It’s not what you think…
If you’ve been to this website before you know it’s important to us to keep the environmental impact low as we go about the business of growing and selling flowers. It doesn’t stop there. Several years back with the help of the Natural Resource Conservation Service, an arm of the USDA, a dedicated pollinator habitat was created to provide more habitat and foraging opportunities for our diverse native bee population. The more well-known are wild honey bees, bumble bees, leaf cutters, mining and mason bees; but New England is home to more than 200 species! The guidelines for creating an effective habitat require a wide array of native New England flowers and grasses, and that at least 3 varieties are blooming at any time from early spring through the fall. It took a few years, but now the native wildflower meadow is thriving. Add to that another acre or so of returning perennials and new annuals every season and the result is an oasis not just for bees, but butterflies and hummingbirds as well.
Along with the success of the pollinator habitat for the native bee population came thoughts of bringing in more bees to help combat the crisis occurring in the general bee population. Delving into the prospect of adding a honey bee hive among the natives uncovered plenty of research suggesting there could be lasting negative effects. The BIG QUESTION was: “Can managed hives be detrimental to a native bee population?” With so many facets of species design, habitat, and behavior to consider, it seemed logical to seek more information at a local chapter meeting of beekeepers hosted by the state’s Dept. of Agriculture Resources Apiary Program. Not to dismiss the efforts of well-intentioned folks wanting to do their part to increase the bee population, it was great to see so many local beekeepers with genuine interest in doing something good.
The meeting did highlight, though, the temperamental nature of honey bee hives, fraught with mites, bacteria and fungal infestations, not to mention the more familiar but still mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder. Even without a disease presence, the failure rate of hives through winter is remarkably high nationwide and even higher in our state. It also showed that the majority of beekeepers do not understand the foraging behavior of their bees. And without that understanding, the state expert admitted that hive overcrowding exists and can cause food shortages for all the bees in some areas, with greater health effects on the native species.
Having gone in with hopes of finding some answers to the many questions percolating in my head, information taken away from the meeting provided even more reason to be concerned. Some key points that follow are examples of how individual points may seem, on their own, beneficial or at least harmless…but when the points start connecting, a wholly different picture is revealed, and it can be quite prophetic and alarming:
- The honey bee managed today is not native to North America. Apis Mellifera was brought over in 1622 for honey and wax production. Today’s managed honey bee is a general pollinator, which means it pollinates a variety of plants and is therefore useful on factory farms with vast expanses of crops to pollinate. According to the Virginia Farm Bureau, honey bees now pollinate 80% of US crops.
- However, the honey bee also favors the nectar of many invasive species like purple loosestrife, Japanese Knotweed and Russian Olive in our region…and yet is unable to pollinate many beneficial species of Native American plants.
- Because it is a social insect with a hive mentality, it is more likely to sting, swarm, and be more aggressive than other bee species when competing for food resources or defending the hive. Most native bees are solitary and quite docile. Many field studies have shown that the more aggressive honey bee chases other bee species from flowers, even the substantial bumblebee! As a result, native bees can suffer with declined health and reproduction.
- Honey bees have very short mouthparts and are not designed for feeding on deeper flowers. Many native North American plants rely exclusively on native bee species that have evolved ideally for pollination. Without enough “short” flowers to feed on, honey bees will chew through the base of flowers to get at the nectar they cannot otherwise reach. If food supply is short, the more aggressive honey bee still gets the spoils and the native bee adapted for that plant goes hungry.
- Some plants such as blueberries, cranberries, kiwis, potatoes, tomatoes, peas and peppers require “vibration pollination”, a service carried out solely by the specialized bumblebee.
- There are 4,000 native North American bee species. Now, that’s diversity!
- Honey bees are susceptible to many diseases and parasitic infestations including, but not limited to, Colony Collapse Disorder, varroa mites, nosema fungus, and American and European Foulbrood, a highly infectious and fatal bacterial disease affecting developing larvae that, once detected requires incineration of hives, since spores can remain viable for up to 40 years. Other treatments for different hive disorders include oxalic acid and gamma ray irradiation. While some diseases and infestations are not transferable to native bee species, others are. A healthy bee can be contaminated by visiting the same flower visited by an infected bee.
- Bees have a foraging range of miles, so even at a some distance they can become competitors.
Countless examples throughout world history show humans attempting to solve a problem by doing something that creates even bigger problems down the road. We are NOT great at foresight and toss simple answers at complex problems, only to make them worse. We are putting all our eggs in this one, rickety honey bee basket whose handle is nearly ready to break off, getting frighteningly close to being fully reliant on the precarious honey bee for our food crops. Thanks to short-sightedness and selfish destruction of critical habitats like wildflower meadows, grasslands and riparian habitats necessary for native bee populations to thrive, we have further weakened the survivors by exposing generations to toxic pesticides and insecticides. Bringing in honey bee hives is not the solution; in fact, it is exacerbating the problem by displacing the natives already stressed by habitat loss. We need to focus on bringing back native bees by creating more habitats for these diverse species, for they are uniquely adapted to exist harmoniously with our native plants. Mother Nature wisely favors diversity because diversity increases chances for survival, which begets adaptation and furthers evolution. By continuing to favor the imported honey bee over our own native species, we could be headed towards a world where native plant extinction becomes as real an issue as animal extinction and the bulk of greenery in the future world is found in vast expanses of farmed food crops.
So…forget the honey and plant a wildflower garden!
*There is a wealth of information on the effect of honey bees on the environment, and the link below is a good place to start.*