Our wild bees (and indeed other pollinators) are SO IMPORTANT. Yet many pollinating species remain unsung heroes of the environment, gardens and countryside.
I campaign for solitary bees, bumblebees and honey bees. Many of the actions we take to protect one pollinator species – whether it be honey bees or wild bees, (such as flower rich habitat creation, protection from pesticides), will assist biodiversity as a whole.
However, I do feel dismayed when I receive comments and criticism for this approach. Why?
Well there are those like me, who can see that all the bees and other pollinators are important. On the other hand, I’ve had people contacting me to say that honey bees are more important than the rest, whilst others insist that wild bees and pollinators would be better off if honey bees were allowed to die out.
Now with regard to the second point, for those who think honey bees are a nuisance and should be allowed to die out, then I suggest you read my page about why honey bees matter (opens new window) for an alternative perspective about this enchanting little pollinator.
I have also written a page about some of the problems faced by wild
insect pollinators (see the link at the bottom of this page). Many
species of moths, butterflies, beetles and so on, are having a very hard
time too, which is bad news, because they all play their own vital role
in the web of life.
This page is written to put the case for wild bees. In the same way that I have defended honey bees from those who argue they should be left to die out, on this page, I will counter the argument that only honey bees matter, whilst wild bees do not. I’ll use some of the broad-brush statements people have actually made to me as a basis upon which to address this issue.
And here they are….
1. "In a colony of honey bees, there may be about 50,000 to 60,000 workers. Because there are so many, they therefore provide greater pollination coverage, and so are far more important than bumblebees and solitary bees".
This sounds plausible, but it is actually wrong!
Efficient pollination of any crop depends on a number of factors, including:
The speed of pollination:
The ability of the insect to transfer pollen from one plant to another:
The ability to pollinate in adverse conditions:
2. "But honey bees are the primary pollinators for crop pollination, and therefore they are more important".
It is true that honey bees are primarily used in commercial pollination, but this is due to man’s domestication of the species, and lack of knowledge about the importance and sometimes greater efficiency of other pollinators of some crops. However, increasingly, other bees are being reared for commercial pollination, but this is a relatively recent development (and one I am not so sure I’m keen on!).
as an example, the efficiency of bumblebees in COMMERCIAL pollination
of tomatoes, was not even discovered until the 1980s. It was discovered
in the Netherlands, where several companies began rearing Bombus terrestris.
Within 3 years, 95% of tomato growers in the Netherlands had switched
to bumblebee pollination. (Source: Bumblebees Behaviour and Ecology;
Prof. Dave Goulson).
3. "Honey bees are more important, because they provide honey, wax and so on"
It is true that humans harvest a number of products from honey bees such as honey and wax. I have to
say, I think honey bees give and give and give. I would even add to the list: honey bees have provided much inspiration for humanity, such as the use of hexagons. It is also true that other honey bee products have been exploited by man, such as bee venom, and also honey bee pollen (the supposed advantages of which I remain unconvinced about).
However, some crops are only pollinated by wild bees and other pollinators, and not honey bees. Some of these plants provide important products and/or food for humans.
4. "I read that honey bees pollinate nearly all the wild flowers in the countryside"
So which species are doing the pollinating, when honey bees are not present? In the UK, perhaps it is one of the other 250 species of bee, or maybe hoverflies, butterflies, moths, and beetles have a role to play, not to mention wasps! (This year, I filmed wasps pollinating my cotoneaster tree, resulting in ample berries for birds this winter!).
5. "Bumblebees get too much attention, because they are cute and fluffy, whereas honey bees should receive more attention"
It’s true, I actually received this message via social media! I attempted to reassure the person that this simply was not the case.
As of today, a search for ‘honey bees’ in Google produces 2,280,000 results – many of these mentions being from online, mainstream newspaper articles, as well as blogs, campaigns, websites and so on. Even many high profile campaigns by commercial and voluntary organisations tend to focus on honey bees without mentioning wild bees, despite their plight and importance.
Oh, and a search for ‘honeybees’ (all one word),
produced a further 1,790,000 results (although I do not know if some of
these were included in the original 2.28 million).
Meanwhile, a search for bumblebees on Google produced 949,000 responses.
And solitary bees, which consists of the major portion of wild bees, and relatively speaking, ‘our unsung heroes’ – produced only 227,000 returns from Google.
I think this provides a useful indicator of
which species is grabbing most of the attention. Whilst I am keen that
honey bees are helped, it is VERY IMPORTANT to realise that solving
honey bee specific problems, such as varroa, and increasing the number
of beekeepers, does not mean that all is well with our pollinators, but I
fear that many will think this is the case. Indeed, more needs to be
done to raise awareness of the problems faced by wild bees and insect
Finally, as an example, there are thousands of beekeepers in the UK, actively managing and caring for their bees on an ongoing basis, and supported by associations. Meanwhile, the invertebrates charity, Buglife, consists of a team of about 15 employees, looking out for the whole of the nation’s invertebrate species, including bees, ants, spiders, beetles, butterflies, moths, and many other creatures we are generally oblivious to. Government funding for bee related matters is already inadequate, but most of it has tended to focus on honey bees, rather than wild bees.
Meanwhile, I have concerns about the commercialisation of wild bees as pollinators, and I find myself fearing 'Where will it lead?'.
We have already tampered with honey bees over centuries, many would argue, to the desires of man but to the detriment of the honey bees themselves, especially in terms of health.
Mistakes have already been made in the USA, with the shipping around of bumblebees into new locations, and the spread of disease to local species that have not naturally had the time to build up a resistance to the new disease. I think we need to get better informed and re-look at our land management practices, before we develop further risky practices such as this.
6. "Honey bees are more important because they can be managed"
Increasingly, wild bees are being reared and ‘managed’. On my page Why Do Honey Bees Matter, I outline how important this is for humans in terms of monitoring environmental stressors. I cannot stress the importance of this (nor my love for this enchanting little creature) - enough.
However, I believe it is important to remember that whilst honey bees may be managed, the diseases and problems experienced by honey bees, the collapses in populations, combined with the fact that we are becoming more aware (albeit very slowly) of the importance of other pollinators, indicate that is is very unwise to neglect, ignore and allow destructive practices towards other wild bees and pollinators. Relying on only one species for pollination, would seem foolish and detrimental to food and environmental security.
Some people have the habit of viewing life in terms of competition, then transferring those values to wildlife. But nature can balance itself out beautifully, and I think it’s more helpful for all parties to work together to protect all the species. All of wildlife plays a role – there are no superfluous species, even if we think there are – just our lack of understanding. And again, for those who may feel enraged at my support for wild bees, take a look now at my page about why honey bees matter.
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Click the button below to view wonderful short videos of pollination:
“The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century ……The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees.”
- Achim Steiner, Executive Director UN Environment Programme (UNEP)