A lot of environmental fundraising and lobbying has involved bees. There was talk of a neonicotinoid pesticide-induced die-off, until it was determined that pesticides weren't the problem, varroa mites, and the fad of amateur beekeepers who didn't know what they were doing were the big problems. Traffic accidents killed more bees than chemicals.
When that failed, activists turned to claims about wild bees. This would seem to have easier success, since wild bees can't really be tabulated. There are over 25,000 species of wild bees worldwide, and only a few have hives to count.
But that is not true either. Wild bees have shown to be fine. That is, unless everyone is putting honeybee hives in their backyards to prevent a Colony Collapse Disorder that isn't coming.
Nonetheless, activist zealots insist on simple solutions. “We need to save the bees!” they’ll chant at anti-agriculture rallies, their banners and bullhorns spreading the lie that bees are disappearing, hoping to convince politicians to ban advanced pesticides.
As we’ll see, bees are abundant, not disappearing, and, moreover, a new study from Swedish biologists suggests that “saving” one type of bee may actually be bad for other types of bees.
Nature is complex, something rarely captured in the bumper stickers and fundraising letters of the activist busybodies. When they say they want to “save the bees,” the first question must be, which bee? There are at least 4,000 bee species native to North America. Notably absent from that list will be the common honeybee, which arrived from Europe in the 17th century on the ships carrying British colonists.
The European honeybee is ubiquitous, with 2.7 million commercial hives in the United States (that’s more hives today than 20 years ago), each of which contains up to 80,000 individual bees. So that means the total number of bees at any given time would be measured in the tens and hundreds of billions — and that doesn’t include the rest of the world’s 80 million hives. Even at the low end of hive counts, we’re talking about a trillion honeybees on the planet – and their numbers have been growing dramatically since the UN started keeping track in the 1960s. In this light, the claims about disappearing honeybees appear rather comical.
Nonetheless, the bogus tales of disappearing bees have encouraged politicians to dream up special preferences and set asides for honeybees, not realizing their meddling could be having negative consequences for native, wild bees. That’s what this new study in the journal Basic and Applied Ecology recently discovered: in locations where forage is at a premium, honeybees tend to muscle out bumblebees.
What’s good for one bee isn’t good for another.
The researchers set up 19 sites in the south of Sweden to see what happens when honeybees are introduced to areas with either one type of forage or areas with a variety of foraging material. They then counted the honeybee and bumblebee densities at each site to see what happened when honeybees were introduced. According to the study, bumblebee numbers dropped by up to 81 percent when the honeybees showed up.
“This either reflects a direct negative effect on bumblebee populations through reduced colony growth, or that bumblebees avoid foraging in areas with high honeybee densities because of food depletion or interference.”
The level of reduction appeared to depend on the species of bumblebee native to the area and the type of forage available. Honeybees have short tongues compared to many types of bumblebees. So when the honeybees move in and rob all the nectar from open flowers, bumblebees with longer tongues can survive by drinking from deeper flowers that honeybees can’t reach. Shorter-tongued bumblebees, however, are relegated to what the study refers to as the “less profitable parts of the flower patch.”
So, depending on the circumstances, what’s good for one bee could push away another species of bee. The study was meant as a first look at this question and not a comprehensive treatment of the subject. It includes an important caveat: “Because of the low number of species and individuals, our results should be interpreted with caution.”
That said, the study despite its limitations demonstrates how nature rarely cooperates with simpletons. In the hypothetical universe in which honeybees are actually disappearing (they’re not), and where pesticides like neonicotinoids were killing honeybees (they don’t, when properly used), then the activist policy to “save the bees” would mean more dead wild bees.
Fortunately, nature is more resilient than the slogans adorning the protest signs would suggest. The biggest danger isn’t that one type of bee species or the other going extinct. It’s that lawmakers and regulators might take the activists seriously and begin meddling in a way that hurts farmers without doing anything to help any bees at all. Herbertsson, L., et al. Competition between managed honeybees and wild bumblebees depends on landscape context. Basic and Applied Ecology (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.baae.2016.05.001