With the huge losses of biodiversity that we are seeing across the world, a prominent example that became very close to people’s hearts is that of the large pollinator losses and the very important consequences that they could have on the well-being of our ecosystems and ourselves. In this context, a very large movement started seeking to “save the bees,” which has had a number of expected and unexpected consequences. One of the latter is the very significant increase in the adoption of honeybee hives by homeowners with little to no experience in honeybee husbandry, especially with the goal to “help bees” so they won’t go extinct. Although the goal of doing this is very genuine and well-intentioned, there are a number of complexities that come with this decision, which I would like to talk about in this post.
Are the bees dying?
The short answer is yes… kind of. Let me explain. As we mentioned in previous posts, there exists a very large diversity of bees (for example, only in Maryland there are about 400 native bee species!), and it is very clear that trends in biodiversity are negative for bees, as for many other groups of insects, plants and other animals. From that respect, we can say that many native bees are indeed dying, and it is key that actions are taken to provide more healthy habitat for them to survive.
That said, it is important to understand that honeybees are actually non-native livestock in our region (the group of bees that honeybees belong to are native to Eurasia and Africa, not to North America). Honeybees are managed and non-native insects that are reared by beekeepers to produce honey and other materials (e.g., wax, propolis). In places where honeybees are native, local peoples have been using their materials for generations, and in those regions, honeybees have not only been important from a production perspective, but also from a cultural one (read here to learn a bit more about some of these traditional systems).
As for all livestock, honeybees have health issues that need to be treated if they occur. For example, honeybees suffer from serious parasite and viral infections, appear to be negatively affected by certain pesticides applied to the plants they collect pollen and nectar from, and seem to also be affected by environmental stressors such as changes in the diversity of the landscape and the quality of the plants they feed on. All of this increases the real potential to reduce the health of colonies and, if left untreated, decimate them.
Will I help the bees if I get honeybees?
Again, the short answer is probably not. As I was saying above, honeybees are non-native to our region, so increasing their populations (for example, by increasing the number of hives) in our region is not likely to positively affect our suffering native species. For example, it has been shown in some studies that honeybees can be pretty competitive in the way they visit plants, displacing native species. Further, and especially if the honeybees are not properly managed (which is, unfortunately, the case for many new unexperienced beekeepers), they can become sick and spread diseases to native bees and other insects, also leading to increasing the pressures on these already-struggling native organisms.
So, are honeybees intrinsically bad?
No. In our region, honeybees are livestock and our relationship with them should be similar to the one we have with other livestock such as poultry, beef, etc. However, for the same reasons that livestock should be maintained in healthy and sustainable conditions, it is important that beekeeping is also done under safe and healthy conditions for the livestock and the environment in which it is in. For this reason, if a person is considering starting or expanding their bee hives, it is very important that they ask themselves some questions such as why this is being done: is it to “save the bees,” or to increase their production? If the reason for this decision is to “save the bees,” it would be better for them to not go on this road but instead use other actions that are really effective at helping biodiversity, such as creating natural habitat, providing nesting and food resources for wild pollinators, and reducing pesticide use in their green spaces. Some more information on these topics can be found here, here, and here.
If the answer is that they would like to increase honeybee-related production, then they should certainly take this on, making sure that their management practices allow for a healthy production system that will sustain the colonies but also will decrease the risk of spreading diseases to other neighboring honeybee colonies and native pollinators. On this, the University of Maryland has a wonderful extension service specifically related to honeybee production – the Bee Squad – that provides outstanding training, assistance, and information on beekeeping, disease containment and treatment, and regional updates relevant to production and beehive health. Likewise, there are also state and regional beekeepers associations (e.g., MD state beekeepers association, here is an extensive list for Maryland) that provide local support and great communities to experienced or new beekeepers alike. I can’t overstate how important it is to get in touch with services like these, especially for new and inexperienced beekeepers.
By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.
Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!