Who cares about honeybees, anyway?


Guest Rant by Xris, the Flatbush Gardener

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been making the news
rounds for a few years now. It's old, if still current, news. Dire outcomes
from the loss of honeybees have been proffered. For example, PBS recently
introduced an online "ask the expert" feature with this:

Since the winter of 2006,
millions of bees have vanished, leaving behind empty hives and a damaged
ecosystem. [1]

Really? The ECOSYSTEM?! Did they not notice that honeybees
aren't part of the ecosystem?

Honeybees are livestock. They are animals which we manage
for our uses. We provide them with housing and maintenance. We even move them
from field to field, just as we let cows into different pastures for grazing.

Perhaps, if CCD can neither be prevented nor cured, disaster
would come to pass. However, the underlying cause would not be the loss of the
honeybees but our dependence on them as a consequence of unsustainable
agricultural practices.

The old ways of farming include hedgerows, uncultivated
areas between fields. The biodiversity of these patches provide substantial
habitat for native pollinators, as well as other beneficial insects. When even
these rough “unproductive” patches of land are cleared, we set the stage for
the patterns that have come to dominate agriculture: more herbicides, more
pesticides, more machinery. All of these also damage the soil food webs that
support both soil fertility and agricultural ecosystems. Although  manufactured inputs provide temporary relief, they
reduce the ecological functions of the land, requiring more and greater inputs to
achieve the same effect. This is the definition of addiction, and it’s a clear
sign that this way of doing business is unsustainable.

Why do we need to ship and truck pollinators around? There
are plenty of native pollinators to do the job, where we haven't decimated
their habitats. There are 4,000 species of bees alone in North America. 226
species are known in New York City. Many of them visit my gardens in Flatbush,
Brooklyn; some have even taken up residence [2]. Many native bees are
ground-dwellers which need only some open ground in which to dig their nests. When every patch of ground is
cultivated, plowed under or paved over, native pollinators disappear. Suddenly,
we “need” honeybees for pollination.

I care about the honeybees. I like my honey and beeswax
candles. I support efforts to legalize beekeeping in New York City. But not at
the expense of the biodiversity that is all around us, even in the city, if
only we care enough to look for it, value it, and nurture it.

Dig Deeper

The Great Pollinator Project

North American Pollinator Protection Campaign

Saving [Honey] Bees: What We Know Now [About CCD], [http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/02/saving-bees-what-we-know-now/],
NY Times, 2009-09-02


[1] Ask “Silence of the Bees” Expert Dr. Diana Cox-Foster. [http://www.pbs.org/engage/blog/ask-%E2%80%9Csilence-bees%E2%80%9D-expert-dr-diana-cox-foster],
PBS Blog

[2] “Cellophane Bees Return”, [http://flatbushgardener.blogspot.com/2009/05/cellophane-bees-return.html],
Flatbush Gardener, 2009-05-02

Photo of Jade Bee by Xris.


  1. Well said Chris. I’ve thought about this a lot. I think local hives and native pollinators are both two good ways to go. Because I live in a rural area, I get a large variety of bees and wasps, along with the occasional honeybee.

    The practice of moving the honeybees around all of the time isn’t local (obviously) and not good for anyone. I’m thinking of becoming beekeeper myself for the honey and experience. Perhaps, next year.~~Dee

  2. An intriguing post – but one important correction. Honeybees ARE part of the ecosystem. True, they are an introduced species, but they have become an intrinsic part of managed and native ecosystems alike. When they disappear locally, the immediate effect is a decrease in pollination success for those plants that require bee pollinators. Other pollinating species – including native bees – will increase in numbers due to the absence of their competitor (the introduced honeybees), pollination efficiency increases, and thus ecosystems adjust.

    This works fine for natural systems and probably for your home gardens and landscapes. But it wreaks havoc on production agriculture, which, like it or not, relies on massive inputs of mobile pollinators for successful crop production because they are highly managed, monocultural systems. Traditional production agriculture is still the big money maker in many states, so colony collapse has a real and signficant impact on those communities. Why do you think the USDA funds – almost exclusively – research that focuses on food and fiber? They sure don’t fund the type of research I do on sustainable urban landscapes!

  3. Thank you Dr. Linda Chalker Scott for saying everything I wanted to say, only way more composed and readable (as opposed to the ramble-rant I had abrewin’)

  4. Googling native/alternative pollinators showed the idea that European honeybees may not be doing the bulk of pollination anyway.

    Only problem with most native pollinators is that they don’t produce honey, and are solitary.

  5. Great post, There is so much wrong information floating around about CCD. Last year my granddaughter’s 6th grade teacher actually told the class that cell phones were killing the bees and all the kids in the class went home and accused their parents of murdering bees.

  6. Thank you for a great photo of a bee.

    Horticulture mag this month actually identifies a fly as a bee. Granted, it’s one of the flies that mimics the look of a bee. But it’s a fly. I get more cranky every time I get a new issue, but I hate to unsubscribe – that would pull two years of pre-order out of their system. And obviously, per their current output, that’s something they can ill afford. Sigh.

  7. I don’t think I have ever seen a single honeybee up on this mountain. I thought that was odd. There are plenty of other bees, flies, wasps and other pollinators buzzing about, so I did not worry to much. The apples set abundant fruit with no problems. Maybe next spring I will pay attention and see who is doing it.

    One of my neighbors is a retired entomology professor from Queen’s College up your way Xris. He has been doing a collection specific to this place and time to be donated to NCSU. I could just ask him how many bee species he has collected so far.

  8. Problem is, modern ag requires honeybees for adequate pollinatin. No other native comes close to the colony size required. Native bees colonies vary from a few to up tops -a couple hundred, honeybees ave 30,000 per hive

  9. I’m all for hedgerows, for all kinds of reason. The likelihood is, though, that we humans are just too numerous to rely solely on traditional agricultural methods. Finding balance is key. Thanks for your well-made points.

  10. I find if frustrating that everyone is focusing on honeybees. Yes, they are vital to our agriculture, but they’re aren’t the only pollinators that are disappearing! Many other bees, wasps, butterflies, etc, are declining in vast numbers due to pesticide use and the decimation of their food sources and breeding habitats.

    It is unfortunate that the honeybee gets the press at the expense of the other, native pollinators that are just as important to our ecosystem.

  11. Great discussion! The more puzzling problem is why our native bee and vespid populations are also dwindling. I think the worry about honeybees is understandable (it’s often said that more ink has been spilt on honeybees than any other animal), but agree it is a bit unbalanced. Although, If it draws our attention to potentially more worrisome problems (i.e., native pollinator populations declining, treating honeybees as badly as we’ve conventionally tended industrial livestock, et al.), I’m pleased.

    Visit the Xerxes Society for more on native pollinator population concerns at http://www.xerces.org/.

  12. Lots of interesting issues here. My workplace had hours of controversy flying around when an outside contractor came in and poisoned off a honeybee colony that had set up household in one of the public areas. With killer bees in the county, they always drag out the possibility that the bees they killed were Africanized. It feeds into a hysteria that would kill off anything living for fear of what it might do to you–Fear of nature, even if it’s nature from another continent. Anyway, the contractor that killed the bees won’t be coming back.

  13. Excellent post on yet another alarmist issue. With all the colonies collapsing where is the doomsday in fruit and vegetable production.

    Leaving some percentage of land to
    grow wild is a simple method to encourage beneficials. provide habitat for wildlife and prevent erosion. I believe the Mason bee is actually more responsible for pollinating than the honeybee anyway.

    The TROLL

  14. If you care about our pollinators and would like to participate in gathering data, join the great sunfloer project run by Gretchen Lebuhn at The University of San Francisco: http://www.greatsunflower.org

    I’m pleased to say that they’ve used my photo of a carpenter bee on a sunflower as their signature inage.

  15. We quickly gave up being beekeepers on our Massachusetts hill because of bears, but over the years we have seen many wild honeybees in our Linden trees and on our other plants, but last summer we saw no honey bees. There certainly are other pollinators, but we live way out in the country with lots of native habitat. We use no herbicides or pesticides so were dismayed not to see the honeybees.

  16. Three summers ago we had a late frost in Oklahoma – we lost all the flowers off the beautiful wysteria but I didn’t see bumblies and enough wasps that summer – how things got pollinated was a mystery with such a lack of bugs. I was bugging my husband to get me a bee hive from the guys he works with – when a keeper finally called asking if I knew of a farm that needed bees – ME!

    Since then I’ve applied for a grant for 10 hives – on two acres surrounded by country homes and woods. I know the value of the pollinators – butterflies, bees, wasps, native and non- and I’ll take all I can get. For years I have a husband who consciously mows around Queen Anne’s Lace and native yarrow. Clumps of landing pads for parasitic wasps and lady bugs and lace wings abound.

    I understand to a point the idea of not using such huge ag methods to rely on transport of bees – but honey itself has it own’s important ag use – please buy local and buy often – we need your support.

  17. Excellent discussion.
    There’s at least one good thing about all the (accurate) press the honey bees got/get: it helps to raise the awareness of and educate those who are “clueless” about the importance of pollinators.

  18. The very crux of the matter seems to be that monocultures – of anything – aren’t sustainable. When we stop supporting those (buy local!) the healthier our ecosystem (honeybees included) will inevitably be.

  19. Too bad most of the hedgerow shrubs in my part of the world are just as non-native as honey bees (buckthorn, introduced from Europe and extremely prolific).

  20. Facinating. At last a blog thats speaks and makes sense.

    Yes there are other pollinators and yes they are important. Everything in nature has a “place” and we must stop messing with it or we will find ourselves in deep trouble!

    We must do everything in our power to keep our “little friends” from extinction if for no other reason than the health benefits of honey!

  21. Donna the Dragon Lady, from whom are you applying for a grant to get 10 hives? I have been involved with a bee project where we supply 2 hives. This has been just a regional project covering about 12 counties. We had such an overwhelming response that we are planning on continuing it, but in an urban setting. I am interested in what other states and agencies are doing.

  22. While we agree with the idea of supporting native pollinators, we strongly disagree with the Xiris’ shortsighted dismissal of the importance of the honeybee, which seems to be based on the notion that the it is not part of the ecosystem and therefore expendable. Really?! Though not a native species, honeybees have been a part of the ecosystem (which is the relationship of living organisms and the environment), like it or not, since the colonists arrived.

    CCD is important not only because it’s killing an irreplaceable agricultural asset, but because it’s a symptom of a greater problem. Honeybees are essentially the “canary in the coal mine”. They are in trouble because they are treated and managed as livestock — fed cheap, non-nutritious HFCs, trucked across the country, worked under extremely stressful conditions, and then dosed with chemical cocktails to eliminate parasites that have taken advantage of their weakened state. This mentality has gotten us into serious trouble with more than honeybees, as a tour of any feedlot will show.

    Because of the CCD “alarmists”, scientists have discovered that our unsustainable practices, such as chemical pesticide usage and mono-cropping, have led to the die-off of native species as well — a fact that might gone unnoticed until it was too late as it did in an area of China that was so overdosed with pesticides that the local population must HAND POLLINATE crops or starve.

    Our use of honeybees as pollinators is not the problem. The problem is how we treat them and the rest of the ecosystem as if it were there only for our benefit. Until we realize that we are a small part of the bigger picture and treat the earth and all its creatures as if they matter and with respect for their needs, we are in danger of killing the very things that keep us alive.

    Mary Beth and Barbara

  23. Donna the Dragon Lady lives in Oklahoma – I live in Oklahoma – and I applied for a farm divisification grant – since I did now own bees of my own – and it is part of ag and makes the farm money – by not only their own production of honey plus – it greatly increases my vegetative and fruit production – the grant was for $5,000 – ultimately the money came from the Fed probably with state funds too.

  24. Thanks for all the feedback and great comments. And thanks to Garden Rant for the opportunity.

    These issues warrant broader and deeper consideration. It wasn’t possible (for me, anyway) to do so in 500 words or less. And it’s a RANT. Nuance and subtlety are uncalled for in this form.

    Of course all species – native, introduced, and even invasive – are part of the ecosystem. The concern raised by CCD has not been for the ecosystem, but for the economic benefits of an introduced organism.

    Contrast the response and the resources dedicated to CCD to the negligent reactions to White-Nose Syndrome (WNS). WNS has torn through Northeastern bat populations like a wildfire. It has killed millions of bats, 95% of some colonies, in just three years. The limits of its mortality rate are still unknown. Some species are now threatened with extinction within a decade. Only this year has significant federal funding been allocated: just $2 million. How many tens and hundreds of millions, worldwide, have been devoted to CCD?

    The “damage to the ecosystem” has already been done. Western bumblebee species are in decline, caused at least in part by attempts to raise them factory-style for pollination. Bees exported to European reproduction factories returned and were released with novel parasites, which are now escaping into the wild populations.

    We are living in the Anthropogenic Era. Like it or not, we are responsible for managing our environments, and all the species with which we cohabit. Without deeper, systemic thinking about which species warrant our attention, it’s going to be a long, dark age ahead.

  25. I have a sweat bee “colony” that nests in my yard on a slight slope that doesn’t grow grass very well. They moved in last year and have changed locations twice.

    People think I’m crazy when I tell them that sweat bees live in my yard and I like it that way.

    Even though honey bees are used for commercial pollination, most native pollinators are much more efficient. The sheer numbers in the honey bee colonies are really the only factor that makes them effective pollinators.

    For instance, recommendations for building habitat for orchard mason bees says “a good rule of thumb is 2 to 3 female bees for each mature fruit tree.” http://king.wsu.edu/foodandfarms/documents/MasonBee.pdf

    I can’t find any info on how many honey bees it takes per tree.

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