Honey Bee Deaths, and Why Honey Bees and Beekeepers Matter
Do Honey bee deaths and declines matter?
Some have argued that non-native honey bees (say, Apis mellifera in the UK and USA), are not critical. If a non-native honey bee species disappears from a country, surely we do not need to be too concerned? Others argue that native bees and pollinators would benefit from the demise of a non-native honey bee.
Perhaps those people need to think again! And here’s why….
A decline in honey bees and increase in honey bee deaths will not necessarily benefit native bee species, especially to the extent that populations of native species will improve. It might be that large scale honey bee operations could affect populations of wild bees, although there are relatively few such operations, and often these are shipped around for the purpose of pollinating fields - generally large scale monoculture crops. However, most beekeeping is conducted on a small scale, and this does not appear to be detrimental to wild bee populations.
For example, the total number of beekeepers and honey bees had been declining for many years in the UK, (the resurgence in beekeeping did not occur until recent widespread publicity about honey bee deaths and the crisis facing bees). Yet there is no evidence suggesting that in tandem with beekeeping declines, native pollinator populations increased.
Infact, the opposite is true.
According to Dr Ben Darvill of the UK Bumblebee Conservation Trust, five species of wild bee (including bumblebees) have entered the UK Red Data Book of endangered species that were regarded as COMMON in the 1980s - that is fast decline! You can read more about the status of bumblebees specifically, including in the USA, by clicking
Meanwhile, it is interesting that beekeepers in France began reporting the phenomenon of mass honey bee deaths and disappearance following the introduction of a neonicotinoid pesticide in 1994.
You can read more about honey bee deaths and pesticides
and in greater detail,
Honey bees are regarded as a ‘canary in the mine’ – an indicator of wider environmental damage and problems – a warning that action needs to be taken to rectify a dire situation, one that potentially affects not only honey bees but also other insects and creatures up the food chain.
How is this so?
Not only are honey bees vital pollinators, they enable the monitoring of negative environmental influences, in a relatively fast and controllable manner.
Honey bee hives can literally be moved from one area of the country, be monitored, and further investigated. Effects of environmental pollution can be seen quickly at the hive, and measured in bee products like pollen. Measuring the health of feral bees, such as bumblebees and solitary bees is obviously more complicated, with limited potential for control by humans. Not only this, honey bee colonies are meant to thrive year after year. Not so the bumblebee colony. Only impregnated bumblebee queens survive beyond the Autumn, and spend the winter in hibernation, hopefully to emerge the following year and ensure future generations. Solitary bees similarily have short life spans, and monitoring of toxins in solitary bee nests would possibly mean detroying the next completely.
So, if we lose our honey bees we therefore lose not only important pollinators and charming creatures, we also sacrifice an important ‘flag waver’ for environmental health – and this warning serves other insect populations too, AND humans!
A poor attitude to honey bees might suit the agro-chemical industry. Afterall, if farmers do not care about honey bees, and society looks upon this complex and beautiful creature with scorn, what does it matter if honey bees die through pesticide poisoning? Who cares? Well actually, for the sake of the environment, even if you do not care about honey bees, you might want to sit up and take note when a colony species that is meant to survive beyond a year, IS NOT ABLE TO DO SO!! Why is it that humans think they have the right to destroy so much?
But Aren't Honey Bees Competition For Wild Species?
Whilst there is overlap between some of the plants and flowers favoured by particular bees, nevertheless, there are plants that are visited only by particular species. Honey bees are known to have short tongues. Therefore, they are less keen on deep flowered species visited by long tongued bumblebees. In other words, honey bees will not provide competition to bumblebees for all types of flowers. Many of the solutions to the problems faced by our bees lie in our garden and town planting schemes, and wildlife-friendly farming practices. The answer to 'competition' is surely "more flowers" - humans activity is responsible for destruction of wildflower meadows, sensitive habitat and acres of woodlands. I suggest humanity first addresses the problems we create ourselves before we start pointing the blame on species!
Not only are honey bees important for pollination and for helping us monitor the environment, but no other insect has such a large group of humans across the world, interested in its welfare!
Beekeepers play an important role here, because they are able to exert pressure on governments and institutions on a major scale. Consider the influence and pressure from beekeepers in France, and the restrictions to the use of certain neonicotinoid pesticides which followed, such as the neonicotinoid Clothianidin.
I believe the voice of beekeepers can be a strong force against events that are detrimental not only to honey bees, but also other insects. And beekeepers are among the first to note these events, and be in a position to start making a noise about them!
Honey bees are one of the most widely researched creatures on our planet. For this reason, when something is going wrong, it is right that we should use the significant, established knowledge base we have around honey bees to give us a head start in finding out what has been happening to cause honey bee deaths and colony collapses on such a major scale. Then we should ask whether the findings are significant for other insects.
However, it is here I would raise a few words of caution. It is important that we really DO address the CAUSES of the problems, rather than resorting to a ‘sticking plaster’ approach, or worse, burying our heads in the sand like ostriches!
It could be tempting to watch the increase in beekeeping as a hobby, and decide ‘Oh, well there are more honey bees now, so the problem has gone away’.
Simply increasing the numbers of people keeping honey bees, though positive, does not address the broader issue. Nor does addressing the problem of
- which is particular to honey bees. Nor will the manufacture of more
honey bee health products
resolve the issues! Given the crashing populations in other insects such as some bumblebee species, we need to get to the route of the question ‘What problems are the honey bee deaths pointing to? What’s happening that could cause our honey bees to vanish, and how might this phenomenon indicate wider problems to be resolved?’ When we answer the question truthfully, we need to address the route causes of the problems: farming and land management practice, pesticide regulation and so on.
You see, declines are evident among many insect species, albeit it, their plight may be less visible initially. (Just because you saw a few wasps or houseflies this year, don’t assume all insects are having a good time – far from it). Therefore, it would be a mistake to ignore the vital clues honey bees might be giving us.
In other words, honey bees are crucial and honey bee deaths are a major concern. They are one of the most studied and researched creatures on the planet. As the ‘canaries in the mine’, this knowledge and expertise can and should be used to help us assess the wider, deeper environmental problems and risks we face today – before it’s too late!
I’ll be adding more about honey bee deaths and issues such as Colony Collapse Disorder and mobile cell phones too, as well as what we need to do to help our bees.
The importance of Wild Bees
Wild bees are VERY important too. Yet they often do not get the consideration they deserve, along with many other important pollinators! ALL bees are important, and play a role. This page has been written as a response to those who think that only honey bees matter, whilst wild bees do not!
Read more about the important role of other insect pollinators, and their status.
Are pesticides causing honey bee deaths? Take a look at this link to find out more.
What are the problems facing other bees?
Honey bees are not the only bees (or indeed, insects) facing problems. Link to this introductory page explaining some of the problems, and what we need to do.
Save the bees!
Here are 10 simple things you can do to save the bees. Spread the word and share these tips with your friends!
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