Talk of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) tends to bring out two groups of extremists—the group that believes the demise of honey bees will completely destroy our ecosystem and the group that says, “Good riddance, honey bees are not native anyway.”
It is true that honey bees are not native to the Americas. If all the honey bees died tomorrow we would still have an ecosystem. But the ecosystem we have at present is not native either. It is overflowing with introduced crops, ornamental plants, weeds, animals, and even introduced humans. Species have disappeared as well; many plants and animals have gone extinct without a trace. And if that isn’t enough, we’ve changed the composition of our water, our air, and our soil—we’ve even mucked with the climate.
So I don’t agree with either group of extremists. The western honey bee was brought here to pollinate introduced farm crops. As Alex Wild over at Myrmecos says, honey bees are farm animals and CCD is an agricultural problem. This is true.
The ecosystem is broken
On the flip side, however, removing honey bees will not restore our ecosystem; it will just leave us with a lot of crops without pollinators. There are many native pollinators that are probably up to the job—but none that can succeed with our present agricultural methods.
There is a lot of talk about finding a “replacement” for honey bees—of finding species that can be managed in large numbers to provide vast amounts of pollination service for our gigantic monoculture cropping system. This, I believe, is something to be wary of.
Native bees should not be managed
If we take a native species and try to breed it, manage it, medicate it, and RoundUp Ready it for agricultural service we may very well build into its genetics the same problems we are having with honey bees. We have weakened the honey bee by forcing it to work in these highly artificial agricultural environments, and we will weaken its replacement as well. Already, managed bumble bees have contracted diseases that have spread to wild populations, and managed alfalfa leafcutting bees have come down with diseases such as chalkbrood.
Instead of trying to convert our valuable native bee species into pollination machines, we need to fix our agricultural system so that crops can be pollinated by the large number of native bee species that are already in place and ready to work. If we try to raise native bees like farm animals, we will be setting ourselves up for failure all over again.
Honey Bee Suite