We beekeepers are often blind-sided by our love of honey bees. We, and especially the press, tend to equate the word “bee” with “honey bee.”
Last evening, as I watched the much-touted film, More than Honey, I was dismayed to hear that, “Unlike bumble bees and butterflies, bees remain true to one type of flower.” While it is true that honey bees practice floral fidelity, and bumble bees not so much, the statement makes no sense. Are they saying a bumble bee isn’t a bee? Or are they saying, “Unlike bees, bees remain true . . .”
The same movie explained that honey bees were brought to the New World by the settlers because they needed a way to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. What? Indeed, the settlers brought honey bees across the Atlantic on ships and introduced them to the Virginia plantations in 1622. But it was definitely not because they wanted to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. In fact, the discovery that flowers are pollinated by insects was made by a fellow named Arthur Dobbs, who presented his revolutionary discovery to the Royal Society of London in 1750.
Do the math: the settlers brought their honey bees to North America 128 years before anyone had a clue that insects played a part in pollination. And it was many, many years later before the discovery became common knowledge. So why did the settlers bring honey bees to America? For the honey, of course.
Furthermore, the narrative implies that there were no bees in North America. “The colonists wanted to cultivate the prairie and grow fruits and vegetables. To pollinate them, they needed bees.” In reality, there were at least 4000 species of bees in North America and an untold number in South America. The plants on both continents were readily pollinated. Given that the colonists didn’t raise vast monocultures, there were more than enough pollinators to go around.
Yes, honey bees have amazing attributes and there is no substitute for them on Earth. But they are not the only game in town. In fact, there are many plants that are not pollinated by honey bees and must be pollinated by other bees or non-bee pollinators. Why is this so hard to understand?
Last week I read an article that explained how we wouldn’t have chocolate if it weren’t for honey bees. The next day, another publication ran the same article. Now, you don’t have to be a genius to google “chocolate pollination” and discover that chocolate is pollinated by a small fly called a midge. The unusual flower of the plant requires this tiny, tiny insect to get the job done. What kind of journalist can’t spend 30 seconds to look this up?
Then I received an upsetting e-mail. A beekeeper wrote that he refused to speak to a gathering of master gardeners who wanted to learn how to attract wild pollinators. Instead he will speak about how we need a million more beekeepers in this country. Okay, maybe he doesn’t know how to attract pollinators and would rather speak about honey bees—I get that. But the idea that a million more beekeepers will solve our problem is naïve.
Flooding the landscape with honey bees will not negate our pollination problem. In fact, it will only make it worse. A monoculture of anything—a feedlot of pigs, a farm of fish, an Iowa of corn—spreads disease, reduces genetic variability, and requires chemical input. A monoculture of honey bees is the antithesis of sustainable.
The best thing we can do for honey bees, or any other pollinator, is to care for the environment and enhance the living condition of all species. Terminology for the sustainable soup of living things changes over time; it was once called “the balance of nature” then “the web of life” then “the natural community.” But whatever you call it, it goes off-kilter when you selectively cut the species you don’t like and paste the ones you do.
We humans are so smart we designed poisons to kill the species we don’t like. Trouble is, the good bugs went with the bad. So instead of relying on natural pollinators, we inundate the poisoned monoculture crops with inbred, poorly fed, and stressed out honey bees. Then we scratch our heads and wonder why they get sick. Our answer? Raise more and more inbred, poorly fed, and stressed out honey bees and prop them up with a few chemicals. That should work, right?
In addition to honey bees, my mission statement for Honey Bee Suite includes a commitment to “wild bees, other pollinators, and pollination ecology.” It’s all part of the “suite” idea—a closely aligned and interconnected whole. To raise healthy honey bees, we need a healthy environment, one that includes all the pollinators, each of which has an important role in the web of life.
If I could get my readers to do one thing of my choosing, I would ask each one to select a new pollinator every year and study it. Pick one you know nothing about and make it your project. Find out where it lives, what it pollinates, when it’s active. Put a portrait on your desktop. Send me a photo and tell me why you picked it. A new pollinator in your life will make you a better beekeeper, a more astute gardener, a better steward of the land, a more informed citizen. Think of it as a challenge . . . you may even find the little twerp makes you happy.