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.Continue reading