The Curious Beekeeper

The Ecoterrorist and the Beekeeper

- June 1, 2022 - Rusty Burlew - (excerpt)

The landscape of beekeeping is in flux. Ten years ago, beekeepers were folk heroes, the saviors of our food supply. But since the so-called insect apocalypse began shifting attention to other bees, beekeeping has come under attack. Some keepers are now feeling like pariahs, finding themselves being cross-questioned like criminals. The problem? Native bees.

Recently, a sideliner in North Carolina with about 40 hives and a farmers market honey business described the change. He said he noticed very little pushback against honey bees throughout his 60 years of beekeeping, but all that is changing. He says within the last ten years the honey bee has become a “focal point for a generalized cultural angst about how we’re screwing up the world.”

He points to environmental “zealots” who topple hives, poison colonies, and work to prohibit honey bees from natural or conservation areas. His question to me was, “What is the reality of competition between honey bees and native bees?” Good question.

 

A polarizing shift in focus

Strange as it may seem, the meteoric rise of interest in native bees arose from Colony Collapse Disorder. After details of CCD hit the newsstand, non-beekeepers, environmentalists, and even school children began questioning apiary management practices. People who knew nothing about insects wondered if honey bees and their keepers were damaging native populations of pollinators.

Within a few years, legions of citizen scientists were designing monitoring protocols and taking courses in melittology. Photos of obscure bees stuck with pins were all over the internet, and native plants replaced daisies and daffodils in garden plots. Slowly but inexorably, beekeepers became the bad guys.

Although the shift remains subtle, some beekeepers are feeling defensive. The question is, how can beekeepers respond to accusations that they are causing bee decline, destroying the world order, or interfering with natural processes? As with most misunderstandings, a dearth of knowledge in both camps exacerbates the problem.

Some general knowledge about solitary bees can help you answer basic questions. The following issues concerning bee-on-bee competition — I’ve chosen my favorites — illustrate the murkiness of the competition question but also provide discussion points to ponder in advance.

 

1: Honey bees are not alone

Rhetoric about bee competition usually translates into “honey bees vs. native bees.” This dichotomy is erroneous because it ignores the third group, those bees that are neither honey bees nor native bees. Is that a significant number? Absolutely. And it’s huge. In fact, I suspect it’s the fastest growing and most under-recognized pollinator group in North America.

It is nearly impossible to track introduced and adventive species, let alone stop them from spreading. Global trade has assured that insects can travel the world, so they do. Bees often arrive in the cocoon stage, holed up in a piece of wood or a bamboo cane. Soil dwellers can arrive with potted plants or agricultural products.

These often enter unnoticed and may reproduce for many years without being recognized. Because most people cannot identify any bees, they certainly won’t notice a new one in the mix. A new species may establish a home, replicate like rabbits, and compete with the locals before someone discovers it. The point to remember is honey bees are not the only “foreign competitors” on American soil.

 

2: Competition varies with species

All organisms compete. In fact, it is competition that shapes life forms to fit their environment, sculpting them over time into something that works. Wolves compete for rabbits, dens, and mates. Humans compete for food, water, fuel, and money. Bees compete for nectar, pollen, resins, and nesting sites.

Asking whether Apis mellifera competes with native bees is not meaningful; it is simply the wrong question. The extent of competition changes with each species pair. Instead, you need to ask if honey bees compete with species number one, species number two, and species number three. Then keep asking until you get to 4000 or more. Even then, the amount of competition will vary with location, season, and the number and type of flowers in bloom. It will also change from year to year as temperatures, rainfall, and humidity fluctuate.

When we envision honey bees competing with solitary bees, we usually think of food, specifically pollen and nectar. However, honey bees rarely compete for nesting sites. Most solitary bees would scoff at a honey bee pad, thinking it useless.

However, the same is not true for other introduced bees. For example, sculptured resin bees (Megachile sculpturalis) compete directly with native carpenters for nesting holes. The European orchard bee (Osmia cornuta) and the horn-faced bee (Osmia cornifrons) compete with native blue orchard bees (Osmia lignaria) for tunnels and cavities. And the alfalfa leafcutting bee (Megachile rotundata) competes with native leafcutters for hollow stems.

Bees with similar needs are more apt to compete. For instance, a bee that forages on the same flowers as a honey bee will feel the heat of a honey bee colony landing next door. But a bee that uses a plant the honey bees avoid is less likely to be affected.

Likewise, bees that forage in cold temperatures can often get the jump on early flowers long before honey bees sip their morning coffee. Other factors, like the size of the pollen grains, the flower shape, or the sweetness of the nectar, can dissuade honey bees and encourage others. In short, some species will suffer more, some less.1

 

  1. Modern agriculture could destroy native bees

Because of their size, foraging range, division of labor, and perennial nature, honey bee colonies can out-compete many solitary species, and the denser the colonies, the worse the problem. But we need to temper that fact with the services honey bees provide for our agricultural crops. Many non-beekeepers do not understand how adaptable honey bees are to being moved from field to field, or how we have integrated that trait into our cropping systems.

Most native bee species — around 70 percent — are solitary ground-dwelling creatures you simply can’t move. If turned loose on a modern field, most of those bees would ….