May 222011

The Mason Bee

A commenter to my blog titled Bee-mance has posted the following which caused me to spin around in my chair three times:

“Given the abundance of native bees here on the island — several bumblebees, orchard mason bees, various wasps and flies, I prefer to (a) not disturb and (b) enhance our native pollinators’ natural habitats (wood piles, for example, a few areas of bare earth abandoned vole holes. As I get older, I see a personal negative value (since I don’t use much by way of any sweeteners) in starting one MORE high-maintenance operation, which honeybees are.  Plus, there’s lots of evidence that honeybees have displaced natives plus spread diseases to native bees. Kinda like when Europeans unintentionally brought the deadly gift of smallpox and other fatal diseases to the unprepared American population:  90% wipe-out.  I’d prefer not to participate in even the possibility of doing such a thing to our native bee populations.  Plus, collaborating with those (pollinators) who’ve lived on Lummi Island so much longer than I have just feels more respectful.”

This comment made me feel like some kind of genocidal maniac who, in his lust for sweets, was decimating the native pollinator population with dirty, nasty, disease-ridden little girls transported across state lines, who must be leaving a trail of fungus, virus and bacteria as they elbow the bumblebees and mason bees off the kale blossoms. This comment comes from a person I must take seriously. Could it be true? Let the investigation begin.

First of all, I question my ability to be objective as I am a non-native of Lummi Island and thus predisposed to support interlopers, carpetbaggers and species of that ilk. Should I recuse myself from the discussion? I am, in fact, not even a native of Washington and can only trace my ancestry on this continent to a ship of indentured servants which arrived sometime in the 18th Century. But if I don’t defend my bees, who will? And, if the commenter is right, who will have to take action to destroy this plague that I’ve set loose on the island? (As a side note, I am hoping that Peromyscus leucopus the White-footed Mouse is a non-native because I had to deal with one just yesterday).

According to my bee bible The Hive and The Honey Bee Apis mellifera (the aforementioned honey bee) arrived on the West Coast in the 1850’s. So, first thing to note is: I didn’t bring bees to Lummiland. They’ve been here, swarming, going feral, for a long time. And, (I want some points here), the bees I have are technically “rescue” bees. It’s sort of like going to the pound to get that puppy nobody wanted. Someone had to provide a home for the bees pumped out by the California bee mills. Although there is some maintenance involved, a top bar hive full of bees is less trouble than, for instance, a dog.

But, to the important point: are the honey bees a danger to the native pollinators?  Obviously, honey bees like to feed on the same plants and flowers as do native pollinators. They could be competition. Today I found a bumblebee colony in my yard. They live in a little tunnel in the ground, probably an old mouse den. The colonies are small, according to the literature. Up to 400 animals compared to an active hive of Apis mellifera which could number 30,000 at full strength. I’ve been watching the kale and the apple blooms hoping to see the girls. But what I see is mostly the brown and yellow bumblebee. They seem to be getting their fair share. Unscientific, I know. But the point is that everyone in the world is worried about colony collapse disorder and there is a great deal of impetus to encouraging native pollinators. None of this encouragement I’ve read discourages the keeping of Apis mellifera.

It seems like it is theoretically possible for native pollinators to pollinate everything if there were no honey bees but so much would have to be done to improve and create habitat that it doesn’t seem probable that the natives can take over anytime soon.

My go-to site for deep research on things agricultural is the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service whose paper on native pollinators  is extremely informative and, to my satisfaction answers the charge that apis mellifera is, metaphorically, a plague of syphilitic European immigrants.

They talk about two specific diseases that native pollinators face— chalk brood and pollen mites. Neither of which are derived from the non-native honeybee. “The hardest of these to control is chalkbrood, a fungal disease. Several species of the fungi exist among tunnel-nesting bees, all of which are different from the chalkbrood disease that attacks honey bees… pollen mites can be a persistent problem… Unlike the mites that attack honey bees, pollen mites do not feed on the hemolymph (blood) of the bee.”

The current craze to promote the mason bee, the poster boy for native pollinators, is fraught with dangers of its own to wit:

“Recently, many people have become interested in the blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria), also called the orchard mason bee, as a garden and orchard pollinator. Many thousands of mason bee nesting blocks are sold each year in the United States, along with hundreds of thousands of blue orchard bees. This interest has greatly raised public awareness about the importance of pollinators; however, it is important to remember that raising large numbers of a single species (bee-ranching) is a different objective than the conservation of diverse species of wild pollinators.

As mason beekeeping has increased in popularity, important questions are being asked about the risks associated with the nationwide shipment of blue orchard bees by commercial producers. In fact, there are two distinct subspecies of the blue orchard bee: Osmia lignaria propinqua in western North America and Osmia lignaria lignaria in the east…Most commercial producers of the blue orchard bee are located in the Pacific Northwest, where they rear the locally native western subspecies… Unfortunately, the bees these producers raise are then marketed nationwide, resulting in the frequent shipment of locally non-native bees to the eastern United States. The potential ecological consequences of the western blue orchard bee hybridizing with its eastern subspecies are unknown. Similarly, these shipments have the potential to introduce locally non-native parasites and diseases. For the consumer, there is another significant drawback. The western bees may not develop in sync with local conditions, resulting in poor establishment and poor performance as pollinators.”

Likewise there’s a problem with trying to promote bumble bees:

“Similarly, the package bumble bee industry, which provides farmers with live bumble bee colonies for crop pollination, currently only produces a single eastern bumble bee species, Bombus impatiens. This species is then shipped nationwide, in a situation similar to the blue orchard bee, often far beyond its native range. Many bumble bee scientists now believe that these commercially produced bumble bees are responsible for the introduction of one or more diseases which have decimated several bumble bee species, even causing the potential extinction of one species, Bombus franklini).

The alternatives are to either develop local commercial sources of bees that are native to your region or to rear already widely established non-native species, such as honey bees…”

If I understand the article it sounds like the native bees are infecting each other and the only thing they have to fear from a declining population of honey bees is a bit of competition.

This wasn’t an exhaustive investigation but at this point I’m feeling good about myself again even in the face of the purist POV. In a perfect world I’d have to agree with the commenter. But right now, pollination is the most important thing. This is the beauty of the top bar hive and of backyard beekeeping. Colony collapse disorder is no doubt a function of the commercialization of beekeeping. A big commercial apiary is to the bee what a feedlot is to a cow. It’s unnatural as well as non-native. A backyard hive or two will supplement the work of the natives who are losing habitat everyday, every time we burn the brush pile or mow the grass and crush their den.

I admit there will at some point be a bit of honey. I contend I can eat honey and respect native pollinators at the same time.


  16 Responses to “No Honey For Her”

  1. another aspect that is being overlooked is that you’ve created a huge “non-native” food SOURCE with your gardens and fruit trees, which I imagine helps to make up for any food competition between pollinators.

  2. Good point, Sarah. I forgot to mention that I have instructed the honey bees to focus on non-native plants.

  3. I love this post. Even though the commenter “caused me to spin around in my chair three times” (very graphic; I can picture it and smile) you didn’t just stick to your guns; you investigated further and extended and defended (indefensively) your opinions out loud for us to read, too.

  4. Gee, Randy — I was just giving my reasons for preferring to support my local bee and other native pollinators, not accusing you of intentional – or unintentional — native apicide!

    The full complement of interacting reasons for honeybee colony collapse is still unknown. Hence, the relationship between honeybee colony collapse and the documented reduction in native bee population is uncertain as well. That being the case, I opt for the ‘precautionary principle’. I’m hardly alone in my concern, e.g.;;

    For those interested in native pollinators, I suggest checking out Oodles of great information on everything from species to habitat preservation/development to collapse of native pollinator populations to agricultural value.

    I disagree that it’s ‘too hard’ to keep/improve native pollinator habitat. I also disagree that our natives aren’t up to the job of ‘servicing’ agri crops that humans prefer. In the first place, it’s not like we are aiming at corporate mega-farm monoculture on Lummi Island. Second, there’s increasing evidence that native pollinators are key for many human-desired crops (here’s one source: (for further information on the value of native pollinators in agriculture, see The fact that so much more is known about honeybees than native pollinators is, I suspect, because humans have been committed for so long to using honeybees (very profitable) that most research (all done by humans, of course) has focused on honeybees. No controllable profit in native pollinators, no motive for research on them perhaps?

    Also, our native pollinators are doing just fine, thank you, at least for me over here on the hill about Legoe Bay. Early last week I noticed, much to my delighted surprise given our record cool wet spring, that even my earliest-blooming of plum trees has set some fruit. Only pollinators I saw were a few rather lethargic bumbles (it was too cool for either mason bees or honeybees when pollination took place). Could have been some flies or wasps, too, I suppose. Wonderful little critters, whoever they are. I’m *so* delighted that building and gardening here haven’t run them all off.

    I really, really, really love that local Lummi Island pollinators are up to the job — and so easy. This means that honeybees and their related apparatus are ‘external inputs’ that don’t even vaguely tempt me, unlike things like our tractor and fuel, fencing to keep deer out, water storage tanks, hoses, pipes; jars and freezers for preservation, etc).

    Thanks Randy for responding — this should encourage more good, thought-provoking discussion.

  5. Loved the reference to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service’s reference to a 2010 Xerxes paper on native pollinators — Great stuff. However, I don’t see it as the final word on research into native bees and their increasing demise. As a former scientist, I can say for sure that research-based information at any one point in time is not the Final Word, just a step along the way. I’ve always liked that about (good) science.

  6. Perhaps some sort of Affirmative Action program can be established for “native” pollinators so they won’t be disadvantaged by mainlander bees brought over to the island. There may already be such in the Department of Agriculture. Also the idea of “California” bees just chafes my hide since I just barely escaped from there myself.

  7. Wynne, could it be possible that that native pollinators are just suffering the result of all myriad of causes which have resulted in Colony Collapse Disorder?
    If we were to destroy all the honey bees would the native pollinators flourish in the face of GMO, pesticides, cell phone signals, radiation, etc. etc. Or, would they still face degradation? Are the honey bees the cause or just a more noticeable population of victims?

  8. “Just” (unjust?) part of the bigger destructo-explanation isn’t too important to me, even though I raised that issue in the comment that started this interesting thread.

    Whether or not *currently* imported honeybee colonies will add further stress, disease, competition whatever to native bee populations, this is *truly* not A Big Deal in my personal decision-making and action. I will simply keep gardening in ways that help support my local api-economy-ecology.

    As a good American for lo these many years, I’ve done (and keep doing) my share of messing up the world. Supporting my local pollinators is a tiny bit of mitigation. For those who need or even just want honeybees, fine, but it’s not my road.

  9. Life is too short to take seriously. I’m sure someone was raising bees in Joplin, Missouri before yesterday, or tending an orchard last year north of Tokyo, or raising organic sheep near Grimsvötn, Iceland. Some people even thought we were all scheduled to depart last weekend (it has evidently been temporarily postponed). Just do the best you can. It will be fine. Really! BTW, Randy & Linda are two of my favorite recent pollinators to arrive on Lummi Island.

  10. Actually a good time to be in the honey business:,0,1341546.story

  11. To me this brings to mind all kinds of analogies about indigenous populations and newly introduced species and what can really be considered ‘native’. Was the Orchard Mason Bee and the other pre-1850 insects the first to exist on the island? Or did they crowd out other species when they arrived? And how did that happen? New viruses, overusing limited resources, more aggressive territory control, higher reproduction? Why do we consider that the status quo should be when we first started paying attention, and then try to maintain those conditions? Has not the ecosystem been constantly changing?

    99.9% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. As one of natures species ourselves, we have changed the ecosystem to our benefit long before we developed self-awareness and a conscience. But now we are developing eco-awareness and hence the quandary of whether we should continue to manipulate and control this ecosystem for our enhancement. Would the introduction of Europeans to the Americas have happened whether or not we were aware of the dangers to the existing population? Let say that humans were not self-aware or eco-aware and that a wave of Europeans crossed over the Atlantic carrying with them Apis mellifera and they eventually made it to Lummi Island. If they were not self-aware or eco-aware, would it have been wrong for them to arrive? Do the Natives of the Americas have more of a right to be on Lummi Island then do the Apis mellifera? What about those who existed here before the Orchard Mason Bee and were displaced by them? Does that make the Orchard Mason Bee a conquerer and their predecessors the victims? Should we make the Curry Preserve a reservation of native insects and establish entitlement programs to feed and house them? Or should we let them all coexist and celebrate diversity and let evolution take it’s course.

    I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I love this blog and especially this thread for bringing them up for me. Everyday I see ocean species accidentally being spread to the across the planet in ships ballast water and having disastrous consequences for native species and I wonder, can anything stop this? Is the only option to this and all the other species translocation happen and see which species survive and adapt? Is this also applicable to our local dilemma(s)?

  12. This has been a very fine thread. Some 10 years ago the State of California addressed a bigger but similar philosophical ecological problem that Klayton describes so well. Namely, what to do with the late introductions of animals by the Spanish on the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara CA. The Spanish left sheep, horses, and worst of all pigs; all of which turned feral. But they had been there for more than 200 years. It had become their natural habitat. The horses and sheep were removed in a Higgins Boat — to the loud outcry of enviromentalists, by the way ( a paradoxical position for a purist, but they were mostly ASPCA and animal rights people). The pigs were rooters and their ruts for acorns from “native” island Live Oaks — especially on Santa Cruz Island — were destroying the flora of this island habitat. Wild pigs are the smartest and hardiest prey of all. The government bureaucratics finally settled on an air attack. They hired a company from New Zealand to shoot the pigs from helicopters. This air war lasted a year — under protests the whole time.

    As a side note. These island are far enough off shore to become their own little ecosystems over the millenia. The “indigenious” island fox, for instance, is a tiny creature 1/3 the size of a mainland fox.
    The full remains of a “pygmy” mammoth have also been found on the island. Everything ancient had downsized itself to adapt to the little world of the island. But as Klayton suggests — these species had to newly arrive too at some point. What did they displace? A final note: CA reintroduced the Golden Eagle to the islands 11 years ago — now the little island fox is endangered.

  13. Ok…I didn’t really want to go this deeply into the subject, but now feel I must set the record straight. I think, that when the native queen bee took actions which lead to the crossing of Hale Pass becoming too difficult for the new Free-Mason bees, and the Africanized killer bee in the big hive, took no action to intervene, that the stingers on the newly arrived bees all shriveled up and fell out, and they all morphed into house flies, and quit pollinating, and just concentrated on excrement. I could be wrong.

  14. No, Ed, I think you are damn close to right on, brother! It could very well be that the development of an socio-eco-conscience by the newly introduced species, Island Interlopericus, is a genetic flaw that will result in it’s evolutionary de-selection. Is that a bad thing or a good thing? Depends on what your pre-determined idea of a good socio-ecosystem looks like and which species you think ‘should’ win out.

    We all could have been highly intelligent dinosaurs if it were not for some crazy asteroid hitting the earth at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary.

  15. I stand corrected. The foxes are back through a breeding program. Here is a good national news spot on the whole story with good views of the channel islands. Please don’t tell anyone in the National Park Service about the Bee situation on Lummi — the taxpayers can’t affort much more intervention.

  16. You guys are just too too TOO cute. Princess pink cute. Luminous shell pink cute, with charming cute glittering tiarras, yards of lacy frills and sparkly rhinestone pink satin slippers.

    Who’d have ever guessed that bees (both native and imported) could possibly provoke tough island guys to share so many cute pink clevernesses with us all? (Cleverness? Should I have said cleverosity? Someone pink — please rescue me ASAP from my foolish ignorance! Being sweetly helpful is one of those True Pink qualities, you know.)

    Time for me to bow out, at least until the pink miasma dissipates and bees are visible again.

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