muddled thinking

The truth about honey bee decline

The popular press has created a mythical picture of honey bee decline, at least in North America. Sadly, many people are confused by all the misinformation.

Some non-beekeepers imagine that if thirty percent of all colonies are lost each year, then honey bees will soon become extinct. For example, if you start with 3 million managed colonies and lose thirty percent, you will have only 2,100,000 remaining after the first year. After five years you will have just 504,210. This is clearly not so.

Annual losses are replaced

Non-beekeepers don’t realize that annual losses are quickly replaced by raising queens, making splits, and capturing swarms. I’ve heard many potential beekeepers say they want to help save the bees by becoming a beekeeper. While this certainly is magnanimous, and I love seeing new beekeepers, it is more than a bit naïve.

Related to that misconception is the idea that the Endangered Species Act should be protecting the honey bee. People ask, “Doesn’t the government realize the trouble we’re in?”

In fact, the honey bee isn’t even close to going extinct. And in any case, the Endangered Species Act was designed to protect native species. The European honey bee was imported from—no surprise—Europe, so it’s in no way native to North America. It has been treated like domestic livestock ever since its arrival in 1622. Yes, it goes feral now and then, but so do cats and dogs. Feral does not equal native.

Not endangered, but plenty of trouble

Still, there are significant problems. Beekeepers are required to spend more time and money every year to keep their workforce intact. Growers, in turn, suffer losses if the beekeepers cannot supply enough pollinators. Big losses mean big expenses, and we pay for these in food prices. Commercial beekeepers themselves may go extinct if the number of honey bee problems keeps increasing.

In North America we have been concentrating honey bee pathogens and parasites from around the world in one place, while at the same time limiting the importation of genetic variability. What we have is a mess. But what concerns me even more is the plight of our native bees.

Honey bees get all the credit

The spotlight on honey bees has directed our attention away from the species that more immediately need our help, some of which actually are going extinct. We tend to think of food when we think of bees, but food is just part of the story. I like to remind folks that bees pollinate many fibers, trees, shrubs, medicinal and fragrance herbs, flower gardens, parks, plants that hold up banks and hillsides, and plants that filter our air and water. Many of these are pollinated by native bees, not so much by honey bees.

Since I started to watch pollinators carefully, I’ve realized that a lot of the credit we give to honey bees should actually go to some of the other species. Some species are pollinating all day long, side by side with honey bees, but they are so small and nondescript that no one even notices. Some of these, like the tiny Lasioglossum bees, are incredible pollinators, but because we can barely see them, we don’t care. Some bee species have already gone extinct, and we simply shrug. When was the last time you saw a “Save the Lasioglossum!” poster?

The good news is that, for the most part, a bee is a bee. So an environment that is good for one type of bee is most likely good for another. Consequently, planting a diversity of flowers, limiting pesticides, and preserving habitat are good things to do. In that sense, the honey bee spotlight has helped all bees.

Not all bees are honey bees

The bad news is that people have come to equate the word “bee” with “honey bee.” This was never so obvious to me as it was this fall. I was taking an online beekeeping course at one of the large western universities. One day, the discussion centered around antenna cleaners, so I submitted my favorite photo of a sweat bee using its antenna cleaner. The professor responded, “I like it. Send me a picture of a bee doing that and I’ll give you extra credit!”

This floored me. After all, what part of a sweat bee isn’t a bee? At first I thought he didn’t know a bee when he saw one. But gradually it dawned on me that, in his mind, “bee” meant “honey bee.” He meant to say, “Show me a honey bee doing that and I’ll give you extra credit.” I think. I hope.

Caring for the natives

All of this brings me to my New Year’s resolution: unless it is painfully obvious from the context, I am going to write “honey bee” instead of just “bee.” I already began doing this back in October, the very day of the sweat bee incident. I thought it would seldom be necessary since I’m usually writing specifically about honey bees and beekeeping. But to be totally clear, the adjective “honey” is necessary more often than I imagined. I’ve been correcting myself a lot.

My goal is to remind people there is more than one kind of bee—more like 20,000 kinds worldwide, at least for the moment. We need to care about all of them if we want to keep all of them. We need to realize that the honey bee isn’t the bee in the most immediate danger. We need to understand that we can do a lot to help all bees without keeping honey bees. But most of all, we need to understand that whatever we decide do, we had better start doing it very, very soon.


A male sweat bee, Halictus rubicundus, cleaning his antenna.

A male sweat bee, Halictus rubicundus, cleaning his antenna. © Rusty Burlew.

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    • Stingless bees produce honey. The Mayans of Mexico cultivated and valued these bees. The honey is considered to have medicinal value. There is a thriving industry of meliponiculture in South America and Mexico. You can Google it. There are several species in the same family, but different subfamily as the honey bee. No reason or possibility for hybridization, though.

      In my home country, Aragentina, I have heard of people finding and eating the honey stored in bumble bee nests in little clay pots. The quantity isn’t worth commercialization, though.

  • Your rational thinking is almost scary.

    I recently received a Facebook (I know, pitiful) posting accredited to Einstein that alleged he (Einstein) stated that without the honey bee, there would be no human life in America. When I rudely reminded this person that humans lived here for at least 15,000 years without honey bees, I was de-friended. So much for discussion.

    Oh and please add thyme to the list of plants for bees. We have let it expand in our garden because it feeds bees from early spring to hard frost.

    • Renaldo,

      I hear you! I too have been de-followed, de-friended, de-twitted, and de-subscribed for stating elementary scientific facts. Good riddance, in my opinion.

  • Rusty, we have kicked this topic around a LOT in my Journeyman Beekeeper study group. There were two news stories this summer that got us started…the first a study demonstrating that planting wide pollinator strips of season- long bee forage markedly improved crop yields in fields, and supported a huge increase in populations of both honey bees and all native bees and pollinators (remembering that lots of pollinators aren’t even bees of any kind). The second was a study that indicated honey bees were out-competing native bees and were perhaps pushing their numbers down….but what did not make the press coverage was the caveat in the paper that said this was a concern ONLY when forage was so scarce and so poor there was not enough to go around (ahem, modern agriculture and land development) and that this was a relatively new phenomenon.

    The third thing that we discussed did not relate so much to the group, which is Washington State based. I am Canadian, and in Canada the general consensus is that there are no feral honey bees left at all save perhaps in a couple of our warm winter areas like the coastal Pacific NW and the Maritimes. In Canada, the twin pressures of Varroa and degraded/absent forage (in that order) leave colonies unable to winter successfully. That means that, at least in Canada, the ability of honey bees to survive is a direct function of the ability of beekeepers to afford to keep them. That IS a scary situation. Here, honey bees are in distinct danger of being functionally extinct.

    In Washington State, one beekeeping assoc. exec has stated that lack of forage is the single biggest challenge to honey bees. If that is so, we do need to consider the extinction scenario if beekeepers can’t make a go of things. I spend a lot of money and time managing Varroa and stores levels in my hives, particularly as my area is becoming over-saturated in bees. There is fierce interest in lands offering good forage, and that has meant huge competition = low honey yields and stress on the bees. Disease transfer is now common…we had record EFB and AFB rates in our area last summer. I love my bees, but keeping them is expensive and a bit of a slog, and I am just a hobbyist, with time and money to lavish on them. It would not take much more pressure on honey bees to crash the industry.

    • WW,

      Thanks for a thought-provoking comment. To me, your words illustrate exactly why we should take care of the native bee populations. If honey bee populations crash in Canada, you will need every one of the native pollinators to take up the slack. But I believe they can.

      However, I think local extinction is often confused with total extinction. If a species goes extinct in Canada, but it still exists elsewhere, that is a local extinction only. Perhaps that species can be re-introduced, or a different genetic strain can be introduced.

      But beyond that is the larger question of whether an introduced species can go extinct at all. For the sake of argument, let’s introduce 10,000 orangutans into the Prairie Provinces. We track them, keep records, and find they all eventually die. Do we say orangutans went extinct in Canada? Probably not.

      In truth, honey bees aren’t very different. Yes, the scale of the experiment is longer, bigger, and for a while the bees were doing fine on their own. But they aren’t any more. Can we say they are going extinct? Again, I would say probably not. From a biological and evolutionary standpoint, they don’t belong in Canada or anywhere else in the Americas.

      Likewise, if an invasive plant like Japanese knotweed—which is absolutely thriving in much of the Pacific Northwest—died off due to an introduced disease, would we call it extinct? Not likely. We would probably call it success.

      When we look at species distribution and survival from the point of view of human need, it looks very different than it does from the point of view of natural evolution, speciation, and extinction. Whenever mankind has learned to live with natural systems rather than trying to change them, he has done better . . . IMHO.

  • Nailed it again, Rusty!

    Shoppers at the Farmers’ Market come up eager to tell me they “signed a petition to save the bees.”
    I thank them and add, “If you also want to do something specific, get rid of your lawn service and sow white clover in your yard.” With a brief summary on native pollinators, soil nitrification and agronomy. Many of them, like the Rich Young Man of the Gospel, “go away greatly saddened.”

    We should all join in your campaign to use the words “honey bee” in context, and keep that 20,000 figure handy.

    Happy New Year!

  • Honey bees and butterflies are the poster kids for insects. People need to know that what is happening to them is happening throughout the insect world.

  • Another study that got out attention in Journeyman class was one addressing the issue of native pollinators vs. honey bees. Most of the crops we depend on the honey bee for are not native to North America and are not well pollinated by native pollinators. This was in response to the recent surge of sympathy for the plight of native pollinators, which spawned a bit of a backlash against the honey bee. But as Nancy so rightly says, forage loss and degradation is the real problem here, and if you would only get more clovers and flowers into the world, that rising tide would float all bee/pollinator boats. As for the extinction issue…I agree, honey bees are likely in little danger of going extinct on a planetary basis. That is why I like to use the phrase “functional extinction”. We are already having trouble fielding sufficient numbers of bees for pollination contracts, an industry itself that puts new and troubling pressures on honey bees. In cold weather areas in particular, honey bees are indeed poised on the edge of functional extinction….where only beekeeping and beekeepers keep them in play. That did not used to be the case, and the things that have changed are worthy of examination and repair. Meanwhile, as Nancy said, sow clovers everywhere…and I pray some budding bio-engineer is hot on the trail of altering the genetic code of Varroa such that they can be extincted, rather than the honey bee.

    • Honey bees did not coevolve with any of the most important crops they pollinate in North America, almonds, alfalfa, blueberries, etc. Many native bees coevolved with crab-apples and wild cherries, which belong to the same floral syndrome as almonds, apples, etc. so they are excellent pollinators of these crops. The native alkali bee and the introduced alfalfa bee are superior to honey bees at pollinating alfalfa. As for blueberries, the blueberry bee and many bumble bees do a far better job than honey bees, as these flowers require buzz pollination.

      Honey bees are Jacks of all trades, masters of none. The only reason they are useful is that they are manageable and transportable. This large labor force makes them ideal for pollinating monocrops. They stay on the fields for a month and the other eleven months the grower can use pesticides and kill everything including native bees and natural biocontrols. Not a good system, in my opinion. Fortunately the Xerces Society and a few other groups are trying to change that, creating native bee/biocontrol habitats around fruit crop fields.

      Perhaps, rather than larger numbers of bee hives, we should aspire to the same or fewer numbers, but healthier ones, mostly for the production of honey and wax, and leave most of the pollination to other pollinators. Moving them around so much contributes to their spreading pests among hives and stresses them excessively.

  • Would “extirpation” rather than “extinction” be the word for a species ceasing to exist in a specific area?

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