that one third of the food we eat would not be available if not for bees (for example, in the United Kingdom, about 70 crops are dependent on, or benefit from, visits from bees). In addition to this, bees pollinate an estimated 16% of all the flowering plant species (you might want to remember that the next time you lunge for your shoe).
And you really should remember it, because bees are on the decline. Many researchers assert that they are in danger of disappearing from our environment entirely. One of the primary causes is farming practices that are not environmentally sound. These practices continue to disturb the bees' natural habitats and foraging habits. What's more, once disturbed, the bees don't have enough time to re-establish their colony before farming practices cause them to (once more) have to move on.
Even worse is the use of toxic, bee-killing crop chemicals. The widespread use of these chemicals has contributed to the massive bee die-off phenomenon seen recently, which is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This disorder was first noticed in October 2006, when several beekeepers began reporting losses of 30-90 percent of their hives. Of course, some colony losses are expected; however, not at this magnitude.
Of course, humans are not the only threat. There are specific kinds of mites, parasites, and viruses that have also been plaguing colonies and wreaking severe destruction. Nevertheless, the main point remains: the biosphere is a fragile system, one that we depend on for our survival. Irresponsibly tampering with any part of it could have serious consequences, and not just for humans, but for the whole planet. It is a simple point, one that most of us already know, but it bears repeating. Bees, like every other species, evolved as part of a system--a system that every living organism depends on for survival. And although species naturally die off from time to time, the extreme impact that humans have had in recent decades has tipped the balance in such a way that the entire biosphere is upset, and many species cannot keep up. The accelerated rate of extinction (and the declining numbers that we see across the board) is alarming to say the least.
Want to know what you can do to help? It's really rather simple: know where your food comes from. Spend a little time researching how it is produced, and if harmful chemicals are used as a part of pest control. Also, start your own garden. The easiest way to ensure that you are not contributing to the very problematic mass farming enterprise is to produce your own food. Also, eat local (see this Time article for more info. on what you can do).
I will leave you with this quote from environmental conservationist and bee expert Dr. Reese Halter: "To begin to tantalize your wonderment of this critter — the next time any one of us takes a hearty teaspoon of honey, would you believe that that's 6,000 miles, 10,000 kilometers, that a dozen bees have spent their entire foraging lives (three weeks, seven days a week working) to make that one teaspoon."