rants wild bees and native bees

Take the pollinator challenge

We beekeepers are often blind-sided by our love of honey bees. We, and especially the press, tend to equate the word “bee” with “honey bee.”

Last evening, as I watched the much-touted film, More than Honey, I was dismayed to hear that, “Unlike bumble bees and butterflies, bees remain true to one type of flower.” While it is true that honey bees practice floral fidelity, and bumble bees not so much, the statement makes no sense. Are they saying a bumble bee isn’t a bee? Or are they saying, “Unlike bees, bees remain true . . .”

The same movie explained that honey bees were brought to the New World by the settlers because they needed a way to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. What? Indeed, the settlers brought honey bees across the Atlantic on ships and introduced them to the Virginia plantations in 1622. But it was definitely not because they wanted to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. In fact, the discovery that flowers are pollinated by insects was made by a fellow named Arthur Dobbs, who presented his revolutionary discovery to the Royal Society of London in 1750.

Do the math: the settlers brought their honey bees to North America 128 years before anyone had a clue that insects played a part in pollination. And it was many, many years later before the discovery became common knowledge. So why did the settlers bring honey bees to America? For the honey, of course.

Furthermore, the narrative implies that there were no bees in North America. “The colonists wanted to cultivate the prairie and grow fruits and vegetables. To pollinate them, they needed bees.” In reality, there were at least 4000 species of bees in North America and an untold number in South America. The plants on both continents were readily pollinated. Given that the colonists didn’t raise vast monocultures, there were more than enough pollinators to go around.

Yes, honey bees have amazing attributes and there is no substitute for them on Earth. But they are not the only game in town. In fact, there are many plants that are not pollinated by honey bees and must be pollinated by other bees or non-bee pollinators. Why is this so hard to understand?

Last week I read an article that explained how we wouldn’t have chocolate if it weren’t for honey bees. The next day, another publication ran the same article. Now, you don’t have to be a genius to google “chocolate pollination” and discover that chocolate is pollinated by a small fly called a midge. The unusual flower of the plant requires this tiny, tiny insect to get the job done. What kind of journalist can’t spend 30 seconds to look this up?

Then I received an upsetting e-mail. A beekeeper wrote that he refused to speak to a gathering of master gardeners who wanted to learn how to attract wild pollinators. Instead he will speak about how we need a million more beekeepers in this country. Okay, maybe he doesn’t know how to attract pollinators and would rather speak about honey bees—I get that. But the idea that a million more beekeepers will solve our problem is naïve.

Flooding the landscape with honey bees will not negate our pollination problem. In fact, it will only make it worse. A monoculture of anything—a feedlot of pigs, a farm of fish, an Iowa of corn—spreads disease, reduces genetic variability, and requires chemical input. A monoculture of honey bees is the antithesis of sustainable.

The best thing we can do for honey bees, or any other pollinator, is to care for the environment and enhance the living condition of all species. Terminology for the sustainable soup of living things changes over time; it was once called “the balance of nature” then “the web of life” then “the natural community.” But whatever you call it, it goes off-kilter when you selectively cut the species you don’t like and paste the ones you do.

We humans are so smart we designed poisons to kill the species we don’t like. Trouble is, the good bugs went with the bad. So instead of relying on natural pollinators, we inundate the poisoned monoculture crops with inbred, poorly fed, and stressed out honey bees. Then we scratch our heads and wonder why they get sick. Our answer? Raise more and more inbred, poorly fed, and stressed out honey bees and prop them up with a few chemicals. That should work, right?

In addition to honey bees, my mission statement for Honey Bee Suite includes a commitment to “wild bees, other pollinators, and pollination ecology.” It’s all part of the “suite” idea—a closely aligned and interconnected whole. To raise healthy honey bees, we need a healthy environment, one that includes all the pollinators, each of which has an important role in the web of life.

If I could get my readers to do one thing of my choosing, I would ask each one to select a new pollinator every year and study it. Pick one you know nothing about and make it your project. Find out where it lives, what it pollinates, when it’s active. Put a portrait on your desktop. Send me a photo and tell me why you picked it. A new pollinator in your life will make you a better beekeeper, a more astute gardener, a better steward of the land, a more informed citizen. Think of it as a challenge . . . you may even find the little twerp makes you happy.


A small native sweat bee posing as a rabbit. © Rusty Burlew.


  • Our question about the need for more beekeepers refers to the drastic drop in the number of “private beekeepers” in America since the 40s and 50s. So many people always say to us that “my grandfather–or aunt or uncle or some member of their extended family–USED to keep bees and we always had honey on the table.” My dear friend David Ferguson who is a full-time beekeeper and queen producer did some research and what he discovered shocked us. In the 40s (post WWII) and early 50s (I was a child) there were 1.5 million beekeepers in America, not including the large commercial producers. Today there are about 150 thousand.

    I find that shocking, and got to thinking If we could add back that 1.5 million beekeepers into our cities’ gardens and small farms in the rural areas, and teach that many via the Master Gardeners assoc how important to cut the pesticides, plant for the bees and offer them safe haven from the big polluted farms, how might it help to bring back the population as well as set the curve for everyone to clean up their yards and gardens. We certainly want to give as much information as possible to all of our customers as well as the master gardeners and amateur gardeners about attracting pollinators to their yards and gardens. We are part of a very active and fast growing bee association down here, with more asking to join, and to learn to keep bees in their backyard everyday. We work very closely with the LSU dept of agriculture as well as the US Bee Lab that is here doing research and developing new strains of honey bees. We have one of the 12 largest farmers markets in the country in our rather small city, so we are talking to about 300 people a week, and I would say 1 in every 5 people asks us about how to get started, it is very encouraging.

    Where we are, we have such an abundance of everything that grows, honey bees have been a natural part of our growing up. They were always present, so we tend to take them for granted. Now in our rural areas, I am discovering that the bees have retreated very far back into the swamps and into the large Atchafalaya basin area, but the rich and fertile farmlands around those areas are losing bees. (Lots of GMO Monsanto corn growing around here.) We have many hives buried in the swamps where we gather Palmetto honey, but it is near impossible to get blackberry honey near the farmlands anymore.

    So in my little pea brain, I am thinking that the more private gardeners and city folk who get in on the act, the more healthy bees we will have. I abandoned my former career to work with my friend who is the beekeeper part of our business.

    I am very interested to know why you don’t think it is pertinent to educate the people around us about how to save the bees as well as attract them to our gardens and yards. I have until October to figure it out, and it will take me that long to put together a program worthy of this 500 person group coming to this conference.

    • Milou,

      “I am very interested to know why you don’t think it is pertinent to educate the people around us about how to save the bees as well as attract them to our gardens and yards.”

      I don’t know what to make of that statement except to think you have never read a word of this website. Educating “the people around us about how to save the bees as well as attract them to our gardens and yards” is all I do here . . . post after post, day after day, year after year.

  • We do have a LOT of other pollinators in our midst here, but yes, they are declined also. I still see a huge number of dragonflies, but butterflies are scarce. Hummingbirds are treasured here and planted for, and we have large numbers of bumble bees, moths, birds of course, and as fig trees are in abundance, and seem to be doing well, there must be enough of the tiny wasps that pollinate them. Fig trees are very popular in people’s backyards here.

    I know of several areas near farmlands in the rural areas where people are begging us to help pollinate their fruit orchards. We lost 15 hives near sugar cane fields where one fellow crop dusted. Our own neighbors had their yard sprayed for mosquitos and we lost several hives. Yes, we have 7 hives in our backyard in the city, which is allowed by city ordinance, and the city mosquito patrol is not allowed to spray on our street. We live this fight every day.

    We sell honey and other products made from the hive. But that is just to help us afford to maintain and care for the bees. It is not really that profitable. I am afraid that we are losing the battle against the pesticides. If we lose, everyone does. I would love to see fireflies again. Your point is well taken and will be worked into my presentation. Maybe it will bee that in our efforts to save the honey bees we will be saving all of our natural pollinators.

    m Barry

    • Milou,

      That is exactly the point I was trying to make. To simply raise more and more honey bees without fixing the underlying problems does nothing except kill more honey bees. You just told me how many hives you lost to pesticide. If you add a million hives, a good percentage of them will go down as well. What we need to do is educate people on why pesticides are harmful, among other things. The native bees are a good indicator of environmental health. If the natives can survive, there is a good chance the honey bee can survive as well.

  • Hmmm? I love them all but I will pick a new favorite this summer when I can observe my garden. I will then study to see what I can do to help them to be healthy & happy.

  • Perhaps an other idea for people who want to do something for bees and aren’t beekeepers but who do have some outside space is to either buy or build a bee hotel.

  • I’m looking forward to seeing what moves into the nest thingies I put out but I’ve got a feeling this is going to be the year of the bumble bees. Maybe I’ll ID the one that hangs around my patio.

  • Education is critical and having a good frank discussion about the birds and the bees is important, but we need to delve a little deeper to another source of the issue which is a little dirtier than the reproduction of plants that keeps our pollinators busy. So if you don’t want your mind soiled I suggest that you find something else to occupy your time and turn away. Quickly, to the point, it all starts out in the dirt.

    The soil that supports the plants and the trees (are trees not plants also?) is filled with minerals and nutrients. With the aid of sunshine and moisture, these minerals and nutrients are absorbed, taken up, I like to use the term “mined” and become part of the plant. An emerging field in agriculture is soil science, quickly passing are the days of simply applying more and more “fertilizers” to the ground to achieve larger harvests, which are necessary to maintain our cheap food supply.

    It is much more than that and taking care of the soil and promoting plant diversity is becoming vital to agriculture and will in turn help our pollinators. While plenty of finger-pointing can be justly aimed at agribusiness, the huge footprint of an urban world is having a devastating effect as well. In the push to have lush green yards free of all weeds, spiders, snails and grubs, the per acre application rates of herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers of the urban world far exceed that of the farmers who put food on our table.

    With little or no setbacks or protective barriers surrounding our yards these high concentration of chemicals are finding our paved and guttered streets a freeway and are being chugged into our streams and in turn spread across the flood plains and marshy wetlands that filter so much of man’s ill-conceived ideas. The herbicides that we used on the farm when I was a kid are no longer effective. When I discovered that the ones that are currently effective, when applied to our hay fields and feed to cattle or horses, will pass through their digestive systems, go through a compost pile and still stunt my tomato plants when applied as natural fertilizer we stopped using them on the fields.

    While we are not perfect here on the farm, being a good upstream neighbor is more than just a passing idea. And by the way, I have been building mason bee blocks and giving them to my gardening friends. I believe the more they think about the bees the slower they will be to apply the pesticides in their gardens. We all have long way to go.

    Thank you Rusty for raising the alarm and providing a better way to bee. Government regulations are starting points but ultimately the market place will bring about the most lasting changes; education is critical.

  • Dear Rusty –

    Thank you! Rusty, I’d like to include some version of your article in my handouts for an upcoming booth.

    I’m the “non-Apis” beekeeper in my beekeeper association, who sometimes presents a program on other bees – mason or bumble, or next one on mining bees, (they don’t know this yet) – and keep reminding them of the diversity of pollinators. Anyway, this coming Saturday (3/8) the local association will be showing the “More than Honey” film in the Olympia area, (see below). At the most recent beekeeper meeting I asked “what about non-honeybees?”, the result being I’m putting together a “More than Honeybees” table / booth (i.e. native pollinators) for the film display area. I’m organizing materials for the display, and lining up a few other naturalists who can be there with me. Bee and information diversity is phenomenal, my problem is how to confine my stuff to just one table, (shelves and walls help). And I’ve decided that is is time to form a local non-Apis study group, not sure if it will be under the Assn or what it will look like. I approached Xerces Society, and at this point they declined sponsorship, but they have provided the Assn and me with lots of good printed materials for now.

    For those in the Olympia area, the film showing is at Evergreen, (State College), there is a ticket price, the doors open at 6, the program will start at 7, the film at 7:30, and a live link with the filmmaker afterwards — able to ask questions. There will be a few displays, including Olympia Beekeepers Assn, native pollinators (see above), maybe a pesticide alternatives table, (arrangements were in process). If you want to help at the native pollinators booth contact me, for general info check OBA’s webpage.


  • Rusty,

    You bring up a few excellent points. Here in New Hampshire we have many “other pollinators.” If it wasn’t for the “other pollinators,” my garden would have never produced as honey bees were not seen around my yard until I started raising my own bees.

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