It’s Complicated, Honey

Bees… vs bees.

By Kevin Van Tighem

Spring draws nigh: the season of the birds and the bees. Birdsong is a welcome gift, but where would we be without bees? Their obsessive quest for pollen and nectar keeps much of Alberta’s native flora alive. There would be fewer willows, flowers and garden crops without pollinator insects like bees. And no honey on our toast.

Jonathan Swift once wrote, adopting a bee persona: “We have chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with two of the noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.” Three centuries later bees still fill hives with sweetness and light. Where they aren’t dying off, that is.

There we go again: nature-writing slides into a rant. It’s difficult to celebrate the natural world these days without protestations of love morphing into laments about loss. Bees are no exception. When we hear about them these days, we often hear about colony collapse, neonicotinoid pesticides, parasitic mites and all the ways humans have found to silence the hum of spring flower meadows.

But when we think about bees and their troubles, we usually focus on honeybees, the kind that occupy little clusters of wooden boxes along roadsides. They aren’t even native to Alberta. Their problems, while real, obscure much more grave concerns involving the more than 300 native species of bee that actually originate here.

The natives have big problems. Ironically, the most serious might actually be those honeybees whose woes have been so well publicized. Native bees—long-tongued, leaf-cutter, mining, sweat and other varieties—would actually be better off with fewer honeybees around.

Biomass is the total amount of living material in a group of organisms. Biodiversity is a measure of its variety. Where bees are concerned, honeybees account for an enormous biomass, but native species contribute the most biodiversity. We could lose all those honeybees but still have most of the biodiversity. In a changing world, biodiversity matters. Diversity enables ecosystems to adapt to change and cope with disaster. But where bees are concerned, biodiversity is at risk.

One ecologist likens putting a colony of domestic honeybees in a rural landscape to dropping an ecological bomb. The “crater” gradually expands.

Unlike honeybees, whose colonies are coddled and fed through the winter, our native bees spend their winters in torpor, relying on their own provisions. Some burrow into the ground, others hide out in hollow trees or rodent burrows. Our winters can be hard, so many of them die. Enough survive to emerge each spring to begin their annual business of finding food to nourish their young. In the process, each helps to pollinate the wildflowers whose diversity gives Alberta its unique character.

If, however, those native bees emerge into a landscape already full of imported honeybees, they face serious competition. “It’s like musical chairs,” says Ralph Cartar, a University of Calgary ecologist who studies pollinator insects. “If you flood an area with honeybees, you haven’t increased the number of chairs but you’ve greatly increased the number of players. And the new players can’t fail, because the beekeeper feeds them when resources are scarce.”

Cartar likens putting a colony of domestic honeybees in a rural landscape to dropping an ecological bomb. All the nectar and pollen supplies close to the hive are quickly consumed, forcing the honeybees to fly deeper into the surrounding countryside. Their sheer numbers overwhelm the local bees as the “bomb crater”—the area whose flowers are quickly stripped of food for native bees—gradually expands. He estimates that one 40-hive honeybee operation removes enough pollen to potentially displace four million wild bees. And that’s without considering the nectar they also consume, a further loss to native bees.

People worried about bee conservation, then, should avoid honey that comes from wild flowers or natural settings. That honey was stolen from native pollinators. It’s better to buy honey produced from canola and clover hay fields whose native bees have already been wiped out by soil cultivation. Conserving bee biodiversity means protecting natural habitats—and their rare and unique native bees—not just from our plows but from our honeybees.

A recent study in the journal Landscape Ecology showed that half as many rare bee species occupy farm and urban landscapes as more natural settings. The researchers wrote: “Although a minority of rare bee species were found in anthropogenic landscapes, our overall conclusion is that the native vegetation of our region… is critical for supporting rare bee biodiversity.”

All bees aren’t the same, but all are important. Honeybees, though, may be the least of our worries; we can always import more. There’s no replacement for native bees. Protecting their natural habitats from development is essential. But so is protecting them from honeybees. From that point of view, counterintuitive as it might seem, buying wildflower honey is the wrong conservation choice.

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.

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