Saving the Bees
Hint: It's Not about Beekeeping
When my father died ten years ago I took up beekeeping. He was a good father, friend, and mentor and his loss hit me hard. While immersed in grief I searched to fill the sadness with a new, environmentally helpful pastime. I stumbled upon beekeeping as something more I could do to help our fraying ecosystem. I spent the next two years learning about beekeeping. I took every class on beekeeping offered by a local university and then continued my learning at a community college. Beyond the classroom I attended hands-on beekeeping classes and connected with someone who was willing to be my mentor.
After all this education, I was convinced that hobby beekeeping was crucially important to saving our environment from pollinator collapse. And I felt I had found my village. My classes were always filled with earnest students equally as concerned as me about the deteriorating state of our planet. After being mentored for a season at an educational apiary, I felt confident enough to set up my own.
My motivation was to help save the planet, not to make honey or collect beeswax. I was just focused on raising as many healthy honey bees as possible so that I could help to be the change I wanted to see in the world. I set up my beeyard by the book. My apiary was located on vacant acreage owned by a friend. It was a great set-up. Lots of open space, a sheltered area in which to set up the hives, and plenty of weedy vegetation for nectar and pollen (turns out honeybees aren’t picky eaters1). An added bonus was that the tree-ringed acreage seemed to be safe from dangerous pesticide drift that might seep in from neighboring properties.
I also tended my hives by the book. I must have done things OK because throughout the summer I kept stacking new hive boxes one on top of the other to house my growing, thriving colony. By the end of my first season of beekeeping the 14,000 honey bees I had purchased for my two hives had grown, by my conservative guess, to at least 80,000 honeybees. It could have even been 100,000 honeybees. Or more. My frames were brimming with filled brood cells. I was amazed to think that just 20 or so healthy hives in the area could potentially grow to introduce one million honey bees into the local community.
In one of my beekeeping classes, the instructor extolled the virtues of bee stings. The more the better, she claimed and talked of the curative properties of honey bee venom. It was suggested the body could build immunity to honey bee venom. So, I never worried much when I got stung. And I got stung a lot. I know some beekeepers who have never gotten stung. I am amazed at people who can tend their bees wearing no more than a head net.
The second season that I kept honey bees I was stung on several more occasions. And just like the instructor stated, my immunity seemed to be strengthening. On the second to the last time I got stung, my arm barely swelled. But the next time I was stung I went into anaphylactic shock that sent me on a confused, hazy drive to a local urgent care (during which time I downed an entire bottle of liquid Benadryl), a timely EpiPen jab, an ambulance ride, an overnight at a hospital, and subsequent years-long immunotherapy. I had developed a severe allergic reaction to honey bees from having been stung too many times.
Despite this unpleasant setback, I was resolved to keep beekeeping and contributing to the environment in a meaningful way. I entered my third year of beekeeping fully invested emotionally. Until the day I read a disturbing article about the plight of native bees. I knew nothing about native bees. Except for bumble bees, I guess. Which I did not think of in terms of being native to a region. They were just out flying around. As were honey bees. But as it turns out honey bees are not native to North America. And they aren’t particularly helpful within our ecosystem. Nor particularly good for native bees. They are an agricultural animal brought from Eurasia as early as the 1630s to provide wax (candles) and honey. Today, they’re a primary pollination tool in traditional agricultural systems.
That third year was the last year I kept honey bees. I couldn’t in good conscience do it anymore. Honey bees aren’t necessary for the pollination of flowers, shrubs, and trees. Or anyone’s home food garden2. Before European settlement, our honey bee-free environment was pollinated just fine. There was no vegetation anywhere in North America that required honey bee pollination. Native bees did that work. Every honey bee you see flying around your landscape lives in a human-tended beehive somewhere, or has fled a human-tended beehive that the human let become too crowded for healthy living conditions. In our urban and suburban communities—mostly devoid of large acreages of regionally native floral resources—there’s a chance that there’s not enough high quality pollen protein (which is necessary for successful reproduction in native bees) to go around for both honey bees and the 460 or so species that are native to Minnesota (4,000 nationwide). Especially if the suburban or urban municipality allows beekeeping.
The one million honey bees I imagined is not a stretch for 20 hives. Beekeepers rarely keep just one hive. Two are often needed to help colonies survive. So imagine the honey bee population in an urban/suburban community with 50, 60, 80, 100 or more residential hives, plus perhaps a large apiary at a nature center, some urban rooftop beekeeping, and mom-and-pop honey making operations. The numbers add up quickly.
“Campaigns encouraging people to save bees have resulted in an unsustainable proliferation in urban beekeeping. This approach only saves one species of bee, the honeybee, with no regard for how honeybees interact with other, native species.”
—Kew Gardens’ State of the World’s Plant and Fungi report
Compare the social honey bee population to the lifecycle of native bees. Ninety percent of native bees live solitary existences, in contrast to the social honey bee. Native bees (also called wild bees) don’t live in hives. Although some native sweat bees have sparsely populated social nests, only one native bee species, the bumble bee, lives communally in notable numbers. Depending on the species, bumble bees typically have underground nests of 250-700 or so offspring, but that is about as big as it gets in the native bee world in the U.S.
In addition to the high population density of honey bee hives relative to native bee’s solitary or sparsely populated nesting habit, the honey bee has a population “leg up” in that hives can live in perpetuity. For example, each year a mated female queen bumble bee emerges solo from her overwintering site and begins the process of building her community from scratch. Honey bee hives that successfully overwinter (more challenging in northern climates), begin foraging anew in the spring with, albeit a reduced population from winter stressors, an existing honey bee colony. And until plants start producing pollen and nectar in the spring, beekeepers nurture their managed hives with “pollen patties” and sugar water, ensuring resources during a delayed springtime warmup—resources that are unavailable to spring native bee populations challenged by the same cold weather.
That a single perennial honey bee hive can potentially grow to accommodate 40,000+ honey bees illustrates how non-native honey bees can tip the environmental scale. Native bees simply don’t reproduce at the outsized pace that honey bees do. Adding more and more hobby honey bee hives in our urban and suburban communities tip that scale further. And it’s a scale that’s easy to tip. As Sheila Colla and Scott MacIvor cite in their Conservation Biology essay, “Questioning public perception, conservation policy, and recovery actions for honeybees in North America,”: “A typical apiary of 40 hives removes the equivalent of the larval mass pollen provisions of 4,000,000 solitary bees.3” Said another way, over the course of a season, just one 40-hive apiary of honey bees forages as much pollen as four million native bees.
“About 20%-45% of native bees are pollen specialists, meaning that they use only pollen from one species (or genus) of plants. If that plant is removed, the bee goes away. If bees are removed, the plant doesn't reproduce. Some of the native bees are specialists on the very plants that we use for food, including squashes, pumpkins, gourds, and the annual sunflower.”—The U.S. Geological Survey
The area where I live, the Twin Cities in Minnesota in the United States, is one of the last places in the country in which the rusty patched bumble bee—listed as a federally endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)—still has a relatively robust population. But, while protected, there are no regulations regarding the number of honey bee hives (density thresholds) that can be placed within a “high potential zone” or within the vicinity of documented rusty patched sightings. Despite the fact that the USFWS cites the honey bee’s transmission of disease to native bees, and the reduced availability of nectar and pollen caused by honey bee foraging as factors in negatively impacting the rusty patched bumble bee and other native bees’ reproductive success, as well as creating nutritional stress that can lead to susceptibility to pathogens, parasites, and disease transmission4.
As honey bees easily forage within a two mile radius of their hives, “vicinity” can encompass an expansive area in a community in which hobby beekeepers tend hives located throughout an urban ecosystem. Native bees don’t fly nearly as far as honey bees. For example, small solitary bees remain within several hundred yards of their nest; bumble bees typically don’t fly further than a mile. The impact footprint of honey bee foraging ranges can be deleterious to native bee populations restricted to much smaller ranges.
Nobody in any of my beekeeping classes ever talked about any of this. In my community college classes, when we weren’t learning about beekeeping, we were engaged in discussions about how to pressure municipalities to change ordinance to allow this hobby.
Hobby beekeeping is a feel-good story that often makes the news. And, it is a nice story. It’s a story of caring people wanting to do something good. It’s a story about community and doing one’s part to “help save the bee.” But the focus is on saving the wrong bee. Honey bees aren’t in danger of extinction. They are bred and then kept in beehives where they can reproduce exponentially. Surely, they face the environmental challenges of deadly pesticide drift, sparse floral resources, pests and diseases, and climate-change stress. But so do native bees. The real story is that urban beekeeping comes with environmental consequences. And emerging research continues to refute the idea that urban/suburban beekeeping is benign.
“As long as you realise that you aren’t doing it to save the bees; in the same way, if you keep chickens next to your beehive you aren’t saving the white-tailed sea eagle.”
--Richard Comont from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust
Want to really help save the bee? Focus on saving native bees. They are crucial to the survival of our local ecosystems. And what is the key to the survival of native bees? Landscapes free of pesticides (which include herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, even mosquito sprays and foggers). And native plants—the ancient regional ecosystem plants that offer native pollinators the right nutrition and the right habitat. Planting native plants in our yards and communities is something many of us can do on some scale. Not using pesticides in our urban/suburban landscapes is decidedly easy.
My desire to engage in meaningful environmental repair started with the honey bee, an important imported animal for agriculture. But as I learned more, I continued on my environmental journey. It wasn’t about the honey bee, I discovered. It was about the native bee and creating “clean” regionally native landscapes for this important pollinator.
A robust collective worldwide effort to create these native landscapes—both big and small—is key to creating ecological balance. And, when it comes to “saving the bee,” it’s necessary to scientifically evaluate these landscapes’ capacities to support native bees’ nutritional needs relative to honey bee density and the honeybee’s intense competition for resources5.
It’s important to always keep learning, studying, asking questions. As new knowledge becomes available, it’s necessary to pay attention. Otherwise, the consequences of one’s good intentions may actually turn out not to be so good.
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By not being “picky eaters,” as generalist foragers, honeybees can impact natural ecosystems. “…honeybees can help non-native plants outcompete native plants by enhancing seed set through pollination (Barthell et al. 2001). Spread of invasive plants can distract native bees from their native plant mutualisms, which can lead to further negative effects on biodiversity (Traveset & Richardson 2006). From Conservation Biology, “Questioning public perception, conservation policy, and recovery actions for honeybees in North America,” Sheila R. Colla and J. Scott MacIvor, September 7, 2016.
Native bees can pollinate all food grown in a home garden and pollinate many plants that honeybees cannot. Over half of native bees have the ability to buzz pollinate. Vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, kiwi, tomatillo, blueberries, and more require buzz pollination to produce healthy fruit. The honeybee does not have the ability to buzz pollinate.
Conservation Biology, “Questioning public perception, conservation policy, and recovery actions for honeybees in North America,” Sheila R. Colla and J. Scott MacIvor, September 7, 2016.
Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis), Endangered Species Act Section 7(a)(2), Voluntary Implementation Guidance, Version 3.1, December 2021, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
In a February, 2020 research article published by PLOS|ONE, “Do honey bee (Apis mellifera) foragers recruit their nestmates to native forbs in reconstructed prairie habitats?” it was concluded that, “In cases where landowners are concerned about competition [from honeybees], they may either want to avoid planting these species [referring to seven native plant taxa honeybees found to be very attractive in late summer in reconstructed prairies] at high densities, or, if their goal is to conserve specialist [native] bees that rely on those species for pollen (ex. Colletes specialists on Dalea), they may want to limit the number of honey bee colonies with access to the prairie planting.”