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
I spent the week making the same corrections, even with a local TV News Facebook post. The problem is stemming from the word “Bees” and the incorrect selection of the photo that is being attached.
I noticed this, also…someone posted a picture of a bear after a honey bee hive…but in fact, it was a paper wasp hive above the standing bear…also…I’ve watched videos of endangered honey bee and a bumble bee was the focal bee and then a honey bee flashed in the video….I also saw a video of a yellow jacket and they called it s honey bee…ARE YOU SERIOUS!!! LOL…it’s like calling a cow a horse… great article,Rusty…I’m going to share it on Cubbie’s FB
Love your site. It is a great source of information and keeps me thinking about my ‘honey’ bee. My experience in misnomenclature is a different one. I have found that most people refer to anything that flies and stings as a bee. Tired of the malignment of the noble bee I would explain the striped bug buzzing around your soda or potato salad is a yellowjacket but to no avail. Most don’t care and I think most people who don’t spend time outside of their sterile urban/suburban areas never see many bees.
For me it is fun to learn there are so many species of bees. I pay more attention to the bees buzzing around my garden and no longer assume it is a honey bee. Thanks for sharing all this wonderful information!
That is true. Anything that stings is a bee.
If you had a “like” button, I would click it. Anything that stings is a bee. If I had a nickel for every time I corrected someone for this…
I agree. If we could figure out how to collect that nickel, we would both be rich.
The irony of all this is that the (exotic) honey bee may have actually contributed to the decline of these imperiled bees through competition and spreading of diseases. Don’t get me wrong – I love honey bees but we live in a complicated world with complicated problems while people want simple solutions (Save Our Bees!).
Very true. Honey bees certainly compete with wild species but I think the wild species could still manage just fine alongside them if it weren’t for the complications wrought by pesticides, habitat loss, invasive species, and the like. It is hard to separate the effects and, like you said, it is complicated.
I totally agree Rusty! Great article! I’m gonna write about your points on my website for my “Bee Extraction Page” – Thanks for your useful knowledge!
P.S. I wanna start a new website about Bees. Would you be willing to write content for me if I paid you? Just shoot me an email if you’d be interested ( – :
If you have something specific you want written, use my contact page. No promises. I write for several publications and blogs, which keeps me busy.
I had honey bees in my tree for 3yrs. Yes, real honey. Problem is, Africanized bees showed up and there was a war! The Africanized bees had a swarm at the top of my tree. Manager told maintenance to kill the Africanized bees at the top of my tree. He came onto my property around 10 at night I was sleeping and without my knowledge. Africanized bee swarm was gone so he decided to spray poison into the trunk of my honey bees then sealed it up with foam! When I went out next morning and realized what happened I was so very very upset and crying, feverishly trying to make a hole in that foam to help them. But, he KILLED them. What I want to know is this illegal or can something be done about this?
What a mess and how sad. I’m just guessing, but I doubt you would get anywhere by pursuing it. It sounds like a big misunderstanding mixed in with stupidity.
I’m so sorry Donna I would hate that! I can’t believe they didn’t tell you!
Thank you for this great post! I led a tour/talk about bumble bees yesterday and someone mentioned that an exterminator told her honey bees were endangered and he refused to remove/exterminate the hive. While I appreciate the care he held for the bees (despite his being incorrect), I always wish this concern could be shared a lot more than it is with our wonderful native bees!
Hi I live in a house with two achers and I need help identifying a bee! It has yellow then black and a yellow spot on its head and there’s only one of it. It also lives in my pepper tree and doesn’t have a hive what should I do!
Do you have a good photo? Lots of bees and wasps are yellow and black. Also, what’s an acher?
This is the first time in my life seeing this. Clover so thick it looks like snow. Honey bees missing. For the last few summers I’ve watch those Japanese Hornets snatch the bees out of the air. I think this has made an impact on the bees. It’s the strangest thing I have ever saw. Something is wrong.
I was going to share your page with a large group on fb, with this new information but I figured it’s best to just share it with you here. Now that they are officially listed as endangered on the US fish and wildlife as of January 2017, you can use the info here to answer those questions.
Thanks for your info!