wild bees and native bees

Once folk heroes, some beekeepers are targeted by ecoterrorists

Ecoterrorists who believe imported honey bees are damaging native bee populations sometimes target beekeepers.

Like most environmental problems, the question of how honey bees compete with native bees is complex. To answer the threats, you need to understand how bee competition works.

The landscape of beekeeping is in flux. Ten years ago, beekeepers were folk heroes, the saviors of our food supply. But since the so-called insect apocalypse began shifting attention to other bees, beekeeping has come under attack. Some keepers now feel like pariahs, finding themselves being cross-questioned like criminals. The problem? Native bees.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 162 No. 6, June 2022.

Recently, a sideliner in North Carolina with about 40 hives and a farmers’ market honey business described the change. He said he noticed very little pushback against honey bees throughout his 60 years of beekeeping, but all that is changing. He says within the last ten years the honey bee has become a “focal point for a generalized cultural angst about how we’re screwing up the world.”

Sadly, he points to environmental “zealots” who topple hives, poison colonies, and work to prohibit honey bees from natural or conservation areas. His question to me was, “What is the reality of competition between honey bees and native bees?” Good question.

Strange as it may seem, the meteoric rise of interest in native bees arose from Colony Collapse Disorder. After details of CCD hit the newsstand, non-beekeepers, environmentalists, and even school children began questioning apiary management practices and attacking beekeepers. People who knew nothing about insects wondered if honey bees and their keepers were damaging native populations of pollinators.

A polarizing shift in focus

Within a few years, legions of citizen scientists were designing monitoring protocols and taking courses in melittology. Photos of obscure bees stuck with pins were all over the internet and native plants replaced daisies and daffodils in garden plots. Slowly but surely, beekeepers became the bad guys.

Although the shift remains subtle, some beekeepers are feeling defensive. The question is how can beekeepers respond to accusations that they are causing bee decline, destroying the world order, or interfering with natural processes. As with most misunderstandings, a dearth of knowledge in both camps exacerbates the problem.

Some general knowledge about solitary bees can help you answer basic questions. The following issues concerning bee-on-bee competition—I’ve chosen my favorites—illustrate the murkiness of the competition question but also provide discussion points to ponder in advance.

A dahlia with foraging bees, a bumble bee and many honey bees that illustrates different species competing for food.
Bees on dahlia: Species that are similar to each other often have high rates of competition. Here, many honey bees compete with a bumble bee for pollen and nectar. Unfortunately, bees can also share disease organisms at foraging sites. Rusty Burlew

Honey bees are not the only competitors

Rhetoric about bee competition usually translates into “honey bees vs native bees.” This dichotomy is erroneous because it ignores the third group, those bees that are neither honey bees nor native bees. Is that a significant number? Absolutely. And it’s huge. In fact, I suspect it’s the fastest-growing and most under-recognized pollinator group in North America.

It is nearly impossible to track introduced and adventive species, let alone stop them from spreading. Global trade has assured that insects can travel the world, so they do. Bees often arrive in the cocoon stage, holed up in a piece of wood or a bamboo cane. Soil dwellers can arrive with potted plants or agricultural products.

These often enter unnoticed and may reproduce for many years without being recognized. Because most people cannot identify any bees, they certainly won’t notice a new one in the mix. A new species may establish a home, replicate like rabbits, and compete with the locals before someone discovers it. The point to remember is honey bees are not the only “foreign competitors” on American soil.

The amount of competition varies with species

All organisms compete. In fact, it is competition that shapes life forms to fit their environment, sculpting them over time into something that works. Wolves compete for rabbits, dens, and mates. Humans compete for food, water, fuel, and money. Bees compete for nectar, pollen, resins, and nesting sites.

Asking whether Apis mellifera competes with native bees is not meaningful; it is simply the wrong question. The extent of competition changes with each species pair. Instead, you need to ask if honey bees compete with species number one, species number two, and species number three. Then keep asking until you get to 4000 or more. Even then, the amount of competition will vary with location, season, and the number and type of flowers in bloom. It will also change from year to year as temperatures, rainfall, and humidity fluctuate.

Bees compete for more than just food

When we envision honey bees competing with solitary bees, we usually think of food, specifically pollen and nectar. However, honey bees rarely compete for nesting sites. Most solitary bees would scoff at a honey bee pad, thinking it useless.

However, the same is not true for other introduced bees. For example, sculptured resin bees (Megachile sculpturalis) compete directly with native carpenters for nesting holes. The European orchard bee (Osmia cornuta) and the horn-faced bee (Osmia cornifrons) compete with native blue orchard bees (Osmia lignaria) for tunnels and cavities. And the alfalfa leafcutting bee (Megachile rotundata) competes with native leafcutters for hollow stems.

Bees with similar needs are more apt to compete. For instance, a bee that forages on the same flowers as a honey bee will feel the heat of a honey bee colony landing next door. But a bee that uses a plant the honey bees avoid is less likely to be affected.

Likewise, bees that forage in cold temperatures can often get the jump on early flowers long before honey bees sip their morning coffee. Other factors, like the size of the pollen grains, the flower shape, or the sweetness of the nectar, can dissuade honey bees and encourage others. In short, some species will suffer more, some less.*

Two species of Andrena bees forage on one willow flower, competing for the available pollen and nectar.
Two Andrena: Two species of Andrena, both ground nesters, share a willow blossom. This is another example of similar species competing for resources. Rusty Burlew

Modern agriculture could destroy native bees

Because of their size, foraging range, division of labor, and perennial nature, honey bee colonies can out-compete many solitary species, and the denser the colonies, the worse the problem. But we need to temper that fact with the services honey bees provide for our agricultural crops. Many non-beekeepers do not understand how adaptable honey bees are to being moved from field to field, or how we have integrated that trait into our cropping systems.

Most native bee species—around 70 percent—are solitary ground-dwelling creatures you simply can’t move. If turned loose on a modern field, most of those bees would nest in the ground beneath the flowers. At the end of the season, harvesting and tilling equipment would macerate those nests, killing any larvae that survived the fertilizers and pesticides. The offspring of bees released outside the field might survive, but the solitary bees—being short-distance fliers—might be unable to pollinate the center of the field.

Even tube-nesting species have limited uses. For example, people often tout orchard mason bees as being “revolutionary,” but they have severe limitations. Although they can be relocated in the cocoon phase, the adults have short lifespans. Orchard masons pollinate relentlessly during their four-to-six weeks, but then they’re done until next year, useless for any additional crops.

Not all pollinators are bees

If you find yourself cornered by an upset citizen, listen carefully. Many will equate pollinators with native bees, something that causes even more confusion. While North America is home to about 4000 species of bees, the total number of pollinators is probably 4 or 5 times that number, maybe more.

The pollinator count includes many beetles, wasps, butterflies, moths, and flies, in addition to various mammals and birds. Aside from other bees, the competition between honey bees and most other pollinators is negligible.

Even monarch butterflies are less affected by honey bees than you might imagine. Although monarch larvae depend on the leaves of milkweed, the adults will consume nectar from many plants. Since no self-respecting honey bee I’ve ever met cares a whit about milkweed leaves, the level of competition is minimal.

A monarch butterfly collecting nectar from an aster flower, demonstrating that bees also must compete for food with butterflfies and other insects.
Monarch: Although monarch butterflies must have milkweed for their young, the adults forage on a wide range of nectar plants. Pixabay

Species loss is nothing new

Some beekeepers claim that honey bees and native bees lived peaceably together since the 1600s when the first Apis mellifera landed in North America. I don’t agree. I think the most vulnerable species—specialist bees that depend on a single plant—were likely weakened or lost during the initial wash of honey bees across the continent.

A multitude of microhabitats blanket North America, and we can assume many of these were once home to specialist bees. Like specialist butterflies, these bees depend on a specific food for their offspring, no substitutes or off-brands will do. Just as monarch larvae need milkweed leaves, specialist bees need pollen from a particular plant.

We can surmise that as the honey bees spread westward, they entered these unique habitats and changed them through their presence. If the honey bees coveted one of the special pollens, they could easily exhaust the supply, leaving the natives to starve.

So in contrast to some imaginary “peaceable kingdom,” it’s more likely that species decline began when the honey bees first arrived and continued throughout the next 400 years. By the time we began to catalog bee species, we were probably already seeing a select group: the survivors. The survivors—our present inventory—are those bees that prevailed despite the honey bee onslaught.

We will never know what was here before the honey bees because we have no records pre-dating Jamestown. But remember, species loss is not new; it is not a scourge wrought by contemporary beekeepers. No way. Species loss is something we’ve been finessing for a long time.

The most lethal competitor of all

However convenient it may be to blame honey bees, they are not the greatest threat to native pollinators. Not by a long shot. That distinction belongs to humans.

It is we humans who introduced exotic plants and animals. We also brought invasive plants, non-indigenous crops, livestock, and diseases. We invented pesticides, herbicides, air pollution, and water pollution. Worst of all, we fragmented our land, making it unsuitable for countless species.

Humans and their fragments

Those of you who know your island biogeography understand that habitat fragments play fast and loose with genetic diversity. A habitat island—say a park bordered by freeways, office buildings, or a baseball diamond—will not have a healthy flow of bees in and out.

The individuals that live within the small patch interbreed because mates are limited, a phenomenon that restricts the number of alleles for each gene. You can think of alleles as variations on a gene. In humans, simple alleles govern traits like eye color, height, and blood type, among many others.

The result of fewer alleles is inbreeding depression, which is a weakening of successive generations due to a paucity of genetic choices. Carving a small population of any species away from the larger population is the quickest road to local extinction.

Inbreeding because of isolation is tragic, but it’s not the only problem with fragments. For example, small fragments may be short on nesting sites or nesting materials. A dearth of nesting space may cause overcrowding in certain spots, which can enhance disease transmission. A small fragment may not have a sufficient water source or one that stays clean all year.

Fragments used for human recreation may be trampled or over-treated with pesticides. And the plants within a fragment have the same problems as the bees: decreased genetic diversity due to small populations. If a favorite host plant disappears, the dependent animals soon follow.

A large bumble bee and a small sweat bee on a blackberry flower. It's unclear just by looking how much they are competing. Are they both looking for pollen, or is one just looking for nectar? Or perhaps one is just resting?
Two bees: How much do species compete? It’s impossible to know just by looking, and every species pair will be different. Rusty Burlew

Strength in numbers: a honey bee asset

Honey bees are okay with fragments because they can fly long distances. If one spot isn’t good, the foragers simply choose another. But long flights are generally not an option for natives. So why don’t distressed populations within fragments evolve to become stronger fliers? Wouldn’t that be a natural adjustment?

It sounds reasonable, but I suspect sufficient variation related to long-distance flight is unlikely in a shrinking, detached population. But the real issue is one of time, not strength.

In contrast to most bee species, honey bees have a powerful division of labor. They have nannies, shoppers, egg layers, wax workers, undertakers, and refuse collectors. The foragers can take their time collecting provisions because it’s their only chore.

But in her short four-to-six-week lifespan, a solitary bee does the entire home-building, child-rearing, provisioning thing herself. She simply doesn’t have time to travel long distances to accumulate supplies and feed her young. She must act like a bee possessed, working hard and fast, maximizing efficiency.

If momma bee cannot accumulate enough food within her tiny fragment, she may raise only a small brood nest or none at all. If she shares a predilection for the same flowers as a local honey bee colony, the situation is dire. A band of honey bees with the sole mission of food acquisition can soar in, harvest, and leave the occupants to starve.

Blaming honey bees for the things we do

I’ve spent countless hours obsessing over bee competition, and my conclusions have vacillated, swinging hot and cold. For a while, I believed honey bees were largely responsible for native bee decline, but now I view bee loss as a complex array of problems with many moving parts. The honey bee is but one cog in a large wheel.

I think the blame game is a waste of time. Lots of people wish we could go backward, rid ourselves of honey bees, restore the land to what it was, replace, revive, and resuscitate the environment. Perhaps that sounds good on paper, but if we are sincere, most of us from the world over would also need to pack up and leave. We are the worst of the offenders. We cannot live here without changing nature, and we cannot undo what’s already been done.

No matter what misdeeds honey bees may be guilty of, they didn’t create habitat fragments, nor did they arrive under false pretenses. It is disingenuous to point the finger at honey bees when it was humans who set the trap.

Two orchard mason bees are nesting in an empty honey bee comb, using the abandonned space. This is an insignificant type of competition but interesting nevertheless.
Osmia lignaria: Although most solitary bees are not interested in honey bee hives, exceptions happen. Here two western mason bees, Osmia lignaria propinqua, are nesting in an empty honey bee comb. Rusty Burlew

We all play a role in bee decline

Any human who participates in the global economy—and that includes me and you and the vandals who trash hives—plays a role in insect loss. If you visit a shopping center, drive on a road, plant a lawn, or use a cell phone, you are a player in the environmental destruction that is harming native species. Likewise, if you eat fruits, vegetables, or dairy products, you are benefitting from the work of honey bees.

The twerp who destroys hives probably caused the most loss when you consider extra trees must be cut and more oil pumped from the earth to replace the hives and fuel his misguided anger. (And to think his mother probably fed him bee-produced fruit and veggies.)

Furthermore, if you live in a subdivision that was prepped with a bulldozer, where every living thing was replaced with lawn, asphalt, and PVC pipe, that beehive in your backyard isn’t going to hurt anything. You needn’t feel remorse. The things valuable to native bees were long gone, even before your foundation was poured. If you want to go on a guilt trip, have at it, but don’t let anyone else do it to you.

Remember, too, that there is nothing wrong with helping the survivors. Plant flowers, leave habitat strips, minimize mowing, and turn off your porch lights. Doing what we can is a good thing, but we can only move forward from where we are, not from where we should be.

Rusty Burlew
Honey Bee Suite

Note and Reference

*Prendergast KS et al. (2022) Pacific Conservation Biology doi:10.1071/PC21064. This recent literature review by Dr. Kit Prendergast compares many studies of competition between Australian native bees and the introduced European honey bee. As is the case here in North America, Australians imported European honey bees quite a while back, and similar to our own studies, theirs are often inconclusive. Some reveal substantial competition, others show none, and most fall somewhere in the it’s-hard-to-say middle ground.


  • Two things I want to say.

    First, yes, whatever’s wrong with the environment, WE did it, not our bees, and mostly we did it by replacing every different ecosystem with either paving or green desert lawn. Anyone who wants to save the planet needs to start by not having children. (Although there’s a movie called Idiocracy that hits us hilariously over the head with the idea that while the thoughtful people are planning and saving and preparing for their possible step into parenthood, the less thoughtful people have popped out a slew of kids, and already have grandkids.)

    Second, I have not yet been criticized for beekeeping–quite the contrary–but I’m always quick to point out that the honey bees aren’t the ones in trouble; it’s the native bees. And I’ll usually explain that my love of bees is a selfish love because the honey bees are superforagers that can outforage everybody else. Starting from the “I already know I’m guilty” position may make me less likely to be attacked.

  • Because of your articles, I’ve become much more aware of native bees, although I probably can’t name but one. I was walking around, checking on where my honey bees were foraging after our wet spring ended, and was shocked that, while there were dozens of native bees on my lavender, not one of my bees stopped there. They chose oregano flowers – different ones from those those the native bees chose. Reading this article lets me know my bees are ok – choosing what they need, which might be different from what natives choose, and I was misinformed to believe they should all like/need the same plants. Thank you.

  • This article raises a number of questions about the differences between beekeeping in the US and the UK.

    Here in Wales, there are many feral colonies in trees and buildings, and many small-scale beekeepers, some of whom try to keep ‘locally adapted’ bees, without bringing in imported queens from Europe or artificially bred races such as Buckfast. Other local beekeepers, especially beginners, use Buckfast, Carniolan, or Italian imported queens, because of their gentle nature. This means that the native British bee’s genetics have been diluted over the years so it is difficult to find true native bees. It also means that many colonies, both feral and managed, have become aggressive, as the first-generation crosses between the non-native and the native strains can be very aggressive.

    What is the situation in America? Do US beekeepers routinely requeen with selected queens? Many YouTube videos show US beekeepers working without gloves, or even without a veil. We could not do that here in the UK! And what about feral colonies? In more remote areas, have they evolved into a separate race?
    An article about the genetics of bees in the US would be very interesting!

    • Greg,

      Yes, there are feral lines of bees that seem to do quite well in the wild. And yes, beekeepers routinely requeen with commercially bred queens. The main difference is that we have no native honey bee lines here at all. The only Apis mellifera in North America are imported so there is no such thing as native honey bees.

      • Yes, I was aware that there are no native honeybees in the US, but wondered if colonies that have survived for several hundred years in the wild might have evolved into separate strains adapted to the conditions in different parts of the country?

        • In his 2019 book, The Lives of Bees, Dr. Thomas Seeley (Princeton University) tells about his work with the feral colonies of Arnot Forest in upstate New York. These bees have survived without beekeeper interference for many years in spite of the varroa mite and associated viruses. However, when moved outside the forest into the general population of honey bees, they quickly outcross and succumb to the mites. So far as I know, there is no reliable source of survivor stock in North America that can persist outside of small breeding areas.

  • Great write-up. Mother Nature usually decides who stays & who goes w/a lot of help ??? from man. Apparently, she is not disgusted enough with man to decide it’s ‘time’. Glad I am old! “Man’s” sense of ‘self-righteousness.” Beekeepers work extremely hard trying to keep the bees alive. People who destroy need jobs, they have way too much time on their hands. If they worked from sunup to sundown, they w/have no time for destruction.

  • Rusty, thank you for this well-researched and useful article. I am a former honey bee keeper who now spends her time encouraging habitat for pollinators of all kinds–native bees, neighboring honey bees, wasps species, flies, butterflies, moths, etc.

    As a Virginia Master Naturalist, this article gives me a strong framework for thinking about what pollinators need to survive and thrive in my little part of the world. And it reminds me to beware of bias–to be better informed when I talk with community members about all pollinators, without favoring or blaming particular species.

  • It’s the Neonicotinoids. The glyphosate is making a lot of trouble, but all the people who SHOULD be watching and regulating the neonicotiniods are doing everything they can to ignore their impact. There are 3,600 acres in my area being poisoned by one farm family, and as many of the farms they rent are small, the chemicals are wafting and washing everywhere, I’m finding other people also complaining about them. Trees have twisted leaves, plants stop growing or blooming until they recover from the herbicides. The neonics wash downhill to nearby trees where bees go for pollen or nectar, and on down into the streams and underground springs. A few people are talking about neonics. Here’s an older article on the stuff, WELL WORTH READING: https://abcbirds.org/news/members-of-congress-dining-on-food-contaminated-with-bird-and-bee-killing-insecticides/
    I imagined a new form of CCD, Congressional Collapse Disorder, in which we lift the lid of the Capitol bldg, and it’s empty except for a few old congressmen twitching on the floor.

    • This person gets it. And don’t you think the chemical companies have turned the dialogue to demonize the honey bee population so we get distracted from the real damage the neonicotinoids are causing??

  • At present my local council has been raising silly obstacles and threatened me with eviction from a tiny plot of land I rent from them. Neighbouring tenants are delighted with the positive impact my two colonies make for them. The council consider my bees a risk even though it is over 100 feet to the nearest, unofficial footpath, and over 300 feet [over an embankment covered with trees and tall plants] to the nearest houses. I know of no cases in the UK where a beekeeper has been sued by a third party as a result of being stung by a bee, but this council have made a fuss. My bees haven’t ever swarmed beyond my plot in some 8 years. So I feel under attack.

    Thankfully, nobody has made accusations that honeybees are causing a decline in native bees in my hearing. My experience is that keeping bees triggers interest in others to grow “bee-friendly” plants, knowing that some of these benefit feral and native bees as much or more than honey bees. I was sorry reading Rusty’s article. Living on the opposite side of the UK to Greg I’m with him over having local bees, too. I bought two nuc colonies of “Norfolk mongrels” from a long established beekeeper to replace my previous colony which didn’t overwinter. They’re pretty peaceable, but I wouldn’t handle them without nitrile gloves.

  • Having a few hives has had the benefit of making me aware of other bee species around me and managing the yard accordingly. I guess besides the hives, I am also guilty of having a cat and a dog that have claimed the yard as their hunting ground.

  • Sure, I agree there is no point in blaming it all on beekeepers.

    But, in my opinion, the problem with honey bees is that it became popular to keep them, as a hobby. Nowadays, at least in Europe, everyone wants to “save the bees” by becoming a beekeeper. This is mostly because the topic of bee populations declining and bee species dissapearing is constantly being wrongly communicated in the media. Somehow the message “save the bees” became “save the honey bees”, which makes the problem even worse.

    I agree with what you wrote in this article, however I believe we need to continue educating people that “bees” are not just honey bees, and “saving the bees” is not putting another bee hive in your yard/roof etc.

    All the best,

    • Jovana,

      You say: “I agree with what you wrote in this article, however, I believe we need to continue educating people that “bees” are not just honey bees, and “saving the bees” is not putting another bee hive in your yard/roof, etc.”

      That has been my message on this site since I began in 2009. Feel free to read old posts.

  • How much more beautiful would the entirety of earth be without humans in it? When I think about my favorite animals and/or insects, those are never mankind as I think most humans rate at just above mosquitoes, ticks, and lawyers.

  • Love your articles, but I’m uncomfortable with this one.

    I’m a beekeeper, and also an environmentalist. Your statement that “meteoric rise of interest in native bees arose from Colony Collapse Disorder. After details of CCD hit the newsstand, ….. environmentalists…. began questioning apiary management ” is misguided. You were not paying attention.

    It is very dangerous to generalize, but some beekeepers manage their hives better than others. Others are just selfish and only see what they can gain out of their beekeeping at the expense of the natural environment. It is quite sad.

    Unfortunately, I have been noticing that many beekeepers really don’t like to hear anything that points a finger at them, and any problems they can be causing.

  • These are the great asset to nature. In the winter, if there’s robbing your bees won’t survive. Yellowjackets and bumble bees won’t hurt your hive if you have a strong colony. No need to use any kind of retaliation on the wasps or the bumble bees because they’re robbing your bees are probably not going to survive the winter. Bacon lives harmoniously with your bees. It is not true that bees purposely go out to kill all the other pollinators.

  • I’m reading this now and thinking hard about HOW the public image shift started to position honeybee keepers as the enemy after CCD made more news headlines. So, after many scientists began discovering that CCD was rooted in pesticides and chemicals, I’m sure these chemical companies came under fire. And sensing much coming litigation from beekeepers as well as poor public image, maybe these chemical companies began feeding a false and negative narrative to the media companies, using their abundant funds. Ignorant people read and feed on this demonization and act on it. This is all just my hypothesis on this subject. I find it more fascinating how people learn behaviors instead of the behavior itself.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Long time reader, first time poster 🙂

    This was a very timely article for me to come across. In fact, I was ready to throw in the towel on beekeeping and quit. I’ve been keeping bees for 6 years now, and loved (almost) every minute of it. This new love of mine has opened my eyes to the HUGE world of OTHER insects, as so many others have also mentioned. This has inspired me to triple my flower beds, focusing on only planting native plants. A small contribution, but it makes me feel like I’m doing something to make up for what my bees are doing to my local environment, which is unfortunately how I’ve been feeling lately.

    As mentioned, so much negativity is being cast on honey bees, as if their efficiency is their own fault…which I guess it is. It makes my heart so happy to see bumble bees and native bees on my flowers, and it’s even better when I don’t see any honey bees! This spring, I told my husband I was done with beekeeping if I didn’t see a bumble bee within the week. The look of despair on his face (as the poor guy who built my hive stands) was one for the books. I saw a bumble bee queen within the hour. So I carry on, doing the best I can for my bees and my local bees.

    Thank you Rusty, your advice is always trusted.

    PS: You are the reason I subscribed to ABJ 🙂

    • Kris,

      Thank you the lovely compliment! I love writing for ABJ. Although there is some crossover—people just like you—it reaches a very different audience than my website. The ABJ audience accepts more science and in-depth analysis, and is generally more wary of social media beekeeping. It’s fascinating, in any case.

      I’ve always been unsure of how much honey bees actually compete with native bees, usually concluding it is variable from place to place and time time. However, this year has been an eye-opener for me. Two years ago, after bears destroyed most of my hives, I had to move the remainder of my bees elsewhere (because bears have good memories). I didn’t notice the change in native bee populations the first year. But this year, now that they’ve had a chance to recover, I can barely believe the sheer number of both species and individuals. Literally thousands of bumbles, Andrena, sweat bees, small carpenters, osmia, and cuckoo bees. They’re all out there tripping over each other in an amazing display of rebound.

      I know it just an example of anecdotal evidence, but I just can’t get over the difference.

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