Honey Bee Declines - Why Should We Be Concerned About Honey Bees?

Honey bee - Apis mellifera on variegated geranium flower.Honey bee - Apis mellifera on variegated geranium flower.


Are honey bees in danger of extinction? 

Are honey bees declining?

 Are honey bees becoming rare?

Why are people concerned abut honey bees?


It is now some years since I first started campaigning for bees, and the debate has moved on significantly.  Yet, there is still some confusion, as to the original alarms that were and are still being raised.  Thus, questions like those above remain common. 

As I write, it’s October 2019. 

Here is a summary of the situation, along with an explanation as to why the debate and campaign evolved in the way that it did.

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Are honey bees in danger of extinction?  Are honey bees declining or becoming rare?


No.

However, the alarm was raised by beekeepers because of what was happening to so many honey bee colonies that were managed, such as:

  • A high proportion of honey bee colonies not surviving the winter.   

  • In some cases, colonies of honey bees disappearing, with only diseased and dead bees and disease-infected hive products remaining at the hive.

  • As a result of colony declines, less honey production – some beekeepers were partly relying on honey sales to earn a living.

These issues were most frequently noted among beekeepers who had offered pollination services on fields where neonicotinoids were used, and also among beekeepers whose hives happened to be close to areas that had been treated with neonicotinoids.

Honey bee - Apis mellifera on Japanese anemone flower.Honey bee - Apis mellifera on Japanese anemone flower.


Despite the situation above, how are honey bee colonies surviving?


To an extent, losses of managed honey bee colonies can be offset by raising more colonies – although these too could be put into danger, if for example, they are kept on an insecticide treated field or encounter diseases they cannot fight. 

In addition, so many people were concerned about what was happening to honey bees, that in some countries, more people took up beekeeping for the first time – prior to this, beekeeping as a hobby had been in freefall.   This has resulted in more beekeepers and more colonies.  

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However, problems continue in a large part in colonies that are exposed to insecticides.


The problems highlighted above by beekeepers remain very important, because they clearly indicate that something is wrong that needs to be put right. 

Merely breeding more honey bees is only a short term sticking plaster approach that does not deal with the underlying causes of the problems.


Honey bee - Apis mellifera on prairie mallow flower.Honey bee - Apis mellifera on prairie mallow flower.


What about wild bees and pollinators?


Wild bees and pollinators most definitely need our support to reverse declines.

Wild bees have been declining for many years.  Some like to claim it’s partly the faulty of honey bees.  This is nonsense – beekeeping as a hobby had been in freefall for many years, but wild pollinators did not increase in numbers during this period.   

Conversely, wild bee populations declined further during that period, and there have been a number of extinctions.   


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The reason for wild bee decline is primarily habitat loss, urbanization, insecticide use and industrial farming practices. 

In some cases, disease has also caused concern, for example nosema (which may be linked to neonicotinoids) and disease spread in bumble bees from commercially reared bumble bee species.

The problems experienced by wild bees and pollinators can be traced to human activity. 


Human activity can do a tremendous amount to reverse that decline.  Providing food for bees in the form of plants in your garden and not using insecticides, will help wild bees and pollinators tremendously.


Honey bee - Apis mellifera on geranium flower.Honey bee - Apis mellifera on geranium flower.


If honey bees are not rare, why be concerned about honey bees?


The reason why we should be interested in what is happening for honey bees is because:

  • If managed honey bee colonies are struggling (as they have been) and environmental factors are implicated (they have in most cases), this should raise the alarm for wild pollinators and invertebrates too. 

    Environmental issues affecting honey bees may have an even more profound and worrying effect on wild species. 
  • Honey bee colonies should have a longevity – i.e. they should continue to survive over years (unlike wild bees and pollinators, whose lifecycles are short in comparison).  They also produce hive products that can be analyzed. 

    Therefore, honey bees are exceptionally important, since they help provide a fuller picture of environmental threat over time, which in turn raises the alarm for wild bees.


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  • Honey bees are – as far as I’m aware – the only invertebrate species with which humans interact very closely (i.e. the beekeepers), whilst also allowing them freedom to roam in the outside environment. 

    Whilst humans do indeed interact with other invertebrates (such as stick insects, spiders etc), they are kept in glass tanks, and are not exposed to the external  environment.  

    What this actually means in practice, is that there are humans looking out for and continually monitoring the well-being of honey bees.  If something (a polllutant) in the environment is harmful to wild bees, beekeepers will more than likely be the first to spot it, because honey bees will be exposed to it too. 

    Such close monitoring and recording has not been happening for wild pollinators and invertebrates in anything like the depth and scale. 

    Even now after much publicity, wildlife organisations and public bodies have to rely on ‘Citizen science’ to monitor wild species.  This is a good thing, because it maintains concern and interest among the greater population, but it is not ‘specialist’ and can be prone to error. 

    It also relies on maintained dedication and discipline from volunteers over years to be of greater value in the long term – what happens when volunteers are lost?  New recruits will constantly have to be found, and controlled standards may not be easy to maintain. 

    Still, I’m very much in favour of ‘Citizen Science’ and the resulting public engagement.


Honey bee - Apis mellifera on knapweed flower.Honey bee - Apis mellifera on knapweed flower.


Why do we give so much attention to honey bees?  Shouldn’t we be more worried about wild bees and pollinators?


We should look after both, and be concerned about all of them.  Honey bees are vitally important for the reasons I mention above, and are a beautiful and amazing species, deserving of survival and existence. 

Wild bees and pollinators are also exceptionally important.

Caring about one set of species does not make an enemy of the other.


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There has been a tendency to think that only honey bees are facing declines or are in danger, but why is this?


I don’t think it’s the case nowadays, though honey bees grabbed most of the attention early on.  Quite frankly this was because it was primarily beekeepers and independent campaigners such as myself, not wildlife charities, who were driving the awareness from the start.

Following our activities, there were a number of regulatory investigations with results published, most notably from EFSA in 2012.  At that point, larger wildlife organisations then started to get on board.  

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With increased noise and greater activity, the broader issues facing pollinators generally, are more widely known.  They remain and always have been the same:

  • Habitat loss.

  • Industrial agricultural practices – insecticide use, herbicide use, habitat loss.
  • To a lesser extent generally, diseases – usually traceable to human activity.


Honey bee - Apis mellifera on sneezeweed flower.Honey bee - Apis mellifera on sneezeweed flower.


Conclusion


Whilst honey bees are not in danger of extinction in the near future, they are vital because environmental factors affecting honey bees are likely to affect wild species, and with more devastating effects.

Honey bees are truly amazing, beautiful and extraordinary creatures.  The continual and dedicated monitoring of honey bee colonies by beekeepers means that environmental dangers to wild pollinators are most likely to be noted and raised by beekeepers first.



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