In most ways, it’s a great time to be a beekeeper. The mystery surrounding the increase in bee mortality has brought beekeeping into the public eye. We are celebrated, fawned over and sought out for guidance. Some even tout us as environmental heroes. But with all this attention also comes criticisms. So, how can we address and mitigate these potential consequences? Read on.
Outcompeting Native Bees
The most heart-wrenching criticism of beekeeping I have heard is it’s possible negative impact on native bees. Some entomologists have expressed concern that honey bees outcompete native species for food and consequently weaken native bee populations. Native bees are usually overlooked in favor of honey bees. Many people don’t even realize that bees other than honey bees exist! Yet, they are hugely important to our local ecosystem and much more vulnerable to extinction than honey bees are.
Many species of native bees are specialized pollinators that have developed close relationships with specific native plant species. That is to say, that they are the predominant pollinator for these plant species. Honey bees either do not visit these plants or they do not pollinate them as thoroughly. When the population of a specialized native bee like this declines, the plant will decline, too. Then, a chain-reaction is put into motion; in which all the other species that depend on the plant for habitat or food begin to dissapear.
So, what’s a beekeeper to do?
There are some changes that happen naturally after becoming a beekeeper that despite their honey bee centric motivations, will benefit native species. Most new beekeepers stop using pesticides and fungicides, for example. Some even campaign their neighbors or cities to do the same! I think beekeepers are more likely to leave beneficial, flowering weeds like dandelions alone and most actively plant for their bees.
That said, I think we can do more. We should take a more active and conscious role in helping our native bee species. Here are some ideas.
– Plant native flowers and encourage others to do the same.
– Facilitate nesting sites for native species by leaving dead branches and bare dirt accessible.
– Educate others about the importance of native species.
– Don’t overpopulate one area with too many honey bees. Keep smaller apiaries if possible.
– Check out this excellent article for more ways to help our native bees.
I would like to add that there are conflicting opinions and studies on whether or not honey bees outcompete native bees for forage. This study, for example, found no significant negative impact on the population of honey bees in relation to the population of native bees. Like everything in nature, the relationships between species are complex, but as beekeepers, we should strive to help our less appreciate bees as best we can!
One of the major downsides of modern beekeeping is the transmission of disease and parasites. Migratory beekeepers move their hives across the country for pollination and this practice has the potential to spread disease and pests not just among honey bee colonies, but to wild bees as well. The shortage of bees in some cases has increased the distance some beekeepers must move their hives to help farmers pollinate their crops and this compounds the problem.
Hobbyist beekeepers are not without guilt either. Many new hobbyist fail to monitor their colonies health sometimes resulting in epidemic outbreaks of diseases or parasites.
So, what’s a beekeeper to do?
Keeping bees healthy is harder than ever before, but here are some things we can do.
– Learn to recognize when your hives are not healthy and take action.
– Don’t move unhealthy colonies to new areas.
– Space your colonies at least a few feet apart from each other and keep smaller apiaries.
– Once it becomes clear that a colony is failing due to mites, virus or disease, kill them with soapy water to staunch the contamination of healthy hives in the area.
Lately, new beekeepers are motivated to start beekeeping for environmental reasons. Ironically, they must run out and purchase beehives that are often made from unsustainably harvest wood. We don’t want to try to save the bees while doing harm to our forests!
So, what’s a beekeeper to do?
– Seek out eco-friendly wood options, ideally FSC certified woods.
– Make your own hives from salvaged wood or other materials.
I like to argue that honey bees are a gateway bug. Once you get into beekeeping, you start to notice and wonder about other types of bees and beneficial insects. Beekeeping forges an almost emotional connection between the beekeeper and their environment. It can change a previously unaware person into and engaged one. So, despite the possible negative impacts, I believe the transformative powers of beekeeping can actually inspire positive sustainable life changes.
When a person becomes a beekeeper it engages them with their environment and their food system. They start to pay attention to weather patterns, bloom times, other pollinators, pesticides, where their food came from, soil health and on and on. This ultimately leads to more sustainable living choices. The best part is, this awareness is contagious. You can spread it to your friends and neighbors!
Gateway bug! Love it.
I made bumble bee nest boxes with the mouse nests I found in a couple of my hives. Supposedly they like to use abandoned mouse nests for their home. Hopefully it works.
Great post! Since keeping bees, I’ve become enamored with our native bees, and have constructed a large “pollinator hotel.” I love sitting by it and watching who/what shows up!
European Bees and “its possible negative impact on native bees.”
1. The so called ‘disagreement’ by entomologists actually leans towards the conclusion that the introduction of ANY introduction on non-native animals and plants have the potential to negatively impact native ecosystems. BEES certainly affect the native biodiversity of public lands when they are introduced.
2, Migratory beekeepers move their hives across the country for pollination and this practice has spread disease parasites and pathogens not just among honey bee colonies, but to wild bees as well.
3. Considering the muck up we have made of our own native habitats both in the flora and fauna in the developed landscape of our cities we need to make sure that Apis mellifera does NOT get trucked into refuges such as our Park systems and other protected sites. IMO these are small and critical refuges for native wildlife that includes the myriad of native bees that certainly are affected by the trucking in of hundreds or thousands of European hives.
4. Yes, they will pollinate the local resources but in so doing will compete with the native pollinators with devastating consequences on their survival.
Then, when removed the original pollinators that the plants had relied on are gone.
5. Unlike the highly social honeybee (bumblebees being an exception) most native bees are solitary and many pollinate a select number of flowers (generalists vs. anything goes). The honey bee can fly some five miles to search for food, some of these native species fly less than 500 yards from nest to forage. Most live an annual life cycle and are therefore more vulnerable to sudden changes.
By removing the nectar and pollen this competitive European and African bee will certainly displace native bees, in the case of trucked in European hives – once removed, you remove next year’s pollinator.
The “gateway bug argument is a bogus one (‘suggesting that the previously unaware person into a more engaged one who would notice and protect other similar insects’)
1. Fewer people now raise bees than they did in the fifties or sixties during the ‘Mother Earth movement or when more rural farms existed. Beekeeping has become like most agro businesses one that favors the large – the migratory beekeeper who makes his money from pollination not from honey.
In the 50’s we had close to 6 million beehive colonies and this has declined to just over 2.3 million. Add the issue that some of the people who ‘hobby’ this are just plain incompetent and that some of the large ‘competent’ (truck em all over) people consider them as cash cows and replaceable as they die from disease they help create and spread.
WHO is going to guarantee that these parasites and pathogens will not spread to the native bees? They, unlike the modern hive, cannot simply be requeened!!!!
2. My greatest argument is that by their borglike pollination of everything the non-native honey bee pollinates not native and invasive plants such as lantana, ice plant and Scotch Broom. They further maintain and stabilize the introduced weeds such as European thistles that might otherwise peter out.
Hi. I went to view the entrance to my hive today. I have put mouse guards on the hives and there are lots of dead bees stuck behind the guard inside the hive. What do I do? Thank so much. I love the mailer, it’s so informative. I’m in Southwest Ohio, we have had a hard freeze this winter !