Our Better Nature: Put the Brakes on Honey Bees – Our Future Depends on It

Honey bees are causing grave – and in some cases irreversible – harm to the environment.

Honey bee hives (Shutterstock)

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In addition to being a reliable source of honey, not to mention personal satisfaction, backyard beekeeping can be a rich learning experience for the whole family. And yet at the same time, honey bees are causing grave – and in some cases irreversible – harm to the environment. It’s imperative that beekeepers learn about the threats to native pollinators posed by honey bees and actively work to mitigate the damage as much as possible.

Just to be clear, honey bees are an invasive species whose population is burgeoning. They certainly don’t need our help to survive. It’s true they’re vital to industrial-scale agriculture like California’s almond farms, which are the largest in the world, and Florida’s citrus groves. Although honey bees are relatively poor pollinators, they’re the only one that can be transported in great numbers.

Outside of the vast, sterile plantations of Big Ag, honey bees don’t measurably boost pollination rates, according to a multi-year Cornell University study. Led by Dr. Scott McArt, a bee specialist at Cornell’s Dyce Lab for Honey Bee Studies, the team concluded honey bees had an insignificant effect on pollination in nearly all of New York State’s apple orchards studied. The 110 species of wild bees the researchers cataloged on apple blossoms did the real work.

The problem with honey bees is that they displace, and sometimes extirpate, native bees. A long-running Concordia University study noted that honey bee hives on the island of Montreal, Quebec skyrocketed from less than 250 in 2013 to nearly 3,000 by 2020. During that time, the overall number of wild native bees across 15 sites dropped by an average of 1,200 per sample. Far more concerning was the loss of diversity: In 2013, 163 species of wild bees were documented. In 2020, that number was 120. Forty-three species of native bees disappeared from the record in seven years because of honey bees. That’s huge.

For years, professional beekeepers in the UK have been asking the public to moderate the recent “outbreak” of hives, which is putting native bees at risk. The London Beekeepers’ Association expressed concern that “The prevailing ‘save the bees’ narrative is often based on poor, misleading or absent information about bees and their needs. It can imply that keeping honeybees will help bees.” In fact, there is now a global push, led by current and former beekeepers, to limit honey bee populations in order to save wild bees, which do practically all the pollinating in the world.

One could dismiss such pleas from professional beekeepers as self-serving, but Andrew Whitehouse of the insect conservation group Buglife agrees that the public’s unfettered embrace of honey bees is having dire consequences. He told The Guardian, “We know the main reason native pollinators are in decline is a lack of wildflowers in our countryside and urban areas. To increase competition for limited resources puts a huge pressure on the wild pollinators.”

Honey bees also spread disease to wild bees and other kinds of pollinators. Wild bumblebees (there are domesticated ones) are succumbing to a fungal parasite called Nosema ceranae, as well as a virus that causes wing deformities, both of which were passed from honey bees through shared flowers.

Even the loudest critics of backyard beekeeping don’t want to see it banned. But anyone who likes the notion of a hive on their rooftop or back lot needs to remember the wildflowers in any locale are already spoken for by native pollinators. A meadow in bloom is not virgin territory that honeybees are free to exploit without impact. When a non-native species arrives in large numbers, there will always be repercussions.

It is a moral imperative that beekeepers big and small compensate for the nectar and pollen their honey bees consume in a season. Wild bees were there first, and relied on the existing forage to survive. If you keep bees, provide about one acre of flowering plants per hive. This is essential to keeping native pollinators healthy.

Flowers that bloom at different times, grow to various heights, and have a multitude of floral structures and colors will serve the greatest diversity of native pollinators. Very often, this can be achieved by simply letting things go wild. Maybe cut back (so to speak) on mowing. Choose some areas to mow once a year in late fall, and others to cut every second or third year.

Bumblebees, which are four times more effective at pollinating than honey bees, often nest in rock piles and old foundations, things that tend to get “tidied up” as rural areas get more populated. Mason bees make use of all types of unkemptness for their nests. Since both kinds of bees are super-pollinators, a small decrease in their population is worrisome. A change in mindset regarding aesthetics will go a long way toward saving bees of all stripes.

Lastly, if you don’t have land on which to grow wildflowers, please curb your enthusiasm. Seriously. Divesting is best, but cutting back is good, too. Perhaps one hive can suit your needs, rather than two or three.

For more information on making your property more hospitable to native pollinators, visit the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation website.

Paul Hetzler was a longtime Horticulture and Natural Resources Educator for Cornell Extension.

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Comments

  1. If your theories are correct, why are beekeeping educators still teaching such notions as “Without the Honey bee pollinators we would lose 1/3 of the items in our diet.

    Please reference some valid research to back up your report.

  2. Seems to be pointing a finger in the wrong direction. Insect populations are reduced across the board by huge amounts of insecticide use. Look at your windshield after driving on a long trip. Mostly clean.
    Commercial beekeepers have a federal fund to collect on bee losses from agricultural pollinating. Their losses average 25% per season due to heavy insecticide use. Most orchards can’t sustain their own bees, due to their insecticide use. There is no way that this is not a huge factor in declining native pollinators, as well.

  3. Shelly, you have no idea what constitutes a species. And you seemingly don’t know what is meant by the term “native bee.” That doesn’t mean a captured swarm, which is what I think you’re thinking it is (but honestly I don’t really know what you mean by “find in sharm”.

    That said, I have some reservations about this article. Author notes that honey bee colonies explode at the same time 40ish native bee species are not counted in the register. Sure, that’s a correlation. But final sentence of the paragraph says the honeybee boom /caused/ the decline. That’s bad statistical reasoning. Correlation =/= causation. Also it doesn’t quite make sense to me how if honeybees are such a poor pollinator that they outcompete other species so easily. In my experience my bees (I have four and a half hives) are very rarely working the same plants. This is because of bees flower fidelity; each bee will pollinate the same kind of flower all day. This is why they are a poor pollinator; lack of cross pollen, makes the pollen a given honeybee brings in less useful for the plant. But this also means that those bees are passing over every other flower, which makes them inefficient. So I fundamentally don’t understand how they can behave like this and still outcompetes native bees so handily.
    This is an honest point of confusion, not a rhetorical question.

    The apple thing doesn’t make sense to me; apple orchards are one of the monocultures that honeybees are regularly brought in specifically to pollinate because there’s not enough biodiversity in the orchards to sustain native bees. So, is everything we know (or I think I know, at least) about apple orchard biodiversity and pollination needs wrong and those orchards actually don’t rely on honeybees? That’s really good news if so, but…

    And don’t get me wrong, 100% agree that the save the honey bees narrative is misleading the public for what species of bees are actually threatened and actually more important for capital n Nature; keeping honey bees to save nature is about the same as keeping backyard chickens to help the declining bird population. Yes, technically you’re adding four more birds, but kind of missing the bigger picture. But this article gives me some reservations. and also I don’t think it’s accurate to say that bees, which are a managed non-native species that tends to succumb to starvation and disease if left to their own devices, are an invasive species. Non-native species are not the same as invasive species, those two terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably. I don’t think bees fit the criteria for invasive, and I would like to see an argument for that rather than just the statement made.

    Thanks for trying to check the “save the bees” narrative, though. It does need to be reigned in.

  4. @AP a quick Google will give you quite a bit of good information on the impact of honey bees on parasite populations in bumblebees. It is a real problem. Varroa can be spread bee to bee through flowers, so saying the fact that the pathogens come from varroa not bee to bee is semantics.

    I think the point here, assuming you’re a beekeeper, is not to get rid of honey bees, but to do some research into how you can improve your garden space and manage your bees to help them live better side by side with native bees, which are, bee for bee, better pollinators, and important to keep around.

  5. Either you purposely mislead people or you’re the most ignorant horticulturist to ever write an article. The virus that causes wing deformities is from the Varroa destructor mite and it is NOT spread from bee to bee but from blood born pathogens of the varoa mite. I would also like to see your information on nosema in bumblebees. As far as the study on the pollination of New Yorks apple trees, I suspect there was something else the bees preferred at the time as they are opportunistic. That finding is nonsense.
    Ask any farmer or gardener within a 2 mile radius of someone keeping hives how their crops have flourished.

  6. This is crazy some people are you going to believe this. Did you know that the queen bee from a different hive will leave her hive and find drones from a different hive to mate with them to keep interbreed from happening. So there a new species of bee. As for bee keepers. Did you know a lot of bee keepers get native bee that they find in sharm.

  7. Paul, you are a n educated NUT! And this forum a TOTAL waste of time and space!

  8. Fantastic article, Paul. I’d never heard of something seemingly as harmless as honey bees causing environmental harm. It’s almost always something caused by mankind; who else?! I hope though, this message gets to the right people that will fix this.

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