wild bees and native bees

Let’s save the right bees

Let's save the right bees. A Halictus bee cleaning its antennae.

The bees that really need our help get ignored in favor of those that are doing fine.

It’s about time that someone clearly and succinctly wrote about the “bee problem.” And someone finally did. Gwen Pearson, known for years as the Bug Girl, has a story in yesterday’s Wired that says it all, “You’re Worrying about the Wrong Bees.”

I’ve been a fan of Gwen and her writing for a long time, and she just keeps getting better. The beauty of this particular article is its clarity, and I urge everyone even remotely interested in bees to read it and share it.

As the title suggests, all the “Save the Bees” rhetoric is aimed at honey bees when, in fact, it is the wild bees that are in trouble. Far from being in decline, honey bees are backed by hoards of researchers and truckloads of money. Their numbers are increasing and they are not going extinct.

Some bees really are in trouble

But while we are tunneling our vision on a well-protected species, other bees really are in trouble. According to Gwen’s piece, fifty percent of Midwestern native bee species have disappeared from their historic ranges in the last 100 years. Since every bee species is unique in its own special way, the loss is incomprehensible. But so few care.

As I see it, the biggest problem native bees face is that the word “bee” is synonymous with “honey bee.” I’ve mentioned this story before, but it bears repeating. Last fall when I was enrolled in a bee course at the University of Montana, the discussion segued into antenna cleaners. I shared a photo of a Halictus bee cleaning its antennae. I was told by one of the professors, “Send a picture of a bee doing that and I’ll give you extra credit.”

If it’s not a honey bee, it’s not a bee

I was flummoxed by this comment until it occurred to me that, to him, if it wasn’t a honey bee it wasn’t a bee. It is exactly this thinking that has caused the hue and cry of “Save the Bees” to be misdirected. Instead of saving the right bees, we run around supporting an invasive, domesticated farm animal. And that bee, the western honey bee, doesn’t do as much pollinating as we give it credit for.

Anyway, Gwen explains it better. Read the article and don’t forget to read about the tickle bees. Some lucky kids actually get it.

Please help us save the right bees!

Honey Bee Suite

Let's save the right bees. My own personal tickle bee. © Rusty Burlew.
Save the right bees: My own personal tickle bee. © Rusty Burlew.


  • The native bees are struggling for the same reason honey bees are struggling…widely degraded forage and habitat. Mercifully we do not have to choose which set of species we need to support, a rising tide of pollinator friendly practices (restoration, nectar trails, pollinator plantings, pesticide bans and reductions) will lift all bee boats, native and European. Honey bees still remain important pollinators of European crops, the ones we so like to eat. So we can practice bee ecumensism, and help one and all.

    • W2,

      “Honey bees still remain important pollinators of European crops, the ones we so like to eat.”

      Now you have my complete attention. I’m trying to figure out if there are any crop or orchard plants—European or otherwise—that are dependent on honey bee pollination. I can think of many that depend on bees, but not honey bees specifically. Maybe you can help me out.

      It seems to me that the reason we depend on honey bees is not because of the plants we choose to grow but because of our agricultural practices: large fields and orchards, monocropping, tilling, clean and weed-free border areas, and of course pesticide use, since honey bees can be trucked in and out. But if bee-friendly farming practices were used, I think the need for honey bee farm labor would plummet and honey bees could go back to doing what they do best: making honey. Anyway, which plants am I forgetting?

      • Rusty,

        Or maximizing profit. I came upon this information for other reasons, but you might want to look for “Hive Density: Are you getting enough pollination” by Margret Land in Fruit and Vegetable March 2013. It talks about a two year study on the differences between honey bee and bumble bee pollination and maximizing the crop yields of blueberries.

        “Anyway, which plants am I forgetting?”

        With a hint of irony since it’s an introduced species too:

        Dandelions. 😉

  • Interesting. In Australia there is plenty of attention on our native bees. Our bee group is an inclusive group – giving attention to native as well as introduced bees and other pollinators

  • I’m bothered by all the focus on honey bees. I like honey but my concern is focused on bumble bees and other wild bees, plus the Great Black Wasp. Eight years ago, not long after moving to my city lot, I found a total of two bumble bees in the entire summer. (I can tell them apart.) I decided to do something. First stop the Extension office, where the woman told me that there was NO problem with bees in Minnesota! I decided to learn as much as I could and take matters on my own. Every year, the number of bumble bees, wild bees of many kinds and the Great Blacks increase to the point of there being hundreds of nests of the bumble bees and wasps all over my yard. I’m surrounded by lawns so it’s not like they are coming from somewhere else. Usually my first blooms of the year are my Nanking cherry trees, the gooseberry and currant (the bumblies favorite nesting site) around mid April to early April; the last around late October; mostly oregano and sedums. Not necessarily natives all, but they like them. My yard is a certified wildlife backyard habitat by the Wild Life Federation as well as a work-in-progress permaculture forest. I only have 1/3 acre and I’m in the middle of town but anyone can help if they only took the time. Since they are doing better, I’m now going after butterflies. I’ve been trying to identify my bumblies but so far I’m not having much luck since they don’t seem to be anywhere in the internet. And yes, I already checked the Xerces eastern bumble bee brochure. The ones that look the closest to mine supposedly are not common in my area of Minnesota.

  • The honey bee is the poster child for the bug world. If we ban a few pesticides and restore habitat for the “honey bee” it’s a win win for all the bug world.

  • Rusty, in a way you made the same mistake that the professor made. Honey bees are certainly NOT native as they were originally imported from Europe but a they are just as certainly NOT invasive domestic farm animals. We do provide them a convenient place to live and we manipulate them to our advantage and that is it. We provide birds with the same type support we provide honey bees and NO one considers them “domestic farm animals” because we do.

  • Dear Gerald your quote “….but a they are just as certainly NOT invasive domestic farm animals.”

    1. Splitting hairs but ok, INSECT not 4-legged animal! but 2-legged ostriches and no legged fish are farmed too. Also don’t forget the hobby/pet ant farm.

    2. Domestic -(domestication) = [to tame (from wild), breed for human use, to live in close association with human, adaptation to new environment/habitat, alterations in behavior or appearance, etcetera] Definitions can be complicated it depends if your using a simple dictionary, business or law dictionary, U S Fish and Wildlife Service or U.S. Customs definitions.

    3. Farm – while some keep honey bees as a hobby, there sure is commercial farming of honey bees. raising any animal [+ fish,bird,insect] as livestock for profit is farming. The major difference between a ranch and a farm is that while both often have livestock, the word ranch is almost never used to describe a landholding where food crops are grown.

    4. Invasive – I have no info on any studies done on foreign honey bee impact on native species and habitat. There might be or maybe we are not looking because we don’t want the answer? 300 hundred years and we just figured out the non native earthworms have been changing USA landscape and harmful to some forests.

    5. Honey bees that swarm and not caught end up as feral bees, not wild bees.

    Gerald your quote “..We provide birds with the same type support we provide honey bees ” I disagree I have not heard of anyone monthly treating any wild birds, pigeons, chickadees, finches and song birds for scaly mite or lice in their backyard birdhouses. It’s a major problem and many die. But if people are, that’s great cause its got to be difficult putting ointment on becks and legs of wild birds. Question: Do these people also inspect the nest weekly checking for problems and treat other bird diseases? Wisconsin and Minnesota need thousands more of these people.

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