It seems that almost every day we see reports in the news about how bees are in decline, and that something needs to be done to help bees. Public concern over the issue is at a high level. Even vegans are advocating creating honeybee hives, even if not to consume their honey.
But is this the best way to help bees? Are we even concerned about the right species?
Here I will take a look into what is really happening, how honey production hurts pollinators in general, and what we can do to really help bees.
Which bees are we talking about?
The commonest misunderstanding when talking about issues affecting bees, is that most people immediately think of honeybees.
Honeybees are in fact just one species of bee in the UK, out of over 250 bee species, and one that has been selectively bred by humans over centuries to produce more honey, in a similar way that dairy cows have been bred to produce more milk (its a bit more difficult to selectively breed bees though, because controlling which bees mate with a queen is harder than controlling which bull mates with a cow!).
So honeybees are a domesticated and farmed species, and hardly any wild honeybee colonies are found in the UK, in fact its not even native to the UK at all.
So when recent headlines talk about bee colony collapse and declining bee populations, they are not actually referring to the honeybee, the population of which is almost entirely under human control. Historically there have been problems that have affected honeybee colonies and caused fluctuations in their numbers, but overall honeybee populations are on the rise, as the number of bee keepers rises.
The bees that are actually under threat today are wild bee species, such as mason bees, solitary bees, mining bees.
Why are wild bees important?
Wild bees such as solitary bees do not live in colonies, have a queen or produce honey. But they are better pollinators than honeybees, by a factor of 2 to 3 times, even for food crops. Variations between the species, such as the length of their tongues, means they visit a wider variety of plants to gather nectar and pollen, and thus pollinate a wider variety of species. Compared to honeybees, very little research has so far been undertaken into the importance of wild bees, but some crops such as pears, peaches, plums, and apples are known to be mostly dependent on wild bees.
Why are wild bees in decline?
There is a triple threat to wild bees: loss of habitat, increasing use of insecticides and pesticides, and climate change.
With a growing human population, more and more wild land is being given over to industrial agricultural systems with its inherent use of insecticides and pesticides. And even without these bee killing chemicals, many of the crops that replace wild habitats do not offer anything for pollinators – wheat, corn, rye, barley, and oats are wind pollinated and do not provide nectar or pollen for bees.
Climate change, with its associated disrupting effect on temperatures, rain fall patterns and weather extremes, can change the lifecycles of pollinators and even the plants on which they depend.
What’s the problem with having more honeybees?
The main problem with creating more honeybee hives is that honeybees compete with the wild bee population for the dwindling number of wild plants that provide the nectar and pollen they need. In commercial honey hives, the honeybees are actively helped by the bee keeper (at least while the hive is producing honey!), which gives them an advantage over wild bees, which rely on undisturbed land or the dried stems of dead plants for nesting.
Mismanagement of honeybee hives, especially by inexperienced bee keepers who are trying “to help the bees” can spread bee diseases, such as viruses and mites, from honeybee hives to wild bee populations.
So despite the honey industry hijacking our rightful concern over bees to convince us to buy more honey, buying honey or creating honeybee hives is not the answer, and may even make the situation worse.
So how can we really help bees?
So if honey is not part of the solution to helping bees, what can we do to help wild pollinators?
One thing we need to try to do is redress the loss of wild habitat. If you have a garden, or access to a piece of land, planting native wild plant species will provide much needed food for bees (and butterflies too). Even urban and suburban areas are becoming important to wild pollinators, as habitat in “the countryside” is increasingly intensively farmed. Even flowers on a windowsill can help.
And if you are lucky enough to have a garden, consider creating a bee hotel, drilling holes in south-facing posts or walls, leaving an area of undisturbed land and not removing dead plant stems over winter, but waiting until spring, and avoiding the use of pesticides. (more tips for helping wild bees in the “About Solitary Bees” link below).
Of course, just being vegan is an excellent way to help too. As we know, the vegan lifestyle requires less land and other resources – if there was mass uptake of veganism there would be less pressure on the land, as well as reducing the number one contributor to climate change – animal agriculture.
See also: “Why honey isn’t vegan” for information about the ethical concerns over honey.
Links for further reading:
- How the Bees You Know are Killing the Bees You Don’t: https://insidescience.org/news/how-bees-you-know-are-killing-bees-you-don’t
Think Of Honeybees As “Livestock” Not Wildlife, Argue Experts: https://www.enn.com/articles/53760
- Keeping honeybees doesn’t save bees – or the environment – https://theconversation.com/keeping-honeybees-doesnt-save-bees-or-the-environment-102931
Loss of wild flowers matches pollinator decline: http://www.enn.com/top_stories/article/49344
- Wild pollinators at risk due to diseased commercial bees: https://www.enn.com/articles/48188
- About solitary bees: https://www.growwilduk.com/wildflowers/bees-pollinators/all-about-solitary-bees