Honey bees — who really needs saving? (Part 1)

“Nature is complex and we operate from a position of never having as much information as we would like.”
–United States Department of the Interior

Bright yellow shirts and hats and earrings declaring “save the bees” abound on the internet. I can’t remember ever seeing anyone wearing one. Perhaps it’s aspirational of the online retailers, or a virtue signal they’re putting out to declare that they care about the environment, without needing to take any action (this is called “greenwashing” — when an organization spends more time and money on marketing itself as environmentally friendly than on actually minimizing its environmental impact). But most people are at least peripherally aware that pollinators are at risk, and think that bees need saving. They’ve likely heard stories of colony collapse disorder and pesticides and the villages in China where people are pollinating trees by hand because all of the bees have been killed.

My family keeps bees: depending on the time of year and how hard the season was, we have anywhere from two to five hives at a time. I say this partially to admit my bias early, but also to explain why I end up talking to people about bees a lot. When people learn that I’m a beekeeper, their reactions are usually either excitement that I am personally saving the bees or incredulity that I voluntarily spend time with thousands of stinging insects. “I don’t mean to sound rude, but what is the appeal,” someone asked us once, standing under the shade of a cottonwood tree at a mutual friend’s barbeque.

If you ask someone who purports to want to save the bees to describe the bees, they’ll probably describe a honey bee: the kind that lives in colonies with a queen, stores up honey for the winter, and might sting you if you misstep on a spring day. It’s fairly hard to get a sting from a honey bee though: in my first season of beekeeping, opening up multiple beehives at least once a week and disturbing them mightily, I was only stung twice. A honey bee dies when she stings you, so it needs to be serious. And it’s definitely she: the males, or drones, don’t have stingers. They also rarely leave the hive except to mate, and mating kills them.

Most bees native to the Pacific Northwest don’t have stingers either, male or female. If a flying insect with yellow and black stripes stings you, and you didn’t do anything to deserve it (unwittingly or not), it’s probably not a bee at all, but rather a yellowjacket or a hornet, both of which can be aggressive. Honey bees and yellowjackets are both in the insect order, hymenoptera, but that’s where the similarities end: the apidae family contains more than five thousand species of bees, and the vespidae family has nearly as many species of wasps, of which yellowjackets are one.

The third reaction I get from people who learn that I’m a beekeeper is the opposite of the first: it’s indignation that I am, just as personally, killing pollinators. This reaction is rare, because most people don’t pay enough attention to bees to know that this is a reaction one could even reasonably have. They might be aware on some level, that some bees seem fat and furry and others smaller and sleeker, but not to the point of considering the differences or where the different kinds might have come from.

Before the start of this beekeeping season, someone in my local beekeeping group shared in our online forum that they were hanging up their veil. They’d been thinking about it anyway, they said, but a blog post, to which they shared the link, had cinched the deal. It was a blog post written by someone who had taken up beekeeping to save the world, and only three years after starting this journey did they realize native bees existed, and were different than the kind they were keeping. It is these native bees with whom honey bees must share resources, which is where problems can arise.

While there are many types of bees that produce honey and are kept at varying levels of domestication, most beekeepers in the West keep European honey bees. Even this an oversimplification — there are many types of European honey bee to choose from, and many beekeepers swear by one or another that seems to do better in their climate. Carneolons do better in the cold and are willing to forage farther for nectar, but they’re also more prone to swarming. Italians are more suited to a mild climate, and are paler in color. No matter which type you choose though, they are, as their name might suggest, not native in the Western hemisphere.

Other bees are though. There are 20,000 different species of bees around the world, and even though the greatest variety can be found in the tropics — as is true of many other types of biodiversity — there are dozens of native species in the Pacific Northwest.

Honey bees may be the ones who have developed a reputation for needing to be saved, but many of the problems that plague them are plaguing all types of bees: pesticides and habitat loss, the reduction of nectar-producing flowers as fields are turned into monoculture crops. So the issue with honey bees, in excess, is really just that they rely on the same resources as other bees. If there isn’t enough food for everyone, and humans keep moving more and more honey bees into the area, of course that is going to pose a problem for other bees.

And honey bees are prolific: a single healthy hive can hold up to 100,000 individual bees, and they don’t really have a sense of “ok, now we have enough”: if there are more flowers to forage, they will continue foraging. Since honey bees store honey and pollen to sustain their own colonies through the winter, humans rely on this instinct for insatiability — if honey bees will just keep producing, even beyond their own resource needs, then there will be enough left over for the humans to harvest the honey and wax crops. A single honey bee colony can collect about 40 pounds of pollen and 265 pounds of nectar, which they transform into honey, every year.

The way this person in my local beekeeping forum phrased their pronouncement that they were leaving our ranks was clearly intended to be an indictment on the rest of us, intending to make us feel guilty that we were carrying on. Moral absolutism, of course, never works. People of whom perfection is asked are more likely to decide that since perfection is impossible anyway, why bother trying at all?

For people who think of livestock as pigs and cattle it’s a little bit of a paradigm shift, but honey bees are also livestock: the benefit of it is for the people keeping them or who get to consume their resources, not for the animals themselves. The calculus on this is more challenging than it appears even: to some, this might seem like an argument for veganism, the complete abstention from any food produced by an animal. That line is softer when it comes to things like bees though, given how much of our food is pollinated by them.

Apple farmers in some parts of China pollinate all of their trees by hand, because there are no bees left. 80% of the world’s almonds come from California, a part of the world where there aren’t enough pollinators to ensure the trees produce fruit. Since pollinators need to live somewhere for an entire season, and any given crop only flowers for a few weeks each year, pollinators can’t thrive in monocultures like the almond groves of California. The solution to this has been one that doesn’t, in the context of all of our other modern agricultural practices, seem very out of the ordinary, but still boggles my mind when you consider the sheer scale and absurdity of the position we’ve ended up in, how far we’ve traveled from anything resembling balance: every year, two and a half million honey bee hives (not bees, hives, each of which, remember, can have up to 100,000 bees in it) are shipped across the country on trucks to almond farms in California to pollinate them.

For all I know, it would be more environmentally beneficial to stop eating almonds, than to stop eating honey produced by the hives I keep in my backyard. There isn’t a right answer and the right answer isn’t the same for everyone. As Professor Jane Memmott at Bristol University puts it: “It’s a question of all things in moderation. Beekeeping in and of itself is a good thing for people to be able to do but it’s a question of scale and responsibility…as long as you realise that you aren’t doing it to save the bees; in the same way, if you keep chickens next to your beehive you aren’t saving the white-tailed sea eagle.”

Edwards, Carlyann Edwards, What is Greenwashing? (Business News Daily, 2022)

National Agricultural Statistics Service, Statistical Summary, Honey Bees

Poland, Therese M.; Patel-Weynand, Toral; Finch, Deborah M.; Ford Miniat, Chelcy; Hayes, Deborah C.; Lopez, Vanessa M., eds. 2021. Invasive Species in Forests and Rangelands of the United States: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the United States Forest Sector. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer International Publishing. 455p.

Turner, Alexander, ‘Honeybees are voracious’: is it time to put the brakes on the boom in beekeeping? (The Guardian, 2021)

United States Geological Survey, Are honey bees native to North America?

United States Geological Survey, How many species of native bees are in the United States?