With their marvelous interpretive-dance routines, complex social life and delicious honey, honey bees are widely respected, but they’re anything but sweet to wild pollinators. In fact, a surfeit of honey bees is a big threat to our native bees and butterflies.
A July 24 article in the Guardian reports that professional beekeepers in the United Kingdom are asking the public to moderate the current outbreak of hives because it puts native bees at risk in some cases. The London Beekeepers’ Association issued a statement that reads in part:
“The prevailing ‘save the bees’ narrative is often based on poor, misleading or absent information about bees and their needs. It can imply that keeping honey bees will help bees.” London-based beekeeper Dale Gibson explains that “Honey bees are very efficient, almost omnivorous consumers of nectar and pollen; they are voracious. There is no off button. They will carry on consuming what’s out there.”
Andrew Whitehouse of the insect-conservation group Buglife adds to this point: “We know the main reason native pollinators are in decline is a lack of wildflowers in our countrysides and urban areas. To increase competition for limited resources puts a huge pressure on the wild pollinators. The populations of those wild pollinators are reduced; you have less abundance and less diversity.” Too many honey bees also bring diseases to native pollinators. Dr. Jane Memmott of Bristol University says honeybee hives can be “little ecosystems of plagues and contagion.”
Closer to home, Dr. Scott McArt, a bee specialist at Cornell’s Dyce Laboratory for Bee Research, says there are an estimated 416 species of wild bees in New York state. When I estimate stuff, it tends to be less exact, such as “more than three but less than a thousand,” just so I can be right, if not helpful. But I’ve met Dr. McArt, and I trust him on this count.
Dr. McArt is quick to point out that wild critters take care of things just fine in most places. A multi-year (2013-14) Cornell University study of apple orchards throughout New York state assessed (among other things) the impact of honey bees on pollination rates. The conclusion? Honeybees have no appreciable effect on pollination. The 110 species of wild bees cataloged visiting apple blossoms orchards did the real work.
In sterile, impoverished settings like California’s almond plantations and North American suburbs, wild bees cannot find enough food to survive. But outside of these environments, wild bees and other insects do a bang-up job pollinating crops, provided there’s enough variety of wild plants (i.e., messiness) around to keep them fed the whole season.
Beekeeping is a rewarding hobby in many ways, but we need to remember that the wildflowers in any locale are already spoken for by native pollinators — it’s not some uninhabited land that honey bees are free to use without consequence. Backyard beekeepers absolutely must help compensate.
Another thing needed to save bees of all stripes is a change in mindset regarding aesthetics. Increasing the entropy on one’s property is as easy as falling off a log (which of course is an example of increased entropy). Pollinators need flowers which bloom at all different times, grow at various heights, and have a multitude of shape. For greater abundance and diversity of wild flowering plants, all you need to do is stop mowing everything. Choose some places to mow once a year in the late fall, and others where you’ll mow every second or third year. Stop using herbicides, both the broadleaf kind and the non-selective type.
Coltsfoot and dandelions, essential early-season flowers, will come back. Asters and goldenrod (which by the way do not cause allergies), highly important late-season sources of nectar and pollen, will likewise return. Milkweed will begin to flourish, attracting monarch butterflies.
However, you may choose to help this process along by sowing perennial or self-seeding wildflowers like purple coneflower, foxglove, bee balm, mint or lupine. You’ll not only get more wild pollinators, you’ll also see more birds. Redstarts, tanagers, orioles, hummingbirds, catbirds, waxwings and more will be attracted to such glorious neglect — no feeders required.
Honeybees provide us with food, medicine, educational opportunities and more, but this comes at the expense of native pollinators unless backyard beekeepers provide additional forage through planting and/ or by letting much of the landscape go wild.
Paul Hetzler is a former Cornell Cooperative Extension educator.