Is It Okay To Kill Bees In Order To Study Them?

There are ways to study bees, without killing them.  Please, let's not kill bees unnecessarily.

Scientists – even on the conservation side, can seemingly be rather detached from nature.  Some would argue that this is necessary in order to produce an objective study, but I’m not sure that this is necessarily true.  The attitudes of having love, regard and respect for the lives of other creatures, and objectivity, are not automatically mutually exclusive.  Why should they be?

Nature and wildlife species as 'objects'?

My impression is that it can be too easy to look at nature and at other living creatures, as simply ‘objects of study’ and that’s about it.  This attitude can extend to a disconcerting disregard for life, and even at times, an alarming view that taking the life of a creature in order to study it is automatically justified. 

This 'study' can include 'taking a closer look', perhaps in order to categorize it or add it to a collection - even for amateur enthusiasts and 'citizen scientists'.  

Perhaps it’s a symptom of the general sort of disconnect between humans and nature.

Common carder bumble bee on oregano / marjoram.Common carder bumble bee on oregano / marjoram.

Let's take an example

A few years ago, a contact of mine was telling me about a ‘Bee I.D.’ workshop she had attended, in which she described an incident both of us found unpalatable. 

A “conservation scientist” had captured a bumble bee, and it was trapped inside a sealed specimen tube with no air holes.  

The scientist tipped the tube about a little, and rambled on about identifying bumble bees.  Having noticed the bee had been trapped for some time, my contact expressed her concern that the bee may be suffocating.

“Oh don’t worry,” was the self assured response of the scientist, “I’ve done this lots of times,” she said.  

Regardless, the bee suffocated, and was dead literally a few minutes later.

Buff-tailed bumble bee on verbena.Buff-tailed bumble bee on verbena.

Many scientists perform very important work, and I genuinely don't wish to denigrate that work in any way, and whilst the situation described above was an accident, I would encourage universities and scientists to really consider whether they need to trap and kill specimens in order to carry out their work, and how could such activity be minimized?

I would also encourage authors writing study and I.D. guides to think about who may purchase the book (given the broader interest in bees) and whether it might be wiser to discourage capturing, killing and pinning bees rather than provide instructions on how to do so.  Surely for the serious student, these techniques should be covered by a university professor for the defined target audience - and only when it is necessary?

How can bees be studied without killing them?

Here are a few points I feel could be considered:

  • For a start, perhaps there are occasions when already dead bee specimens can be used for study, for example, when students need to study anatomy, and specifically dissect bees. 
    Dead bees can easily be found at the end of the ‘bee season’ and will have died from natural causes such as predator attack.  I frequently find a few dead bumble bees of various types, later in the year.  Dead honey bees can be collected from beekeepers, and are found outside the hive.  

  • Where dissections take place, could the process be filmed and shown to future students?

  • Perhaps with careful consideration, it would be possible to reduce the overall number of specimens needed in certain study scenarios.  

  • They could also ask whether some dissection is really necessary - for example, the honey bee has been widely studied, and its anatomy is well known.  Is it really necessary to repeat exercises for the sake of it?  Can study be supplemented by film?

  • Is it always necessary to kill and categorize?  What is really gained, and is it useful?  Can differences between species and sexes be discerned in different ways, such as behavioural observations?

  • Quality photographic images may also serve the purpose in many cases.

  • Much scientific research is behavioural - perhaps even more focus on field observation has ever greater relevance.  Perhaps with vision, behavioural study can be applied in a more sophisticated fashion to areas traditionally where killing and dissection were deemed necessary?

  • I also query any practice that involves the destruction of a wild colony for any purpose.  By now, many techniques should surely have evolved to avoid such things, such as film (video).  Where seeking to provide quantitative data,  measurement parameters could be devised to exclude the need to cause any damaging disruption to colonies.

I may be accused of being sentimental.  I merely question the accepted wisdom that killing things to study them is the right approach, and whether it can automatically be considered as 'justified'. 

Others my think this article contradicts my other stance on the killing of bees to test insecticides - another ethical dilemma (it's an article that needs to be read in its entirety to see where I'm going with it).

If we accept this idea as 'the way it's done' how long will it take us to evolve better ways?  (Necessity is the mother of invention after all!).  What kind of attitude do we encourage in young and new scientists, if they are educated to accept 'kill-study' as the automatic norm?

A small, dark Orange-legged furrow bee male peeping out of a white (with mauve stripes) geranium flower.Orange-legged furrow bee (male) on geranium flower.

I appreciate that in some cases, bees may be reared especially for this purpose - i.e. for the purpose of study, but I still feel uneasy about the killing.

Citizen Science Projects And Bees

I welcome citizen science projects, however, I am alarmed when I see schemes advocating that members of the public should capture live bees and pin them to a display board (I actually learned of an intended scheme in which participants would make a 'bee board' - a display board of all different bees they had observed whilst out and about, pinned to a board). 

Instead, I would suggest that if identification rather than mere interest is the objective, then guidance needs to be given on taking photographs and video which will aid identification, for example: capturing a good image of the hind legs especially, as well as the face and sides of the abdomen, will help.

Some cameras also have the facility to film, as do phones, so taking film may be useful. The film can then be shared with experts, along with photographs. 

Granted, there are some occasions when identifying a species of bee will be difficult if not impossible without the assistance of an expert, however, I would argue that it really is not worth encouraging the public to kill bees ‘just in case’ there is a need to identify a few difficult ones.  If, from photographic or film evidence from a member of the public, a case really can be made for the need to I.D. a bee species, then if it really, really is so important, a specialist can visit the area where the bee was seen in order to collect the data more accurately.

In fact, in general I would discourage members of the public from killing bees in order to study them.  Apart from such activity being a complete waste of life which I liken to bird egg collecting, a rare species may accidentally be lampooned.

Instead, how about observing bees whilst alive in order to study them?! 

John Lewis-Stempel

A review of this beautiful nature diary

John Lewis-Stempel

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