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The Problem With Honey Bees

Inside a honey bee hive

To many people, honey bees symbolize prosperity, sustainability and environmentalism. Although they are important for agriculture, honey bees also destabilize natural ecosystems by competing with native bees — some of which are species at risk.

The 4,000 wild bee species in the United States have evolved over millions of years to pollinate plants endemic to biodiverse regions. Studies show they consume up to 95 percent of local available pollen. The specialized foragers have already suffered steep declines in part due to climate change, pesticide use, disease, and habitat loss.

Scientists warn that the millions of introduced honey bees pose a risk to native species, outcompeting them for pollen and altering fragile plant communities.

Common Eastern Bumble Bee, Bombus impatiens For some reason, maybe because they are small, honey bees are not generally viewed as the massively distributed livestock animal that they are. There are millions of honey bee colonies in North America, 2.8 million of which are in the U.S. Approximating around 30,000 bees per colony, that’s roughly a billion honey bees in Canada and the U.S. alone — almost triple the number of people.

Nearly 40 federally listed threatened or endangered species of bees, butterflies, and flower flies depend pollinator-friendly plants for their survival. Now, in areas that were once refuges for these species and others, native bees increasingly face competition from millions of domesticated honey bees during pollinating seasons.

“Honey bees are super-foraging machines and they are literally taking the pollen out of the mouths of other bees and other pollinators,” said Stephen Buchmann, a pollination ecologist specializing in bees and an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona. “They have huge extraction efficiency — with the waggle dance and how quickly they can mobilize — and they can very quickly take down the standing stock of pollen and nectar.”

About half of 72 studies addressing competition between managed bees and wild bees analyzed in a 2017 literature review found managed bees negatively impacted native pollinators by consuming limited floral resources. Of 41 studies that looked at the potential effects of managed bees on wild bees through changes in plant communities, 36 percent reported negative impacts and 36 percent positive results, with the remainder finding mixed or no impacts.

Hobby Beekeeping

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, Bombus affinis For some reason, maybe because they are small, honey bees are not generally viewed as The rise in hobby beekeeping, now a trendy activity for hundreds of thousands of Americans, followed strong awareness campaigns to “save the bees.” But as a species, honey bees are least in need of saving. Media attention disproportionately covers them over native pollinators, and murky messaging has led many citizens—myself once included—to believe they are doing a good thing for the environment by putting on a beekeeper’s veil. Unfortunately, they are probably doing more harm than good.

“Beekeeping is for people; it's not a conservation practice,” says Sheila Colla, an assistant professor and conservation biologist at Toronto’s York University, Canada. “People mistakenly think keeping honey bees, or helping honey bees, is somehow helping the native bees, which are at risk of extinction."

Honey Bees On Public Lands

Private honey beekeepers are increasingly eyeing public lands as sources of flower nectar for their commercial honey operations when their spring and early summer crop pollination business winds down. Their desire for low cost public land use is due, in part, to pesticide use on private lands and in part to the withdrawal, for a number of reasons, of historic honey pasture lands in the upper Midwest.

Many public lands lie within the historic distribution of several rare species of native bees which are being considered for listing as threatened or endangered. These species are at a great risk from honey bee invasion. There is already evidence that the honey bee passes the debilitating twisted wing virus to bumble bees.

Here Are The Concerns

1.   Diverse native bee species are instrumental in maintaining ecosystems.

Black and Gold Bumble Bee, Bombus auricomus Native bee species have evolved as pollinators of our diverse flora and are instrumental in maintaining the integrity of our ecosystems. They pollinate the native plant species with which they have evolved, thereby enabling the production of fruit and seeds for wildlife and making possible future generations of the plants from which our ecosystems and watersheds arise.

2.   Non-native honey bees are dominant competitors with native bee species.

Honey bees though invaluable as crop pollinators, are not native to the Americas and have evolved novel social and foraging behaviors which make them dominant competitors of native bees for the pollen and nectar all bees require as food. Their unique forager recruitment behavior enables honey bees to outcompete and displace many native species.

3.  Native bees species are more effective in pollinating native plants with which they have evolved.

Native bee species do a more effective job of pollinating the diverse native flora with which they have evolved than do honey bees. honeybees vary not only in their pollination effectiveness from plant species to plant species but also in their flower preferences. Numerous studies have documented the preference of honeybees for invasive flower species (weeds). . Displacement of natives by honey bees will thus change the mix of seeds produced by resident plants and increase the seeding of unwelcome invasives.

4. Honey bees and native bees are exchanged debilitating diseases

Honey bees are currently under pressure from various disease agents which have impacted the number of hives nationwide. Although research on disease spillover between honey bees and native bees is in its infancy, already several studies have shown that pathogens can be passed to native bees at flowers and elsewhere and that some of these diseases are debilitating to natives.

5.   Federally listed rare and endangered species are threatened by honey bee colonies.

The historic distribution of several rare species of bumblebees in Wisconsin, including the Rusty Patched bumble bee, are at risk. These species are are threatened from a honeybee invasion as there is already evidence that the honey bee passes the debilitating twisted wing virus to bumblebees.

Final Thoughts

But think about them, we must. It was thought that concern over their health and prosperity would spill over onto native bees, benefitting them, too. While this may have happened in some cases, evidence is mounting that misguided enthusiasm for honey bees has likely been to the native bees’ detriment.

References

  Durant, J. L. 2019. Where have all the flowers gone? Honey bee declines and exclusions from floral resources. Journal of Rural Studies 65: 161-171.
  Carril, O.M., Griswold, T., Haefner, J. and Wilson, J.S., 2018. Wild bees of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: richness, abundance, and spatio-temporal beta-diversity. PeerJ, 6, p.e5867.
  Griswold, T., Parker, F.D. and Tepedino, V.J., 1997. The bees of the San Rafael Desert: implications for the bee fauna of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In Learning from the Land, Biology Section. Grand StaircaseEscalante National Monument Science Symposium Proceedings, Cedar City, Utah.
  Cane, J.H. and Tepedino, V.J., 2017. Gauging the effect of honey bee pollen collection on native bee communities. Conservation Letters, 10(2), pp.205-210.
  McAfee, A., 2020. The Problem With Honeybees, Scientific American, November, 2020.

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