The front garden of a good friend and neighbour of ours was recently commended by a passer-by for the pollinator-friendliness of his Michaelmas daisies. “So many bees. It’s wonderful”, was the observation. “Well done!” Yet Ivor disagreed. Like us, he sees Apis mellifera, the honey bee, not as a sign of thriving insect biodiversity but as a pillager that, in great numbers, is a livestock. He said that he thought of them as miniature battery hens or cows, grazing on his flowers against his wishes. My reading on the subject, which I detail at the end of this post, helps me appreciate his perspective. What follows is an attempt to explain why we’re viewing the honey bee with blinkers firmly in place.
Our relationship with the honey bee
Man’s relationship with this insect reaches back into antiquity. Traces of beeswax dating back to the seventh millennium BC have been found in Neolithic pottery vessels in Anatolia. Honey shows up repeatedly in the Bible, amongst which there is the fabled Promised Land of milk and honey. Ancient Egyptians had the bee as an insignia of kingship. Roman armies marched into battle with honey available for dressing wounds, so proven was the product’s antibacterial and antibiotic properties. The Merovingian royal emblem of the honey bee signified immortality and resurrection. Napoleon III’s revival of this resulted in his imperial standard being emblazoned with these golden creatures. The association between the Church and bees, honey, beeswax and candles remains undimmed even today; in some circles bees are considered sacred. And, of course, what’s a breakfast without honey?
Honey bees appear in art, ancient and modern. Take the example of the exquisite gold pendant from the Chrysolakkos necropolis in Malia, Crete, made between 1800 and 1700 BC, centrepiece of the antiquity exhibits in the Museum of Archaeology in Heraklion, Crete, which I had the fortune to see earlier this year. Two bees are imagined depositing a drop of honey in their honeycomb, the exhibition label explained. On their heads, a filigree cage contains a gold bead; small discs hang from their wings and from their stings. That it was made of gold speaks volumes.
We would be hard-pressed to find a museum of antiquity that does not have at least one exhibit related to honey bees, or an abbey (or cathedral) whose shop does not sell mead. The honey bee is ubiquitous. It is as if it is coeval with us, and deeply embedded within our culture. It is capable of exerting a chthonic tug on us, its Greek associations with the underworld endowing it with half-understood properties. Or it is at least liminal. This exploited agricultural asset still remains freighted with history, garnering respect, even awe. Our relationship with the honeybee, I’m arguing, is not simply transactional.
Honey bees are, of course, inescapable symbols of organisation and industry. They are symbolic stand-ins for man as a social animal. They demonstrate hierarchy, delegation and loyalty. They help explain us in our own gregarious body politic. In Aristotle, Plato, Virgil, Seneca, Shakespeare and Tolstoy there is admiration for their diligence. Learn from them, is the consensus. Manchunians know this well, their city having adopted the worker bee as a motif during the industrial revolution. The destroyer HMS Manchester was nicknamed the Busy Bee, the insect decorating its crest. Drinkers of the local Boddingtons beer had bee logos to accompany their bevie. Greater Manchester’s new fleet of electric buses run under the moniker of the Bee Network, with every face of each vehicle bearing a stylised bee inside a hexagon.
This very ubiquity has led us to consider the honey bee to be unquestionably ‘a good thing’. They are above reproach. If one is not allergic to their sting, what’s not to like about them and their honey? They practically symbolise a benign deity’s gift to mankind. Who would dare traduce that?
To seal this knot, the honey bee is the go-to insect for helping unveil the mysteries of nature for children. What better demonstration can one have of nature’s bounty than the flower-pollen-bee-hive-honey sequence? It is almost magical and certainly thrillingly fascinating. Few young minds can resist the spell these insects cast. Indeed, when an image of a bee is required, it is the smiley-faced, spear-tipped honey bee that we see, sometimes with stripy yellow-and-black hooped attire and a swag bag of honey slung over a jaunty shoulder. This infantilizing allure is so much less complicated than a black Megachile or a blood/leaf-cutter/mason/mining/nomad/plasterer/sweat or yellow-faced bee, each of which would introduce variety that would risk bafflement. Complexity is often problematic, isn’t it?
So when the cry went up that our pollinators were struggling in the face of habitat loss, pesticide/herbicide/fertiliser use, plus climate change, it was almost axiomatic that a helping hand was also A Good Thing. Faced with a countryside under assault, the movement to place honey bee hives in our towns was taken up with vigour. And, indeed, this was a good thing - at the time. Knowing that an apiarist had been granted space for one or more beehives, bestowed upon a site coveted green credentials. So in they went: into parks, cemeteries, back gardens, leisure centres, and onto office roof spaces. Most livestock needs adjacent grazing, but bees can fly off and find floral resources nearby; the immediate sterility of an asphalt roof is no impediment. They will thrive, the thinking went, as long as they are away from fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides; Britain’s gardeners (in the main) don’t use such things and, above all, thanks to a 50% reduction in the nation’s hedgerows since the Second World War (that’s an estimated 118,000 miles of hedgerow that has been grubbed up), our towns have the floral resources needed by these bees that our countryside no longer has. As a nation of gardeners, we can all come to the rescue of the bees … including our friend and neighbour Ivor. Perhaps above all, the survival of the very agents that pollinate the crops that feed us would be given a helping hand. These are powerful arguments. They certainly won me over …
… until I started looking closer.
Managed honey bees
We need to pinch ourselves to be reminded that honey bees are livestock. They are an agricultural achievement, the product of successful monocultural breeding that over millennia has muscled out the wild competition. At the height of summer, an average hive of bees may contain around 50,000 bees, so says an apiarist I know. Although each hive divides itself into a queen, a number of male drones and a mass of female workers, they are all the same single species, Apis mellifera. Add more hives, and the non-variety remains the same monoculture with no increase to a place’s biodiversity. Yet these female workers are hugely successful foragers that will travel substantial distances to obtain their floral nutrient.
This provision of nectar and the resulting pollinating activity is in general terms the same for all pollinators and all flowers. It happens with moths, butterflies, flies, bees and beetles. The honey bee is different in that collectively their colonies produce honey. Is our reverence for the honey bee in fact a displaced reverence for man’s own success at exploiting it? Are we merely applauding our own ingenuity while dressing it up in yellow and black hoops? Should we perhaps be pitying this insect as a programmed slave to our own mercantilism? No longer is it an emblem of nature.
The honey from managed honey bees in Crete is glorious. (The island’s apiarists flaunt their produce in a fine display in each airport’s duty free area - something of a novelty.) Free of chemicals and available in different flavours that match the fields and woods in which the bees are kept, Cretan honey on the breakfast table provides a wholesome start to the day. Walking in open countryside, you won’t miss the hives that dot the island’s landscape. Our wild flower guide this May was an advocate, although by then he was preaching to the converted. Curiously, we occupied different ends of the same telescope: on the hedges and plants around our small country rental villa, we were seeing nothing but honey bees; in his flower-rich fields, he looked blank when we described that in Britain we could see (if we are lucky) 26 different types of bumblebee and a further two hundred and forty something species of wild bee. When we repeated this, we felt as if we were being regarded as heretics, and we fell back on praising Cretan honey.
This bafflement may be as ubiquitous as the honey bee itself. So, for the record, here are some approximate numbers for the natural, unmanaged pollinators that we have in Britain:
|Pollinator group||Approximate species numbers in Britain|
|… (of which) Hoverflies||283|
Wild (unmanaged) bees already exist in multitudes, a surprising variety of them, with sizes and colours to match. All are pollinators. Some are as successful at doing it as the honey bee. In addition, as if this isn’t enough, we have a bewildering array of other pollinating insects that also perform this essential service. They are the butterflies, moths, flies (including hoverflies) and beetles. In reserve, there is a surprising number of wasps that, whilst seeking nectar to fuel their other activities, are accidental pollinators. All these insects have to compete against the honey bee for the same floral resources.
Strictly speaking, the honey bee’s services are not required. There could be enough wild pollinators to do the job.
Most other pollinating insects have a narrow range of plants which they feed on (and pollinate). These wild pollinators have a short life span and are active in narrower periods of the year, timing their appearance to exploit their preferred flower resources. In contrast, the honey bee is active throughout the whole of the flowering season and is flower-agnostic: it will take pollen and nectar if it is available and more or less irrespective of the plant. Given honey bee numbers, this makes it a successful and voracious feeder. Not for nothing, do those who know its ways call it a honey cow.
If our towns and cities were freed of their blanket coverage by honey bees, our parks and gardens might well be re-populated by the kaleidoscopic displays of wild pollinators - something we found when we went into the centre of Chania on the north coast of Crete. With honey bee hives restricted to the countryside, the island’s urban parks and gardens were abuzz with hoverflies, a happy counterbalance to the absence that we had noted in open countryside - and the diametric opposite of what one finds in the average urban English garden.
Back to the garden
Is there an equivalent to this ‘pillager’ in our garden? Is it the same as pigeons or starlings in the vegetable garden or allotment? What about foxes? These creatures are capable of taking resources or of being ‘messy’, yet they are ‘unmanaged’ and answerable to no-one. It’s easier to co-exist with these free spirits, isn’t it? A better comparison might be a neighbourhood cat that leaves an unwanted present. Like the honey bee, this is ‘managed’ and yet its owner allows it out untended - and they show up in our gardens. Why have we colluded with apiarists to allow this to happen unquestioned? (Or have apiarists assumed that right without consulting us?)
At the very heart of this debate is biodiversity. Why should we have to see numerous instances of the same pollinator in our gardens, parks and hedgerows when we could be seeing variety? It’s what nature has gifted us. To my eye, the honey bee is a drab-looking insect, and certainly not the one depicted in all those dashing yellow-and-black logos. Many of this country’s approximately 283 species of hoverfly, for example, are infinitely more pleasing to the eye while being no less effective as pollinators. Yet our unquestioning attitude towards honey bees is blinding us to the unintended consequences of our love affair with them. We need to wake up and stop smelling the honey.
For the purpose of disambiguation:
- The profusion of honey bees in towns is harming wild pollinators.
- This density in which honey bees are being forced to live is increasing the risk of honey bees themselves being exposed to disease.
- By tilting the scales in favour of crop pollination being done more by the honey bee than by wild pollinators we are exposing our own food web to greater risk.
- If we think we are ‘saving the bees’ by adding bee hives into our towns and cities, we are mistaken. It would be better to plant a diversity of pollinator-friendly flowers to attract the wild pollinators that already exist.
- If you are genuinely concerned about insect biodiversity, be prepared to consume less honey and/or pay a lot more for it.
- Don’t get angry with apiarists. They do great work. Instead encourage them to put their efforts behind the promotion of insect (and flower) biodiversity rather than the production of honey.
- These views are neither anti-bee nor anti-beekeeper; think of them as being pro-pollinator views, please.
- If you have an alternate view on this subject, please back it up with the science.
|Honeybees are outcompeting wild bee populations for food and can also transmit diseases to them. So beekeeping to save bees could actually be having the opposite effect.||State of the World’s Plant and Fungi report (PDF), the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, 2020.|
|What’s more, honeybees often have direct negative consequences for wildlife around them. Hives can overwhelm an area, pushing other bees away from food sources. They can also help non-native plants outcompete native plants, as well as damaging flowers and taking nectar from a plant without pollinating it.||Beekeeping in cities is harming other wildlife, study finds, the Natural History Museum, 2020.|
|Honeybees are very efficient super-generalist foragers with a preference for highly-rewarding flowering areas and will compete strongly with wild pollinator species for pollen and nectar from a wide range of flowers.
Wild bees have been found to forage more from less-abundant and less-rewarding flower species when honeybees have been present; and when honeybee hives have been removed from areas, wild bee abundances have increased.
|The Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s position paper on Managed honeybees, March 2020.|
|Intensive honeybee management is threatening native pollinator-plant networks. A recent study in Tenerife National Park” showed “that native pollinators (insects like beetles, solitary bees and hoverflies) visited flowers less often in the presence of (introduced) honeybees … This study is just one of dozens that re documenting how our obsession with managing honeybees may be having serious long-term negative impacts on natural ecosystems. This isn’t much of a surprise if we remind ourselves that honeybee-farming is like any other large-scale agricultural product. The honeybee is the cow of the insect agricultural world.||Professor Seirian Sumner, University College London, wasp expert, author of Endless Forms, 2023.|
|Research from around the world has confirmed that honeybees do indeed often impact on native pollinators, displacing them from their preferred flowers, and causing bumblebee colonies to grow more slowly and produce smaller bees in locations where there are many honeybee hives.||Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse (2021), page 151, by Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex.|
|Honeybees are livestock: domestic animals reared by people. Like cows and chickens, they can inflict great damage to ecosystems as they overwhelm wild species.||Regenesis (2022), page 92, by George Monbiot, conservation campaigner, zoologist.|
|We have to change the narrative. People think getting honeybees is going to save bees. It isn’t. This is quite a sensitive issue for a beekeeping association to take on … [but] this is coming from the membership, it’s not something that a few people are campaigning for.||Richard Glassborow, chair of the London Beekeepers’ Association, quoted in “‘Honeybees are voracious’: is it time to put the brakes on the boom in beekeeping?”, The Guardian, 24 July 2021.|
|Honeybees are very efficient, almost omnivorous consumers of nectar and pollen; they are voracious. There is no off button. They will carry on consuming what’s out there as long as it’s out there. Just to stay alive each beehive will consume 250 kilos of nectar and 50 kilos of pollen. If you have a hive of 70,000 bees, that’s 70,000 times four or five cycles over a single season. You are talking about almost half a million bees that have got to be fed.||Dale Gibson of Bermondsey Street Bees, a commercial beekeeping practice with a focus on sustainability, quoted in “‘Honeybees are voracious’: is it time to put the brakes on the boom in beekeeping?”, The Guardian, 24 July 2021.|
|Honeybee specialist Paula Carnell told Dezeen that efforts to put beehives in cities actually harmed native pollinators such as solitary bees and bumblebees.
‘They get starved out’, Carnell said. ‘There’s not enough food. What’s been happening in cities is people have been bringing in beehives and it has starved out the native bees.’
‘The biggest risk to bees is actually beekeepers. Honeybees are being bred for the benefit of humans for honey production. There are a lot of aspects of beekeeping that are not sustainable and not natural.’
|Putting beehives in cities is “very dangerous” to other pollinators says bee expert Paula Carnell, Dezeen, 8 February 2022. Carnell is head beekeeper at The Newt estate in Somerset.|
|Honeybees are not in decline; they are probably the most numerous bee on the planet.||Andrew Whitehouse of insect conservation charity Buglife, quoted in “‘Honeybees are voracious’: is it time to put the brakes on the boom in beekeeping?”, The Guardian, 24 July 2021.|
|The Knepp Estate (West Sussex): in the 1.3 acre garden, they have a policy of not having managed honeybees. They acknowledge that ecologists are concerned about how an abundance of honeybees can out-compete wild pollinators for resources. Outside the garden, on the 3,500 acre estate, they have limited hive numbers to 26. That’s about one hive per 135 acres. ‘We definitely won’t be keeping bees for honey in the garden’, they say.
‘Ecologists are concerned that the vogue for beekeeping for honey, particularly in cities, is producing huge populations of non-native honeybees which out-compete our 250 or so species of native solitary bees and other pollinators.’
|Penny Green, resident ecologist, the Knepp Estate, quoted in their blog, May 2022.|
|Bee species diversity is also important as recent studies show that wild bees are responsible for a greater proportion of the pollination service previously attributed to domesticated honey bees. In addition, some crop plants can only be pollinated by a restricted number of species hence the loss of bee biodiversity can lead to loss of plant diversity.||European Red List of Bees [PDF], prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and published by the EU, 2014, page 6.|
|It is important to state that a managed bee population cannot be considered as wild, as in most areas there have been hundreds of years of selection by humans for positive traits, such as producing better quality honey or less aggressive bees.||European Red List of Bees [PDF], prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and published by the EU, 2014, page 17.|
|We showed that in the city of Paris, the visitation rate of wild pollinators and especially the pollinating activity of large solitary bees, bumblebees and beetles, was negatively related to the density of honey bee colonies in the surrounding landscape. This first finding resonates with a growing body of literature highlighting a negative effect of high honey bee colony densities on the wild pollinating fauna. Although our study is correlative and does not provide direct evidences, our results are consistent with the hypothesis that honey bee might outcompete the wild pollinating fauna by exploiting flowering rewards (nectar and pollen).||Wild pollinator activity negatively related to honey bee colony densities in urban context by Ropars L, Dajoz I, Fontaine C, Muratet A, Geslin B, reported in PlosOne, 2019|
|Correlative and experimental evidence alike has shown that at the local and regional scales honeybees can have strong negative impacts on wild bee populations in both natural and anthropogenic scenarios, and that the absence of honeybees in well-preserved natural areas is associated with increasing wild bee populations.||Gradual replacement of wild bees by honeybees in flowers of the Mediterranean Basin over the last 50 years by Carlos M. Herrera, The Royal Society, February 2020.|
|If this is an important site for nature conservation, as claimed, then the Environment Agency should NOT put hives of honey bees on it! All the evidence shows that honey bees out-compete wild insect pollinators and can pass on diseases to wild bees.||Professor Jeff Ollerton, author of Pollinators & Pollination; see his blog article, Should honey bee hives be placed on or near conservation sites?, own website, July 2023.|
|When Honey Bees forage they spill out of the hive and disperse across the landscape in search of floral resources. At first they will exhaust the forage nearest the hive before dispersing further outwards. When this is depleted they will disperse further out again, and again and again and can easily reach a 3km radius of the hive in summer. They can forage as far afield as 12 km according to research by University of Sussex.
If you had asked me this question (Do Managed Honey Bees compete with Wild Bees for Floral Resources?) 5 or 6 years ago my answer based on available published materials would have been a ‘yes’ but …
Ask me the same question in 2023 and I’m going to say ‘Yes without a doubt and the competition is real.’
|Do Managed Honey Bees compete with Wild Bees for Floral Resources? 19 March 2023, by Mark Patterson, senior consultant to Api:Cultural, a London consultancy offering apiary and honeybee services to businesses, community groups and education establishments.|
|Honeybee hives should not be introduced to an area without first assessing the current density of honeybee hives, and the carrying capacity of the local environment. Where insufficient flower resources are present, sufficient new resource should be established before more honeybees are introduced – our estimates would suggest at least an additional 2 hectares of wildflower-rich habitat per additional hive.||Andrew Whitehouse (again) of insect conservation charity Buglife, Save the bees! (but which ones?), Buglife, 6th May 2021.|
|There is a basic fact of living on a finite world, as applicable to bees as it is to humans. There is only so much resource to go round. An increase in resource used by one group has negative implications for other groups.||Colletes Hedera – a taste of the future by Mike Edwards (the Sussex county recorder for bees, wasps and ants), published by The Central Association of Bee-Keepers, April 2022. (“The CABK acts as a bridge between the beekeeper and the scientist.”)|
|The assessment concludes that 75% of our food crops and nearly 90% of wild flowering plants depend at least to some extent on animal pollination and that a high diversity of wild pollinators is critical to pollination even when managed bees are present in high numbers.||The assessment report on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production - Summary for Policymakers (PDF), page 3; Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, 2016.|
- Field Guide to the Bumblebees of Great Britain and Ireland by Mike Edwards and Martin Jenner; Ocelli; revised edition, 2012.
- Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk; Bloomsbury, 2016.
- The Hidden Universe Adventures in Biodiversity by Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Witness Books, 2022.
- Silent Earth – Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Professor Dave Goulson; Jonathon Cape, 2021.
- The Insect Crisis – The Fall of Tiny Empires that Run the World by Oliver Milman; Atlantic Books, 2022.
- Colletes hederae - a Taste of the Future? by Mike Edwards; The Central Association of Bee-Keepers, 2022
- Britain’s Hoverflies - a field guide by Stuart Ball and Roger Morris; Princeton Uinversity Press, second edition 2015.
- British Hoverflies - an illustrated identification guide by Alan E. Stubbs and Steven J. Falk; British Entomological and Natural History Society, second edition reprint 2012
- Solitary Bees by Ted Benton and Nick Owens; William Collins, 2023
- Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps by Seirian Sumner; William Collins, 2022
- RES Handbook, Volume 7, Part 12: Ichneumonid Wasps (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae) by Gavin R Broad, Mark R Shaw, Michael G Fitton, Dawn Painter and Olga Retka; Royal Entomological Society
- The Fly Trap by Swedish entomologist Fredrik Sjöberg; Particular Books, 2014, in which the author suggests that the insects that Samson saw swarming from the lion’s belly would most probably have been the hoverfly Eristalis tenax