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!
Thank you for discussing/letting people know more about the differences between our native bees and honeybees. People who are not cognizant of the importance of native plants and ecosystems don’t realize that honeybees are imports, that they compete with our natives for pollen (and nectar) and what we should be thinking about is supporting native habitats. I was glad to see this article.
According to the USDA there were over 6 million honeybee hives as recently as 1961 (I always heard the early 1940’s were peak years but can’t find that info right now). Currently the USDA says there are “only” about 2.6 million hives. Plus feral honeybees were much more common before varroa. Why do you think our native bees are being so outcompeted by honeybees when there are far fewer honeybees. Might Industrial farming, Mono culture farming, and/or pesticides play a role? Or are “backyard beekeepers” a serious threat to native bees (even though there are far fewer honeybees total?)
These are very good questions, and unfortunately the answer is not simple. As we mentioned in this and past posts, the reason why native pollinators are in decline is multifactorial, with the presence of non-native species in our region being one of those factors. As you mention, changes in land use, increases in monocultures, loss of natural habitats, pollution, uncontrolled use of pesticides and other chemicals, diseases, and climate change have been all recognized as other drivers of loss in pollinator diversity and abundance.
In the case of honeybees in particular, the native pollinator out-competition they can lead to is a behavioral trait they have that makes them be very efficient in pollination reward collection (e.g., getting a lot of nectar and pollen from flowers they visit) and leads in many cases to native pollinators not obtaining sufficient floral rewards to sustain their populations. As mentioned in the post, another particular problem that can appear with honeybees is that of diseases, which they can spread to other pollinators if they are not properly managed (which is often the case of unexperienced new beekeepers). These two problems add indeed to the stressors that native pollinators are already experiencing due to other drivers of decline.
The point of the article is not to discourage people from getting honeybees for production or if they are interested in beekeeping generally, nor to make “backyard” or other beekeepers the culprit of all sufferings of native bees, but rather to clarify that native bees will likely not be “saved” with an increase of beehive adoption (remember, honeybees are non-native livestock). While beehives are great to have for honey, wax and other productions, increasing their colonies will not intrinsically contribute to “saving” North American native bees from extinction or increasing their populations. Accepting this would somehow equate to stating that in order to support and increase bison populations (a wild bovine native to North America), we should rear more cattle (bovine livestock originally domesticated in Asia).
I’d like to plant some flowering shrubs for native bees (and honeybees) that are very deer resistant. Is there anything you can suggest that won’t be eaten by deer?
Sarah, Have a look at our Deer-resistant Native Plants page. Under the woody plants section, you will find several good options such as red chokeberry, sweet pepperbush, and American holly. https://extension.umd.edu/resource/deer-resistant-native-plants