Since the United States Fish and Wildlife Service placed seven species of bees on the endangered species list, I have been inundated with mail from jubilant citizens. Many of the letters say something like, “It’s about time honey bees are protected.” Or “The government finally realized how important honey bees really are!” Oh dear.
If you are one of the jubilant ones, listen up. Honey bees are not endangered, and I seriously doubt they will ever be listed as such. The decision to protect seven species of native Hawaiian bees has absolutely nothing to do with honey bees.
“Bee” does not equal “honey bee”
We bee lovers battle confusion every day. To most people the word “bee” is synonymous with “honey bee.” So headlines like “Bees placed on the Endangered Species List” are completely misunderstood.
In truth, about 20,000 species of bees roam the Earth. Some estimates put the actual count much higher—maybe double—because new species are constantly being discovered. In many places, species are going extinct before we even know they exist, which is sad beyond words.
Roughly 4000 of the known species live in North America. Most of those 4000 are native to this continent, but we also have a fair number of imported bees. Examples include the European honey bee, the alfalfa leafcutting bee, the European wool carder bee, and the hornfaced mason bee among many others.
The bees that were recently listed are seven species of Hylaeus (high-LEE-us), all of which are native to Hawaii. The newly listed species are Hylaeus anthracinus, Hylaeus longiceps, Hylaeus assimulans, Hylaeus facilis, Hylaeus hilaris, Hylaeus kuakea, and Hylaeus mana. These bees occupy a number of different habitats, all of which are currently threatened by development and invasive species. Without intervention, they will most likely go extinct.
The purpose of the Endangered Species Act (ESA)
Like most government documents, the various provisions of the act can be difficult to read. But according to the Fish and Wildlife website, The Endangered Species Act of 1973 provides for the conservation of species that are endangered or threatened throughout all or a significant portion of their range, and the conservation of the ecosystems on which they depend.
Other parts of the act seem to imply that “range” means “natural range,” although I can’t find it clearly defined. Honey bees have no natural range in North America. Instead, it is native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. Furthermore, it does not appear to be endangered or threatened throughout a significant portion of that range.
It is interesting to note that the Endangered Species Act does list foreign species if those species are endangered or threatened in their natural ranges. The U.S. cannot control how the plants or animals are treated in their native lands, of course, but the act assists the species by prohibiting their import and sale within our boundaries. So, for example, you cannot import a tiger into this country as a pet.
The ESA does not protect livestock
If honey bees were listed under the ESA you wouldn’t be able to capture them, sell them, harvest their honey, or use them in commercial agriculture. Here are some of the current restrictions (emphasis added):
The ESA makes it unlawful to import or export; deliver, receive, carry, transport, or ship in interstate or foreign commerce in the course of a commercial activity; sell or offer for sale in interstate or foreign commerce; take (includes harm, harass, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect any wildlife within the United States); take on the high seas; possess, ship, deliver, carry, transport, sell, or receive unlawfully taken wildlife…These prohibitions apply to live or dead animals or plants, their progeny (seeds in the case of plants), and parts or products derived from them.
As you can see, protecting the honey bee under the Endangered Species Act would do little to protect our food supply because the honey bee could no longer be used for agriculture or honey production. Simply put, it’s not the right law to apply to honey bees.
Separating honey bees from all the rest
I often wonder how we can separate the concept of “bee” from “honey bee,” but I don’t have an answer. When I write, I try to use “honey bee” as much as possible, but invariably the “honey” part drops off. What can we do to let people know that the honey bee is just one of 20,000+ species, each one unique and precious?
Truth be told, I think beekeepers are the worst offenders. We love our honey bees and refer to them as ”bees” all the time, much to the confusion of the rest of the world. I don’t know how we can fix it. But for now we can explain that although honey bees are still hanging in there, some of their kin are in serious trouble.
Honey Bee Suite