What do you know about bees? Do they produce honey? They live in a cell? they leaked?
Well, I have news: These characteristics don’t actually describe most bees in the United States. Of the approximately 4,000 native species, not a single species produces true honey. Not one! Most of them live alone. Most of them do not have a queen.
The bees that many people know are honey beesAnd Apis mellifera, a non-native species brought by Americans from Europe centuries ago. Beekeepers manage them like any other farm animal to produce honey and pollinate crops.
The European honey bee is arguably the most famous insect in the world. They are honey bees! Foggy honey bees, buzzing, making honey! And they deserve at least some of that attention. About third Most of the food we eat comes from plants that honey bees pollinate You face many threatswhich fueled a national campaign to “save the bees”.
But some ecologists argue that all of this interest in honey bees has eclipsed their native counterparts: the wild bees. It’s a great variety, found in all sorts of colors and sizes, and it’s an important pollinator, too—better, By some measuresfrom honey bees. In general, native bees are also at greater risk of extinction, due in part to the spread of the European honey bee.
Honeybees are not in danger of finally disappearing. So maybe, then, all this time we’ve been saving the wrong bees.
“People are devoting so much of their love, interest and funding to honeybees,” said Hollis Woodard, a bee researcher at UC Riverside. “That can be harmful to wild bees. If we really want to say, ‘Save the bees,’ I think we need to get some straight facts about who and what.”
Appearance of honey bees
The bees that many Americans adore were transported here on wooden ships 400 years ago. At the time, American farms were small and pollinated by wild insects. The settlers used new bees (newbies?) for candle wax and, of course, honey.
But in the following centuries, as plantations spread and native pollinators declined, honey bees became big business as commercial pollinators. Conveniently, bees pollinate a wide variety of crops and live in colonies that can be trucked across the country, arriving on farms when plants are in bloom.
Today, the United States has approximately 3 million honey bee colonies, numbering in the tens of billions of bees. They pollinate approx $15 billion crop value each year, from California almonds to zucchini.
Honey bees have become popular because they help produce our food. But what turned them into environmental icons was a somewhat misleading narrative about the “decline of bees” that emerged in the periods.
Around 2006, beekeepers began reporting massive losses to their honey bee colonies. “That set off alarm bells,” said James Kane, a bee expert and researcher emeritus at the USDA. “The beekeeping business was under threat,” he said, and calls to “save the bees” circulated.
This threat was, and still is, very real. On top of pesticides and habitat loss, parasitic mites spread rapidly between hives in the 2000s causing colonies to collapse, which is still a concern today.
But the bee decline, as most of the public understands it, has always been about non-native honey bees, not wild bees. This distinction is important because European honey bees have an entire industry working to perpetuate them — to treat diseased colonies — while wild bees do not.
Even at the height of the bee decline, there were still more than two million colonies in the United States. Globally, meanwhile, honey bee colonies are now widespread more than 80 percent Since the sixties.
“There are probably more honeybees on the planet now than ever before,” said Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization that advocates for pollinator conservation. “There are no conservation concerns.”
The same cannot be said of native bees.
Many native bees are at risk of extinction
If native bees are nothing like honey bees, what are they like? Most of them are solitary and nest in the ground. Most of them do not have queens. They don’t dance to find honey. And none of them produce the kind of honey we eat (bees make a honey-like substance from nectar, albeit in much smaller quantities).
It’s also a diverse group. Some are just a file a few millimeters long They look like mosquitoes, while others — bumblebees and carpenter bees, for example — are more than an inch long. Many bees consume nectar and pollen like honey bees. others Eat oil!
The photos below show just a handful of them, from the tiny metallic sweat bee (which will actually drink human sweat) to the furry and even cute American bumblebee.
As a group, bees are incredibly wild Important Pollinators, especially for home gardens and crops that honeybees cannot pollinate. Tomatoes, eggplant and peppers, for example, requireBuzz pollination; Bees have to vibrate their bodies to shake the pollen free—a behavior honey bees can’t do (bumblebees and some other native species can).
However, these free services that native bees provide are dwindling. While wild bees, as a group, have not been well studied, current research indicates that many species are threatened with extinction, including more than a quarter From North American bees.
“From an environmentalist’s point of view, it’s the local bees that desperately need support,” says Alison McAfee, a bee researcher at the University of British Columbia. written.
These include species already federally threatened – such as Rusty bumblebee — and a pipeline for others that are “walking toward the endangered species list,” Woodard said.
The main threat is the same as that facing almost all types of wildlife: the destruction of natural habitats, such as grasslands. “Native bees have been in decline to the point of declining prairie habitats,” Kane said.
Use Iowa as an example: Over the past two centuries, the state has lost more than 99 percent of its long grassy meadows, much of it for industrial farming. So is the case with Illinois. The prairie is full of wildflowers and a landscape incredibly important to bees, including rusty bumblebees.
Insecticides and fungicides are also a problem, especially a group of chemicals called neonicotinoids that are designed to kill agricultural pests. “We just have displayed time And time again Woodard said. “They are taken in pollen in the nectar; they harm bees in many different ways.”
Like Vox Previously mentionedU.S. pesticide regulation is often behind the science on how these agrochemicals harm bees and other pollinators. (Neonicotinoids are mostly banned in Europe but remain legal in almost all parts of the United States.)
More and more, research also points to another rather paradoxical threat.
How honeybees can harm wild bees
Honey bees are highly skilled foragers. A single colony can collect about 22 pounds of pollen grains (pollen mixed with some nectar) over the course of three summer months, according to a 2016 study. study led by cane.
The study found that this is enough to feed the offspring of 110,000 solitary bees. “Honeybees are exceptionally good at removing pollen from the landscape,” Woodard said.
This can be a problem for local bees. In some landscapes, where flowering plants are limited, native insects compete with honeybees for pollen and nectar. As a result, they may have to travel further in search of food and eventually collect less food for their young.
In addition, some native bees collect pollen from one or a handful of flowers; Unlike honey bees, these species cannot easily switch from one food source to another because pollen is running low.
“You can’t have a finite resource, add a domesticated animal to eat, and expect everything to be fine after that,” Kane said. (Increased body of Research Shows that competition with honey bees is harmful to local bees.)
Keene said commercial beekeepers often let their bees feed in natural ecosystems when the insects aren’t working on a farm. In Utah, where he’s based, sometimes managed honey bee apiaries are parked on public lands, and each one might contain 30 or even 60 colonies. He said it was like a city of people hungry for food, ready to plunder the countryside. There are also colonies of “wild” honey bees—those not managed by humans—all over the country.
Competition is not the main concern. McAfee told Vox that dense colonies of honeybees can also be reservoirs for viruses and other microbes that can cause diseases in wildlife. Experts like her fear that these viruses could be transmitted to native bee populations, although there are still many unknowns. “We don’t know the extent to which these viruses cause actual illness and disease in native bees,” McAfee said.
What is clear, she said, is that scientists need to better understand and eradicate diseases in managed honey bee colonies to prevent a potentially deadly spread. To protect wild bees, scientists will need solutions that go beyond honeybees.
How can you help save bees?
Barring wholesale changes to our diet, we’ll still need honeybees. But we need wild bees, too.
Farms depend on it, including commercial crops (domestic bees Crop yield enhancement Even on farms that propagate honeybees) and home gardens. If there are flowers growing in your garden—sunflowers, or echinacea—they are likely to be pollinated by bees.
This brings us to what may be the easiest way for people to help native bees: bloom flowers! Especially the original ones that bloom at different times of the year. Groups like the Xerces Society make this easy by providing farming guides for each region.
Native bees (and plenty of other creatures) also benefit from a little mess, Woodard said. Do not comb every leaf. Leave a fallen branch in place.
“We need to radically change how we think about the spaces around us, what a ‘nice space’ is, and what it means to be a good agent,” Woodard said. “Keep things wild, keep things a little more manicured.”
What you definitely shouldn’t do, experts say, is buy a honey bee colony. “It certainly doesn’t help,” said McAfee. Instead, she said, “people should think about making local bees want to come to them.”