Mixed feelings about honey bees

Spring is swarm season for honeybees, and the feral population in Tucson is booming. We’ve got not one but two new colonies nesting in dead trees in our yard. I didn’t do anything to attract them, they just moved in on their own.

My feelings about honey bees are mixed. On one hand, I have many fond memories of working as a beekeeper back when I was in Peace Corps. There’s something exhilarating about opening a hive, feeling the vibration of thousands of little wings, the scent of honey and wax thick in the air. Bees are charismatic creatures, and although I worked with them pretty much constantly for two years, I never quite got over the novelty of peering into their fascinating alien lives.

The positive emotion I feel towards honey bees is tempered by the reality of what the species actually does here in the Americas. The notion of the honey bee as an integral component of our natural ecosystem is something of a myth.

In truth, honey bees are the rats among pollinators. Cute and fuzzy though the bees may be, our heavy subsidy of a single-species bee monoculture is undoubtedly a factor in the spread of invasive weed plants and the decline and extinction of scores of other bee species. Our native bees, fine pollinators in their own right, are having to compete against syrup-boosted truckloads of industrial honey bees at the same time as we bulldoze their habitat for new housing, and they aren’t faring well.

For this reason I just can’t get worked up over “colony collapse disorder“. Yes, I know farmers need the pollinators, and that colony collapse disorder is adding to the already high cost of food.  But this problem is not some unforseen tragedy of nature.  It’s not even about nature.  It’s about a predictable byproduct of industrial agriculture.  If nothing else, colony collapse disorder simply serves to highlight the problems with relying on a single imported species for all our pollination.

In any case, the feral Africanized bees in Tucson are buzzing along just fine.  I was happy to have the opportunity for another photographic project.  The photos at the top of the post and below were taken at sunset, with a handheld strobe as a fill flash.  One nest is partly open at the entrance, allowing for easy shooting of the bees on their combs.

13 thoughts on “Mixed feelings about honey bees”

  1. small great creatures and complete comunity
    do you know that there is a chapter named honey bees (Al-nahl) in Quraan and also it has many uses for curing disease
    Glory for our creator
    peace salam

  2. parallelsidewalk

    I used to live in Tucson and I remember there seemed to be some attacks every year.

    Like the photography.

  3. I just recently received an email that said if you put a cent (penny) on a bee sting and tape it on for 15 minutes that the
    sting will disappear right away and there will only be a tiny hole
    on the skin in 15 minutes! So far we haven’t any bees to try it
    out but I’d rather not have to try this. Sounds interesting and some of these odd “potions” do seem to work! Let me know if it
    works! Mel

  4. Regarding the “penny on a sting” thing: if a person gets stung by bees often enough that they need to find a remedy, they are likely to be desensitized to the stings enough that the sting pain will be gone after about 15 minutes anyway (at least, that’s how long it takes me for the pain to fade to the point where I have a hard time finding the sting). This sounds rather like the benefit is that the person distracts themselves from the pain by hunting up a penny and some tape, and by the time they finish, the pain is gone. I suppose it beats standing there gritting their teeth until the pain fades, though.

  5. I have mason bees that seem to be quite happy working as pollinators, and they don’t require anywhere near the attention of honey bees. However, I do miss the honey, and I always thought that was the reason we had a monoculture: we’ve bred the best bees for producing honey, and they just happen to be useful pollinators too.
    Orchards don’t do a very good job of supporting native bees either. They’re in bloom for maybe two weeks, then the bees have to find a new food source. Most orchards are heavily treated with pesticides, so any bees that stay in the area after bloom are likely to bring poisons back to the colony.

  6. Thaddeus Dombrowski

    Where were you in the peace corps?

    I am an RPCV, Lesotho, ’87-’88. I used to keep bees. I also lived in Tucson before moving back to Phoenix. A little bit of wierd synchronicity.

  7. I think I’ve seen at least two hour long TV documentaries on “Colony Collapse” and didn’t learn as much as in your two paragraphs. Thanks.
    I think I’ll have to become a regular reader, your photos are great too.

  8. I am in total agreement with Myrmecos on this one. As on who studies native bees. I can tell you from first hand experience what a devastating impact honey bees have had on the native populations. Even in areas where there is no agriculture, if the are honeys bees the natives are about gone or at the very least limited in activity periods.

  9. It is all true, but the fact still is that we need someone to pollinate the crops and, with the local pollinator fauna heaving difficulties (as in most heavily urbanized countries), Apis mellifera does the job.

    Also, are there studies that show the negative impact of A mellifera on other pollinators?

  10. Hand pollimation can controle some genetic qualities of crops and was excellent if it was controlled (by bagging flowers), while bees, ants, wind, Apis, … wee chance pollinators so you could not get what you want or rarely
    Bees are complete community were created to teach us

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