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.