Honey bees are not in danger. These bees.


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.

A beekeeper wearing a hat and gloves holds a wooden hive frame covered with honey bees.

European honey bees in an artificial hive in California.
Teresa Short/Getty Images

Three stacks of box-shaped beehives sit in front of rows of flowering almond trees.

Honeybee hives in an almond grove in Dixon, Calif., on February 17, 2022.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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.

Close-up of a sweat bee with a metallic green breast, on a pink echinacea flower.

A species of sweat bee has a metallic green breast on an echinacea flower.
Steve Lenz/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Little black fuzzy bee crawling through the purple flowers.

Osmia lignaria, the blue orchard bee, is a species of construction bee found in North America.
Jim Rivers

A yellow and black bumblebee hangs on a drooping stem.

American Bee in Dummer, New Hampshire.
Kabi Thompson / Getty Images

A large yellow bee clinging to a squash flower, pollen grains covering its face and abdomen.

A squash bee pollinates a squash flower.
Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images

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.

An archived black, yellow, and orange bee specimen with a pin through is displayed against a black background.

A polished rusty bee specimen in the archives of the Maine State Museum in Hallowell, Maine.
Joel Page/The Portland Press-Herald via Getty Images

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.


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