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The problem with honey bees

Honeybees
Credit: Espace pour la vie/André Sarrazin
Honeybees
  • Honeybees
  • Honey bee hives
  • Honey bee on a flower
The problem with honey bees

Who’s never heard of the honey bee? Scientists call it Apis mellifera, which translates as “honey-bearing bee.” Also known by the names European honey bee or western honey bee, this is the bee that lives in hives and produces the honey we enjoy so much. Native bees, which are more diverse and often more efficient as pollinators, are nevertheless much less well known: they’re unfortunately overshadowed by the honey bee!

Honey bee and native bees: what’s the difference?

If the honey bee constitutes just one species, natives bees are much more diversified. In Québec we find over 300 species of wild bees, meaning bees that live in a natural environment without the need for human intervention. The majority of wild bees are also native – in other words, bees that originate here. For example, in the province we have about 20 species of bumble bees, close to a dozen species of leafcutting bees, and 30 or so metallic bees. Most are solitary, and do not produce honey.

Native bees belong to the large group of pollinators. These are involved in the reproduction of roughly 90 percent of the flowering plants in the world. Approximately 75 percent of crops depend to one degree or another on pollination by animals, including insects. Several native bees are associated with a limited number of plants, which they pollinate in a particularly efficient way. For instance, bumble bees are associated with species in the Ericaceae family, such as blueberries and cranberries.

An introduced species

The honey bee is not a species that originated in North America. It hails from Eurasia and Africa, where humans have exploited it for millennia to take advantage of its precious honey. It was brought to the American continent for the first time by European settlers in the 17th century. Some colonies abandoned the hives and became wild, notably in the southern United States and Mexico, and thus the honey bee took its place in the native insect life already present in those regions. In Québec, the honey bee can’t survive in the wild because of the severity of the winters here. It needs the help of beekeepers, who isolate and prepare the hives for the cold season.

These days the beekeeping industry is worth billions of dollars on a worldwide scale. According to the Institut de la statistique du Québec, the value of sales of honey and other beekeeping products (royal jelly, wax, queens, nuclei) and colony rentals amounted to 25 million dollars in 2019 in the province. In Québec, growers of a number of crops such as cranberries, blueberries, apples and strawberries rent colonies during the flowering period to increase crop yields.

Bees in decline, but hives on the increase

In the 2000s, an abnormally high mortality rate was observed in hives in North America and Europe. The phenomenon came to be called “colony collapse disorder.” Although that increased mortality is worrisome, the number of colonies in the world continues to grow, and the honey bee has therefore never been considered an endangered species.

Colony collapse disorder made a lot of noise in the media, and touched off lively interest in the public. The eagerness to help bees sometimes took the form of actions not always directed at the right target. Some companies even profited from the movement to sell products and services whose effectiveness was not always demonstrated, a phenomenon called “bee-washing” (with reference to “greenwashing”).

This was how insect hotels and hives enjoyed a surge in popularity, especially in the urban environment. In Montréal alone there are about 3,000 hives, each of them capable of containing as many as 50,000 honey bees. But the problem is that in cities, there are just not enough flowers. In other words, there’s not enough nectar for everyone.

Meanwhile, native bees are very much declining. The results of research conducted in different regions of the world on different groups of pollinating insects converge: their abundance and their diversity have been shrinking for several decades.

Breeding honey bees harms native bees

Not only does breeding honey bees not improve the fate of bees in general, but it’s being demonstrated more and more that that it worsens it, especially in urban environments. With its size and abundance, the honey bee inflicts unfair competition on other species. Besides that competition for food resources, the transmission of pathogens also becomes an issue when honey bee density is so high.

How do we help native bees effectively?

In light of these observations, what actions can truly help bees and the other pollinators? Like humans, our bees need food and shelter. To increase the amount and diversity of available nectar, we can opt for native nectar-producing plants, or simply mow less often. Our bees also need nesting sites. Most of them nest in the soil, while others nest in cavities like the hollow stems of certain plants or the holes dug into dead wood by other insects. So, in the summer as well as the fall, leaving plant debris (stems, leaves, dead wood) on the ground contributes to the availability of nesting sites. Finally, for a better understanding of pollinators, observations an be shared via community science programs like Biodiversity Challenge or Bumble Bee Watch.

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