Honey Bees Are Not Essential to Our Ecosystem

Honey bees are lovely creatures. I’m rather fond of them, and for that reason I keep a couple hives and teach a beekeeping class at the University.

But I’m not so fond that I can stomach this sort of meaningless new-agey crap:

Bees are not just commercial pollinators. They are intrinsic to the ever-unfolding miracle of nature. Sometimes in the summer I go out to the blackberry patch in our front yard, and watch the bees. They remain endlessly fascinating to me. And yet, if CCD isn’t halted, nobody will be going out to watch bees. A massive die-off will change the face of nature, and will be one more devastating insult to the global biosphere.

If gloom-and-doom commentators are correct, the Americas must once have looked like this:

An artist's depiction of the American landscape, prior to the introduction of European honey bees in 1622.

The honey bee was brought to our continent by European settlers in the 1600’s. Before then, our ecosystems functioned with several thousand species of native bees. Many of which are still around. You might know them as bumble bees, mining bees, leafcutting bees, and others.

Colony Collapse Disorder– which affects only honey bees- is a serious problem. Many fruit & nut crops depend on honey bee pollination. But the loss of a third of honey bee colonies is primarily a concern for agricultural interests. Our ecosystems are not going to unravel just because a single imported species gets less common.

/rant

36 thoughts on “Honey Bees Are Not Essential to Our Ecosystem”

  1. I have noticed that in our suburban garden. Last year the flowers were visited more by wild bees than domestic. This year I noticed only our flowering maple drawing in domestic bees, while the garden flowers were still being visited by mostly wild bees and flies. I imagine many of the gloom n’ doomers aren’t really paying attention to what kind of pollinator they are viewing.

  2. I completely agree with you. I think what the article should have focused on is how poor the environment is around most of our farm land. Honey Bees are the “ideal” pollinator in that their hives are perennial with high populations, easy to divide, and conveniently nest in boxes that can be shipped in and out as needed. The hive also doubles as a crop in itself by producing honey.

    I suppose mason, and leaf cutter bees would replace honey bees commercially.

    1. I was going to add something like “We’re doing a fine job of destroying our ecosystems in other ways”, but that interrupted the flow of my original rant…

  3. Yes, I was looking at a blooming chokecherry tree in our yard this spring, and only about a quarter (or maybe only an eighth) of the pollinators were honeybees – in spite of the fact that *I had an active beehive not 100 feet away from that tree*! Heck, half of the pollinators weren’t even *bees*, there were at least two kinds of bee-mimic flies going after the flowers, too.

    I actually wonder whether it would be practical to raise and release masses of drone flies like Eristalis tenax for, say, almond pollination, instead of mucking around with honeybees. Their rat-tailed maggots are already cultivated for fish bait (they are marketed as “mousies”), so they should be easy enough to raise.

    1. I find honey bees actually get distracted easily by some plants. I think when the foragers find a great big tree/forest of blooms that waggle dance they do causes all the other foragers to over look sources of food more local to the hive. For a farm this can be ideal.

      All our native pollinators don’t really have any way of telling the others where the food is. They’re either solitary by nature, or would rather pollinate at random and learn from experience where the best food sources are. (Though I have seen predatory wasps hunting in pairs, I don’t think they pollinate much.)

  4. Although honey bees are not native, neither are most of the crops we are trying to pollinate.

    I believe there are plenty of native pollinators here that can do the job, provided we take care of their environment. But it is sort of unfair to point to honey bees and yell “alien!” when . . . well . . . so are we.

  5. Well, be careful in saying CCD only affects honey bees…other social bees may be undergoing the exact same phenomenon (albeit with different parasites). We just can’t observe it!

  6. Laughed out loud at the picture/caption!

    Although an evil, invasive species, I don’t actually have anything against the honeybee (and from what I’ve heard varroa has taken out most of the feral honeybees in NA anyway) or even against raising drone flies (if I remember correctly, Eristalis tenax is another introduced species – doesn’t it mimic a honeybee?).

    The idea of raising rat-tailed maggots for pollination is interesting, but at least in Alberta, the adults seem to be around only late in the season. Also, visiting flowers and being a pollinator are pre-requisites for, but not sufficient in themselves, to keep us in fruits and vegetables. Many native bees would have too narrow a time and/or host ranges to be much use to us. Flower flies and the like are probably nowhere near as efficient for crop pollination as honeybees, bumblebees, and a few others. So if we do lose Apis mellifera through poor management, maybe the vegetable and fruit bins in our grocery stores will look something like the picture above.

  7. To play devil’s advocate: the loss of European honeybees won’t mean that we get North America in its pre-colonial state. It will mean that we get the North America that we have now, minus European honeybees. My understanding (though someone please correct me if I’m wrong) is that native bee populations have been decimated in many areas, and that, if they don’t get pollinated by European honeybees, a lot of native plants might now not get pollinated at all.

    However, to play devil’s advocate against that devil’s advocate, it’s true that altogether too many folks out there want CCD to be the new “Silent Spring”.

  8. Honeybees are the only pollinators that have been extensively studied. Its not known how native pollinators are faring, though the National Academy of Sciences believes they are declining as well. Its reckless at best to assume that natural pollinators are immune to the problems of the honey bee without studies. Bats are also suffering a huge die off even more alarming than honeybees and they can be considered native pollinators. Honeybees are considered an indicator species and the indication is that the environment is in trouble.

    1. I agree with you, RR. My point is I find it dismaying that in the midst of wholesale environmental destruction- which includes native pollinators- people fixate on the decline of what is essentially a farm animal.

  9. They are much like farm animals now, but they werent when I started. Before the onset of the mites you really didnt have to feed bees or treat them much. The environment took care of everything. Wild honeybees were everywhere . Today with my hive, I feel like Im constantly nursing a sick patient . And its not just the mites. There’s not the fall harvest that there used to be here in Virginia and the warm winters deplete honey stores. Beekeepers now largely work to keep bees alive which does make them like farm animals. For me CCD is is wake up call.

  10. Finally – I started to feel like the only uncompassionate cynique when everybody else was bemoaning the disappearance of honey bees (there goes the environment!) and I can’t see any decrease in Arizona and I just care more about wild, indigenous species. Actually, those had a VERY bad year here in AZ, I was thinking of a silent summer, but European honey bees (Africanized I guess) were abundant. They are just hanging in droves off the hummingbird feeder in front of my window. They cover every blooming Desert Broom…have hives in every saguaro cavity…

  11. Same here in the UK. Honey bee are a domestic species, unable to survive on their own without the help of man. You might say you like them like you like your cats, but helping them does not help natural ecosystems.

  12. I too am totally fed up with the sensationalist headlines on the internet and in the media predicting doom and gloom for us all if CCD is not recognised, cured and wipes our honey bees out completely.

    But as for your picture, for goodness sake that is scaremongering sensationalism at its very best! The world did and will look a lot different, however there are many other pollinators as well as the wind.

    Honey bees are our master pollinators and of course their disappearance will make a huge impact on the way we all live. They pollinate not just food crops but cotton crops we rely on for clothes, towels and bedding even your denim jeans.

    We don’t know if CCD is affecting other species of bees because we haven’t been told but some species of bumbles bees for example are now extinct.

    What we really need to be worried about is if ALL our bees go missing, the implications are far more serious for our planet. They pollinate the food and crops our birds and cattle eat and many more essentials than most people are not aware of.

    I suppose the best business to start up in anticipation of this would be “feather dusters” whilst we can still get them that is and then we can all enjoy pollinating our own food supply just like they do in parts of China who have lost their bees! But sadly there will be no more honey!

    The debate goes on but scaremongering does none of us any good, the bees are telling us they have had enough with the way we have messed up our planet, a strong message indeed.

  13. Marc "Teleutotje" Van der Stappen

    I think most journalists and so-called nature-haters don’t know what they are talking about. Yes, all around the world are lots of other bees but, for agricultural purposes, only one is still the all-round and almost exclusive pollinator of, say, 2/3 to 3/4 of our vegtables and fruits. Yes, they are testing bumble-bees and so on but Apis mellifera is mostly irreplaceble.

    Yes I know something about bees although my speciality are ants. I’m a beekeper (even followed a training for that!), did 2 years of research at my university as part of ongoing research to try to keep bees indoors to polinate indoor-crops and, in the same laboratory, there was research on bumble-bees going on (also to keep them indoors.) and research on honeybees outdoors.

    Most people sees bees, wasps and ants as enoying things that should be destroyed (most people in my entourage think that!) but they can’t or won’t accept that all those insects are needed as pollinators of crops and as destructors of vegtables- and fruit-eating insects.

    If something like CCD kills our bees it is needed to find out what and why! If they think it is silly and not needed, that they then stop with eating apples, stawberries,… and stop living the way they do now.

    An other reason why honeybees are needed is the decline of wild species of bees. Sadly, with every species that disappears, our planet loses something of his beauty and intrige. With bees, it is the same. Yes, we have honeybees that can replace them in part of the instances but not always. Sometimes more is lost on this world than one species, everything being connected. But sometimes, honeybees can replace other bees as pollinators…

    And ofcourse, honeybees are fascinating animals with their different, complicated types of communication (like dances and pheromones.), their orientation behavior,… They are beautiful and interesting animals worth of our attention!

  14. That picture made me laugh. Excellent stuff!

    I think there have been studies showing reduced pollinator diversity with proximity to honeybee hives. Makes me wonder what effects that has with the vast scale of industrial honeybee farming. So perhaps a decline in honeybees will met with an increase in native pollinators, unless they’re all declining for the same reasons.

  15. I live in Europe, Hungary, CCD is also present here for at least 20 years (that is the time I remember I first heard about the disease from a relaive of mine who kept honeybees). In Europe some decades ago the Hungarian honey was famous for its superb quality and many varieties (with bees attending special plants making special honey). Then came – the Chinese. Not the CCD, but the low quality (many times falsified) Chinese honey that was favoured as it was overdosed on the market. Now the Hungarian beekeepers have to fight at first with the falsified Chinese honey-like things and only after it comes the CCD.

    Well, as I go out a lot and watch insects a lot, I can also see that honeybees are mostly pollinating agricultural plants, like great yellow rape or sunflower fields are full of honeybees – but most of wild plants and trees are still attended by wild bee and fly species – as I see their hairs are also packed with pollen so they might be the natural pollinators. I also think that with much less insecticide sprayed out in our crops would help local pollinators to take bigger part in this agricultural job.
    I share the opinion of Alex – the disappearance of honeybees is not a tragedy of Nature. Well, as they are domestic animals and can be handled easily their disappearance will affect a lot of our agriculture. But remember e.g. vanilla: we still eat vanilla flavoured food and most of us do not even know that each vanilla orchid flower has to be pollinated by tiny human fingers… The bumblebees, hoverflies, carpenter bees and small Andrena bee species are out in the field much earlier in the spring, weeks before honeybees are let out…

  16. After reading most comments, I conclude that there is a lack of knowledge about CCD, honeybees, and the role the honeybee plays in our food supply. Although I am not the expert, I have been working with the experts to build my new company.

    CCD just impacts the honeybees of the world. Although it has really only received recent notariety in the past few years, scientists can now look back and see evidence that it has been around for a decade or more.

    The recent “one-two punch” (fungus/virus combination) article by the Univ of Montana and the US Army is good news. It names the problem (if you track other articles recently, there is some controversy over the source of the funding by Bayer http://planetgreen.discovery.com/travel-outdoors/3-things-we-know-colonycollapsedisorder-2-things-we-dont.html). However, it is just a name, not a solution. To know that you have cancer doesn’t get you cured.

    Here’s the problem we face as concerned citizens of the world: They honeybee is failing because it has been mismanaged. It is genetically weak because of too much inbreeding. There’s not much we can do about that now.

    When one faces a crisis of such a grand scale we should be exploring MULTIPLE solutions. With the Gulf oil well spill, BP had a main shaft and two secondary solutions. With the Chilean miner rescue, there was a main rescue shaft and two secondary shafts.

    With CCD, we should look to help the honeybee out, but we also should be raising local native insects to pollinate local crops.

    Because our crops of apples, cherries, pears, carrots, etc. all use honeybees today, the farmers will need other solutions when/if the honeybee can’t supply their crop with a polliantor.

    Here’s the point: we have increased the volume of food needing pollination beyond the capabilities of native insects. Yes, farms DO have native insects that they’ve ignored for years, and when/if the honeybees aren’t available, the farmer can look to use their native bees… but there won’t be enough.

    My company (Crown Bees) is teaming with other “native pollinator” enthusiasts to increase volumes. The main insect that has been rediscovered is the blue orchard bee prevalent on the west coast of the US. There is the hornfaced japanese and red mason bees of Europe that are similar. After 4-5 years of intense rearing, we only have enough insects to pollinate roughly 2,000 acres. That’s it. In Washington State, there are hundreds of thousands of acres of apples, cherries, pears, nectarines, etc.

    We need more people/companies raising native bees. <-if I could have bolded that sentence I would have!

    It's great to cast blame and wring our hands. What is needed are people TODAY willing to find local native insects, understand them, raise them, and then sell them to companies who can assist with pollination of LOCAL crops. This would take the people of Lisbon to raise the insects for Portugal, Philadelphia for the Pennsylvania crops, and San Francisco for central California.

    Education is the first step in this social need.

    – Understand that we can't wait for scientists to solve the honeybee crisis. There should be alternate solutions being developed in 2011.

    – Take action. Go to your yard and see what type of bees are going to what flower in what time of the year. Write it down, take pictures, whatever. See if any go into paper straws. Those bees that will use a straw are most likely to be useful.

    – Listen for next steps. On my website, I hope you'll find that it is primarily built for education. …mixed with products to use second. (I do have to be profitable!) Within a year there will be more information on how to team with other people locally.

    This is a world crisis that takes world thought. Blogs, forums, tweets, and simple lectures are all important to get the word out. ACTION is the important key. …and please trust me, you can make a difference.

  17. As far as I know Apis mellifera was domesticated about 6000 years ago. Many plants were domesticated about 11000 years ago. Which animals were our pollinating friends in the 5000 years in between?

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  23. 1. If you get rid of all the honey bees in the US tomorrow, your wild bees and many other pollinators, will still have a problem and this means that there will be issues with pollination.
    2. Actually, we don’t really know what the effects of decimated pollinator populations will really be. I am concerned, however, at the relaxed attitude toward biodiversity loss exhibited by some, when we are ignorant of the precise consequences, and when we cannot turn the clocks back.
    3. All the bees and other insects – including other pollinators, need help, not just honey bees. Wild bees and other pollinators actually perform most of the pollination in gardens, countryside etc. Take into account that (and within a context of declining wild honey bee colonies) – honey bee pollination is limited by the availability of beekeepers – honey bees – like all bees, have a limited foraging radius. Also, note that different species are better adapted to pollinating different plants.
    4. I am tired of this hypocritical “they’re not native” debate. Neither are many of our food stuffs and garden plants. We are happy with non-native when it suits us, then when humans make a mess of it., we trot out the “they’re not native so they don’t matter” drivel, regardless of what the issues faced by these creatures, are actually pointing to (i.e. man’s idiocy in his treatment of the environment).
    5. I am against the breeding of native bees for pollination. These things start small, then grow into genetic tampering, so that we cause other problems. Less of this ‘sticking plaster’ approach – let’s sort out the problems in the environment, and stop spraying toxic, bee-killing crap, plus restore some much needed habitat.
    6. Honey bees are probably a real problem for pesticide companies. Unlike other bees, they are widely studies, AND, colonies survive over longer periods – meaning that consequences of spraying agricultural poisons can be more effectively measured in time. And of course, also in product (honey, wax, pollen – all easily extracted in good quantities from honey bee hives).
    Let’s also not forget that the actions of many beekeepers have helped raise awareness of the issue of neonicotinoid threats – whereas data on wild bees and pollinators is very patchy, so loses and dangers would not have been noted so quickly. Beekeepers are running on-going business selling services provided by bees – colonies that will hopefully thrive for years – not a short term “let’s sell a few bee nests and keep breeding more to sell next season” approach.
    In short, we need to ask ourselves what problems need to be addressed in the environment, so that pollinators can thrive. Then we need to act.

  24. Finally, the voice of reason! Like Margarethe, I am relieved to see that I am not alone. I always tell my audiences that plants and pollinators were doing quite well in this continent for millions of years before honey bees were brought here by humans. Thanks for posting this.

  25. Well, some of this article makes a little sense, I guess, depending on how you look at it. Casinos aren’t native to humans, and humanity may not depend on casinos, but a lot of so-called “native” people would be broke if casinos were banned. Likewise, sugar cane isn’t native to the Western Hemisphere, it was another cool thing brought here by Whitey, so the Western Hemisphere can get along ecologically without it. Countries like Cuba would be even worse off than they currently are without it. My point is, if you would like to remove the plants we brought here, and the pollinators we brought, that’s fine, the Earth would still spin around and all, but you ain’t going to feed 9/10 of the humans currently being fed. It’s not just an “agricultural problem,” it’s a “millions would die without it” problem.

  26. I understand from your article that you say it is an agricultural problem in terms of their use for both humans and the greater environment. Even if we couldn’t feed the majority of humans because of a lack of honey bee activity, I suppose you could still say it’s an agricultural problem (although agricultural problems clearly have an effect on and can cause all sorts of other social problems like political-economic ones, as someone else mentioned).
    However, I’m more concerned with what you intend with this article. It was informative, to be sure. Being pretty ignorant about bees in favor of ants, I didn’t know that “honey bee” referred to one species or that this species was the only honey producing species. But, I got the feeling from reading your article that honey bee extinction is inconsequential in itself. You even say that their death is “primarily a concern for agricultural interests”, yet a species extinction can be important in and of itself. I suppose I could say that the extinction of the Monarch Butterfly is inconsequential for an ecosystem. There’s plenty of other animals that eat milkweed (I have personal experience with the Tussock Moth and slugs), but saying so would be beside the point because that species has intrinsic value as a living thing, at least in my opinion.
    So yeah, I can say honey bee extinction doesn’t mean the end of an ecosystem. The extinction of any specific species doesn’t mean that, particularly when that species is invasive/ introduced by humans. But, being of use to humans OR the environment aren’t the only reasons for conservation, it’s just that usually you can use one or the other to justify it.
    In other words, while the red imported fire ant might be a pest now, while it might be killing off natural fauna, and while it might sting to have around, the moment it starts to go extinct I say defend it, at least in artificial containment.

  27. Can I simply say what a comfort to find someone who truly knows what they are talking about on the internet. You certainly know how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More people must read this and understand this side of your story. It’s surprising you’re not more popular since you certainly possess the gift.

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