So Beekeepers, You Want to Save the World?


    Guest Rant by Helen Yoest

    I was only six years old when Rachel Carson changed my world. And by all standards, Ms. Carson influenced a generation with her book, Silent Spring. That was some powerful stuff.

    Since that time, so many of us are engaged in saving everything from birds to whales. Even Boy George was hip with Boy George’s 1970 “Save Me From Suburbia.” (But that’s another story altogether.)

    I was gung-ho all the way. I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in both environmental science and engineering. For 20 years I worked as an air pollution engineer, doing great work, but at the end of the day, it was just another business.

    Yes, I was going to save the world! I was all about doing good. I followed every environmental movement…up to now, that is.

    Most recently, the Save the Bee campaign was something I embraced, and rightfully so, right? As a professional gardener, I could help. I just knew I could!

    There are dozens, if not hundreds of well-intended businesses, mostly nonprofits, taking your money to help save the bees! But at the end of the day, they are just another business. Yes, yes, I know many do good but have you ever noticed, they, too, follow trends? Hell, I even have a nonprofit helping homeowners build better backyards for birds, bees, and butterflies in my ecoregion 231.

    Yesterday it was the Monarchs, today it’s the bees. What will it be tomorrow? I’ll leave that for another day. The focus of this piece is the European honey bee.

    Finally, I took a step back and got a handle on what’s what. How did our world become so myopic? Quick, everyone, let’s save the Monarchs. Why are these same people not interested in saving the Queen? Yes, the Queen butterfly, Danaus gilippus, in the same family as the Monarch, Danaus plexippus, also only uses milkweed as a host plant. Where’s the drum banging for the Queen. God Save The Queen!!!! Perhaps, it’s because their life story isn’t as interesting?  The Monarch is the baby seal equivalent for butterflies.

    All this began to worry me, and the save the bee campaign was the impetus to say, “Enough is enough!”

    Beehive for honeybees

    True confession. I am a twice failed beekeeper, and I’m feeling a great burden because of it. I jumped onto this trend only to realize I may have potentially contributed to the problem. Who knew?

    These days, the European honey bee, Apis mellifera, is increasingly coming under threat by a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) and pests such as the Varroa mite and other bee pathogens. And now everyone wants to help. That’s good, right? Maybe not. Did you know, many experts now believe poor management practices of unskilled hobbyists have enabled the spread of the Varroa destructor mite? It’s a complex issue, but what if I, through my own poor hive management, contributed to the spread of Varroa mite. Geesh, I’m a do-gooder gone bad.

    Even though I didn’t want the honey, I thought I was doing good by keeping bees…because I could. I have a pollinator garden, lots of nectar and pollen plants, and I was feeling a bit altruistic.

    Once the second hive abandoned me, I gave up. Now in hindsight, this was probably for the best, even though I may have added to the problem. At least I wised up and decided to focus on the plants.

    Here’s the rub. So many people today want to save the bees; they are signing up to be beekeepers. But in a recent research essay published in The Journal of Economic Entomology, Robert Owen argues that human activity is a key driver in the spread of pathogens afflicting the European honey bee and recommends a series of collective actions necessary to stem their spread. Please click here to learn more.

    I submit if you want to save the bee or the Monarch and even the Queen, and our air and water, and even the world, it starts at home. Stop everything you’re doing, and start again; or at the very least, use a sundown strategy, but start today. Stop using chemicals and planting over-hybridized natives because they are new and improved. Go back to the basics.

    Homemade Mason bee house

    You don’t need to be a beekeeper to save the bees. Leave it to the pros and very serious hobbyists. Just deciding to keep bees because you think you’re helping to save the European honey bee is naive and potentially destructive. In fact, I believe it already is. I’m of the opinion that if bees were cute like puppies or penguins, ill-prepared beekeepers thinking they are saving the bees will go to prison for animal abuse, no different than participating in a cockfight.

    If you want to save the ecological world, stop using pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, use water wisely, and think right plant, right place. Gardening isn’t a competition; it’s a lifestyle. If you want to help, think native, including our native bees.

    One Mason bee can pollinate the same amount of flowers as 100 honey bees. Think of the honey bee as helping big ag. Think of the mason bee as the home remedy for plant pollination. We have all we need already in our home gardens, assuming we make a hospitable home for all the pollinators.  We don’t need to keep bees to help the bees; we just need to provide a pesticide-free places for them to forage. And get this, providing homes for our native bees has no barriers to entry. You can make your own or just leave your fall hollow stems up through the winter. But even that’s not the point. To save the bees, focus on your landscape, making it friendly for birds, bees, and butterflies. Change your myopic mission and look at the world with global glasses.

    You will not save the Monarchs by planting milkweed if you are still using an organic treatment for mosquitoes. You don’t need to save bees by keeping bees. You can help at home. Forget the pesticides, even organic ones.

    Think before you give big business money to help when you can do so for free at home. Think about how you can save the world starting at home. Think!


    1. Please elaborate:
      You will not save the Monarchs by planting milkweed if you are still using an organic treatment for mosquitoes.

      Aren’t BTI dunks organic, and only affect mosquitoes?

      • I’m referring to the organic sprays like Mosquito Joe-type systems. Too many people think if it’s organic, it’s naturally safe. It these sprays kill flying mosquitoes they will also kill the butterflies and most insects in its path.

    2. Excellent piece, Helen! I’m very worried about the bees, because despite the fact that I use no pesticides at all and with our continual rainfall things are growing like crazy, the number of bees in my yard has declined drastically this year. My lavender just finished blooming, and while it bloomed heavily, it was largely devoid of bees. Same with my accidental comfrey hedge last month. Both should have been alive with bees of all sorts, but weren’t. And I just finished reading an article about how some researchers are afraid that the bee problems may now be spilling over into the hummingbird population! I despair.

      • It IS disheartening. I don’t have as many either, but I also see many of my neighbors with signs in their yard, treated by Mosquito Joe or Mosquito Squad. We need to educate people more on mechanical controls for mosquito control, but more importantly, the word ORGANIC! Just because it is organic, doesn’t make it safe! Hopefully you will allow me to do another rant on that!

    3. I have to agree with everything you’ve said. The photo at the top of the column shows a bumblebee on a a native Monarda. A recent article I read said we are worried about the wrong bees – native bumblebees, and others, are in severe decline. Honeybees are domesticated animals and bred by the millions by commercial beekeepers. One researcher commented “Worrying about the extinction of honeybees is like worrying about the extinction of beef cattle.”

      • Agreed! We ARE worrying about the wrong bee, and what what it takes to make a habitat for all bees (and birds and butterflies) European and native.

        The rhetoric is that the honey bee is responsible for one in every third bite. All pollinators contribute to this. Honey bees help big ag because they are domesticated and can be moved to pollinate VERY large crops, such as almonds. The rhetoric is so loud that home gardeners are beginning to believe the honey bees are the only bee pollinating their cucumbers. And then feel if they become a beekeeper, they will be all set. Cry me a river!

        Here is a write up of a recent study at NCSU

    4. Thanks Helen – this makes me feel a lot better about turning down the offer of a bee hive made by a neighbour this spring. I’ll leave it to the professionals and more ‘serious’ hobbyists.

      I’ve also noticed far fewer bees in my garden this year – on plants specifically chosen to provide nectar and pollen. I wonder if there’s a group that counts bees to try and add more science to the anecdotal evidence?

      • I don’t know Chris, but will ask around at NC State. So much concern is on the European honey bee and not our natives. Our native bees are in peril.

        My next rant will be about those plants specific for nectar and pollen. What is best for our native bees isn’t the same for the European honey bees. I’ll be doing a rant about that as they compare to common suggestions to what the research finds.

    5. Great post, and thank you for emphasizing the bit about organic sprays not being necessarily safe for all living things. The number of times I run into that misconception is unnerving. What are they teaching in science classes these days?
      We stopped bringing commercial beehives into our orchard here in Oregon years ago, when we realized how many pollinators of many different species were out there. We get plenty of fruit set, and it’s fascinating to watch so many different insects in one tree, all working around each other.
      I have a request of my fellow commenters. It would be helpful if you can mention where you are geographically, especially when you say “the bees around here are disappearing”–I want to know where that is! I feel like in our area, the bee population is increasing from what it was a few years ago, but that’s just anecdotal.

    6. As the manager of a public garden, I often get asked to put beehives somewhere on the property. Often the request comes from administrative staff and board members. I counter every time that if a experienced beekeeper wants to place hives here, I will welcome them, but I have no intentions of our garden staff of taking on the responsibilities for many of the reasons you listed (not to mention the time lost for actually gardening).

      I also agree with your side-rant on the Monarch. I am often disappointed in the lack of concern for other butterflies. At least the Queen will benefit from milkweed. What about host plants for other species? The state butterfly for Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina is the eastern tiger swallowtail. It is also the state insect for Virginia. Yet I don’t see anyone clamoring to plant more tulip poplar, willow and sweet bay for them. And what about all the skippers, hairstreaks and fritillaries? Gardening for butterflies is so much more than milkweed.

    7. Honey bees are increasingly under threat from CCD? Not according to the EPA, “Once thought to pose a major long term threat to bees, reported cases of CCD have declined substantially over the last five years.”

    8. Stop planting butterfly bushes! Although these flowers feed swallowtails, bumble bees and cabbage butterflies, it fails to attract many other species of insect. It causes harm because the butterflies can drink from them and the butterflies will lay eggs on the bushes. Unfortunately, the caterpillars cannot utilize the plants as food, so young cats are doomed. Feeding 1 butterfly can doom how many hundreds, if not thousands, of that butterfly’s young?

      Also, do research before purchasing “wildflower” packets. Many of the included seeds that are even stated on the packages are not native.

      • I don’t think my one butterfly bush, in the middle of all the other tons of plants both wild and not wild, will doom the butterfly population…meanwhile, the hummingbirds in particular flock to that bush, as well as bumblebees and other types of insect pollinators.

    9. Great article. Makes me want to research our local butterflies and add some appropriate plants. As someone who is allergic to bee stings, I really can’t have a hive. We have settled for a Mason Bee house. It’s cute, I won’t die taking care of a hive and they are way better pollinators.

      We had to break the news to a family friend that the reason their butterfly garden wasn’t attracting any butterflies was due to it’s location under it’s mosquito misting system. Amazing how some many lack an understanding about how things in nature are interconnected.


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here