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 is having problems, surely we do not need to be too concerned, because other insects can step in to pollinate our crops?
Others argue that native bees and pollinators would benefit from the demise of a non-native honey bee.
Is this true?
Here, I’m going to put forward a few counter arguments.
Please note, in doing so, I am in no way attempting to imply that wild bee species and pollinators matter less than honey bees….
The question that really needs to be asked, is:
what is happening with the honey bees, why, and what does this mean for wild bee species?
- and other invertebrates, for that matter.
It's not as if the collapses and demise of these honey bee colonies is and was natural.
Loss of flora and pesticide poisoning affect wild bees just as they do the honey bee – most likely wild bees are more vulnerable, because they are not being monitored or domesticated (i.e. no one is looking out for them!).
Bees, and honey bees especially, are regarded as ‘canaries 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.
Not only are honey bees vital pollinators, they enable the monitoring of negative environmental influences, in a relatively fast and controllable manner, and in a way that is not possible with wild species.
if we lose honey bees we therefore lose not only important pollinators and
charming creatures, we also sacrifice a vital ‘flag waver’ for
the environment and eco-system health – and this warning serves other insect populations too,
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 - namely, beekeepers!
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 early restrictions to the use of certain neonicotinoid pesticides which followed, such as the neonicotinoid Clothianidin.
Consider the sharing of
information between beekeepers across the globe, not only with each other, but also with
other concerned individuals and conservation groups, scientists and the media.
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!
However, when colonies collapse, and beekeepers find it hard to maintain their hives, it becomes harder and harder to keep trying, until eventually, some give up all together.
This is a bad situation to be in, because we lose an important pressure group for bees and the environment.
Declines are evident among many insect species, albeit it, their plight may be less visible initially. (Just because me may see a few wasps or houseflies this year, this doesn’t mean all insects (even wasps and houseflies!) are having a good time on a national level).
Therefore, it would be a mistake to ignore the vital clues honey bees and beekeepers provide.
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 consider whether the
findings are significant for other insects.
When we answer these questions
truthfully, we know we need to address the route causes of some of the problems facing bees: farming and
land management practice, pesticide regulation and so on.
'But aren't honey bees competition for wild species?'- is a question I am sometimes asked.
There are circumstances when I would suggest that beekeeping is not a good idea, such as in environmentally sensitive areas. It might also 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 very large scale monoculture crops - hardly natural habitats for wild bees! This pollination service is carried out to produce crops for humans to eat, and keeps food more affordable.
However, a lot of the beekeeping is conducted on a small scale, and this does not appear to be detrimental to wild bee populations.
Put another way, the total number of beekeepers and honey bees had been declining for many years in the UK, and in some other countries too (the resurgence in beekeeping did not occur in the UK until widespread publicity about honey bee deaths and colony demise, and the crisis facing bees).
Yet there is no evidence suggesting that in tandem with beekeeping and honey bee colony declines,
native pollinator populations increased.
In fact, the opposite is true.
When you think about it, 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?
The truth is, when a colony species - a Super Organism, that is meant to survive beyond a year, is not able to do so, then we all need to sit up and take notice – before it’s too late!
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