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Why Ecologists Don’t Love Honeybees

In recent years, environmental scientists have become increasingly critical of beekeepers and their honeybees. Yet, many eco-pressure groups and popular media outlets have been pushing the narrative that honeybees are on the verge of extinction and desperately need to be “saved”. What are the facts behind these wholly opposing views?

Honeybees are not facing extinction

Let’s start by establishing that honeybees are, definitively, not on the verge of going extinct. As a human-farmed creature, global honeybee numbers have increased steadily since the United Nations began monitoring hives in the 1960s. In fact, even the shocking 2006 ‘colony collapse disorder’ (CCD) identified in the US caused nothing more than a tiny blip in numbers as bee farmers bred to cover their losses.1

However, despite steadily growing honeybee numbers, colony deaths have still been at high levels in recent years - as high as 44% in some instances, including an increase in deaths during the summer. This only highlights the fact that the number of colonies is only stable because beekeepers can continuously replace colonies through breeding programs.2

It’s also important to recognise that honeybees do not represent the majority of bee species. In reality, honeybees only represent eight out of around 20,000 bee species worldwide.3,4 The solitary bees and bumblebees that make up over 99% of our bee species are wild and do not make honey in the traditional sense. The clue is in the name - it’s the honeybees who produce our beautiful honey.

 Carniolan honey bees (Apis mellifera carnica) crawling on a honeycomb. (Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images)
 Carniolan honey bees (Apis mellifera carnica) crawling on a honeycomb. (Frank Bienewald / LightRocket via Getty Images)

What is a ‘honeybee’?

Honeybees are flying, social insects that typically live together in nests or hives. While all bees feed on the sweet, watery nectar from flowers, honeybees dehydrate this nectar to produce ‘honey’– a sugary super-saturate ideal for storing and feeding the colony during winter or in difficult times. To stay warm, they retreat to their hives and form clusters - staying active throughout the year. Wild bumble bees, on the other hand, only store a smaller amount of nectar to last shorter periods and will remain active as a colony for the few warmer months of the year. In the autumn, mated bumblebee queens will look to hibernate to make it through the colder winter months. Unfortunately, the rest of the colony is not able to survive the dropping autumn temperatures and will die before the winter.5

Although honeybees represent just 0.03% of all bee species, their unusually large colonies, with up to 70,000 individuals in a strong hive, mean they can quickly become the dominant bee in any environment. Hold that thought, as this becomes an increasingly important factor as we explore the bee conundrum from an ecological standpoint.

Ancient Egyptian frescos depicting a scene of beekeeping from 672 - 525 BC. Tomb of Pasaba, Ancient Thebes. (DEA / G. LOVERA/De Agostini via Getty Images)
Ancient Egyptian frescos depicting a scene of beekeeping from 672 - 525 BC. Tomb of Pasaba, Ancient Thebes. (DEA / G. LOVERA / De Agostini via Getty Images)

The sacred bee

Culturally and emotionally, humans have always glorified the honeybee for its industrious nature, its social and matriarchal society, and that near-magical substance that we call honey. As early humans pillaged indigenous honeybees’ stores, we quickly learned how to domesticate the honeybee and harness their production.6 Honey was deemed so precious as a food and medicine, that it was seen by many of our ancestors as a gift from the gods. Bees and honey are celebrated in the sacred books of all major religions, including the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, and the Rig Veda.7

This was centuries before the British amateur scientist Arthur Dobbs first recognised bees’ vital role as pollinators in the 1750s, fertilising plants as they feed among them.8 Today, this pollinating role is so vital that almost 35% of the fruits and vegetables we eat require pollination by animals like bees.9 In addition to pollinating our food, bees also help plants and trees grow - which are essential to maintaining clean, breathable air. Sadly, pesticides and climate change now threaten many wild bee species - not just honeybees. When the “Save The Bees” mantra is mentioned, most people think of honeybees, despite the fact that we now have well over 90 million hives worldwide.1

Why have environmental scientists become hostile to honeybees?

Honeybees have a unique adaptability to new food sources, new climates and new terrain.10 While these characteristics are beneficial to honey producers, they’re a serious cause of concern for native ecosystems and the scientists who study them. This is especially true for Western (or ‘European’) Honeybee, a species which is actually native to Asia. The Western Honeybee now thrives on every continent except Antarctica, largely thanks to the honey trade. Its numerous colonies, extensive feeding range and manageable temperament make the Western Honeybee a cash cow, farmed globally for honey, wax and crop pollination services. As much as people might like to consume the produce of the honeybee, it remains an alien species in territories where it has been introduced by humans.10

Pitted against the continually increasing populations of hived honeybees are our native wild bees. In contrast to their honeybee cousins, most solitary and bumblebee species remain minutely attuned to their native terroir, foraging on specialist native plants, usually located close to their small nests where they raise just tens or low hundreds of offspring. Wild bees are intricately linked to the landscapes to which they belong, supporting the balance and biodiversity of native flora, which, in turn, feeds the native fauna.

Along the way, they, too, pollinate countless human and animal food crops. Among them are tomatoes and apples, which cannot be pollinated by honeybees but are better pollinated by wild species. This is a clear example of how bee biodiversity is essential in maintaining strong food chains.11,12

Why are wild bee species in decline?

With the exception of some commercially managed bumblebee species, which are highly valuable in agriculture as pollinators of a wide range of common crops - a sustainability concern in itself as commercial bumblebees can spread disease to wild populations - wild bee numbers cannot be artificially boosted through breeding programmes.13 In any case, many of them are almost invisible in the landscape, living their life cycles largely unnoticed - making them difficult to monitor.

With their dependence on naturally occurring food sources and nest sites, wild bee species are also particularly susceptible to the ill effects of industrialised farming. With large open fields, wide-spread monocropping and heavy use of associated agrichemicals, wild bees lose crucial habitat needed for survival. Unlike honeybees in moveable hives, they also can’t be transported to cleaner, more biodiverse environments. Moreover, wild bee species can’t outcompete the thousands of honeybees for shared food resources, nor are they suited to finding alternatives.14

Another side effect of introducing honeybees is their ability to rapidly alter entire ecosystems by boosting particular plant species, including invasive weeds. There are also concerns about pathogen transmission between farmed hives and wild bee species, as nothing is stopping the two species from coming into contact.13 All of this adds up to an increasingly strident ecological movement which supports native (wild) bees and is fundamentally opposed to honeybees. This has already led to beekeeping bans in some delicate landscapes, including national parks in Cuba and Australia, particularly in New South Wales and South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, where they are listed as a key threat to biodiversity.15

A beekeeper installs a new bee hive on an urban rooftop garden in London, England. The UK has an estimated 274,000 bee colonies producing an average of 6000 tonnes of honey per year.
A beekeeper installs a new bee hive on an urban rooftop garden in London, England. The UK has an estimated 274,000 bee colonies producing an average of 6000 tonnes of honey per year. An estimated 44,000 beekeepers manage these hives with each one containing around 20,000 bees. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

The future of honeybees

The anti-honeybee movement is building rapidly, but it’s hard to see how it’s going to play out in the short term. Whilst wild bee species are increasingly recognised as key pollinators, millions of beekeepers across the world (including many desperately poor communities) depend on hived honeybees for their livelihoods and as a food source. In addition to the legions of hobby beekeepers, many people are understandably shocked by mounting accusations of negative environmental impact associated with the honeybee. Adding further complexity, so many foods we take for granted are the product of commercially organised honeybee pollination.16

We need to preserve all ~20,000 types of bees for the ecological roles they respectively play, including the honeybees, but we must achieve a better balance between wild bees and those kept in hives. It will only be possible if we all (including hobby and commercial beekeepers the world over) gain a deeper understanding of the pros and cons of honeybees. Rather than relying on sentiment, we must build our knowledge on science and emphasise wild bees and other vital insect pollinators before their numbers fall below addressable levels. It's not science fiction, but a reality in parts of China where agrochemical pollution has wiped out insect life, requiring hand pollination of orchards.

Read about the hand-pollinated orchards in Sichuan, China.

How can we help?

The three primary factors contributing to multi-species bee decline are habitat loss, diminishing floral resources (food), and chemical exposure. In light of this, ecologists, environmentalists, and conservationists are urging us to plant to encourage the growth of pollinator-friendly species - a quick Google will help you identify appropriate plants in your region. Supporting or being directly involved in growing is the most powerful and direct thing that we can do to boost bees and other pollinators.16

Improving ecosystems doesn’t require huge spaces. Even window boxes, patios and balconies can provide bees with forage. However, how we grow matters; ideally, we should garden organically or only use a small amount of chemicals. Both farmers and gardeners are increasingly recognising the importance of gentle organic and regenerative approaches to sustainability and biodiversity. These approaches support plant and animal health from the ground up.17, 18, 19, 20

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References
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