If the quintessential ecological battle cry of the seventies was “Save The Whales,” today it is “Save The Bees.” From news headlines to environmental campaigns to alarming documentaries, we’re warned that if the bees go extinct, we’ll go with them.
It makes sense — about 75 percent of crops are reliant on animal pollinators, which are often honeybees. Without them, the theory goes, we’d not only lose $212 billion in global economic value, we could probably say goodbye to apples, almonds, broccoli, cucumbers, peaches, and many other common food items, not to mention honey.
But when it comes to agricultural health, that really isn’t the full picture.
While honeybee hives recently experienced a crash, due to a collection of conditions known as colony collapse disorder, they’ve actually bounced back somewhat. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking hives in 1947, there were 5.9 million colonies. In 2008, that number had dropped to 2.44 million, but the decline seems to have leveled off — by 2017 colony numbers had risen slightly to 2.67 million.
Worries about the health of honeybees often miss the larger picture. They’re important, but there are many other pollinators out there, including butterflies, bats, hummingbirds, flies, and other bee species. The hyperfocus on honeybees is overshadowing the thousands of other critters essential for a functioning ecosystem. Climate change and habitat loss are still wiping out countless bugs in some areas, an impact that could be felt far beyond our dinner plates. But as this crisis has unfolded, public attention has consistently fixated on the honeybee — leaving other more vulnerable species to suffer in the dark.
The issue may be a lack of familiarity with bee diversity — or, better put, an over-familiarity with a certain species. When we say “honeybee,” rest assured we’re all picturing the same thing — the black- and yellow-striped insect on the cereal box. This is Apis mellifera, or the European honeybee and they are but one of a legion of species.
The multiplicity of bees is astounding. There are more than 20,000 different species displaying a range of colors: everything from metallic blue-green to red-and-black beauties resembling wasps. Most are solitary, not hive-dwellers, occupying dirt or wood and some bees line their nests with a plastic-like excretion. Only seven species of bees make honey.
Honeybees may be insects, but when domesticated, they function as livestock. The European honeybee was first introduced to North America by settlers of the continent in the early 1600s. Native Americans existed for centuries without honeybees, relying on other pollinators to rear their crops. Today, honeybees can even be considered an invasive species in some places.
THE SECRET STRIFE OF BEES
All the focus on honeybees overlooks other important pollinators, such as bumblebees, many of which are experiencing severe die-offs, some as much as 96 percent of their population. At least one North American species is presumed extinct, while another, the rusty patched bumblebee, Bombus affinis, has been added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list. It’s the first bee in the continental U.S. to be given protections, although the IUCN lists several bees as critically endangered, and more may need help in the near future.
Bumblebees are especially important pollinators due to their size and extra fuzziness, and some have evolved special relationships with flowering plants. Tomatoes, for example, rely on buzz pollination, a behavior done only by certain bees. This is when a bumblebee bites a flower, then vibrates to shake out the pollen.
Before the ‘90s, when they figured out how to domesticate bumblebees, gardeners would wield electric toothbrushes to trick greenhouse tomatoes into pollinating. Now, places like the U.K. import 65,000 non-native bumblebees per year, some of which escape and can survive mild winters, spreading parasites and diseases to other pollinators. Every year in the U.S., beekeepers haul billions of bees to California — otherwise, the state couldn’t pollinate almonds.
“Shuffling these honeybees and bumblebees across the planet, we’re potentially introducing diseases where they haven’t been found before,” says Jonathan Koch, a researcher specializing in ecology and insects at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo. “We’ve also discovered that honeybee viruses can be found in non-honeybee hosts.” While it’s not clear yet if those viruses are causing harm, our over-reliance on honeybees is imperiling a host of native species the world over.
Our reliance on honeybees is puzzling for another, simpler reason: They’re not always that great at it when compared to other species. They are often less efficient pollinators, and can spread disease to other insects. That becomes a problem when enterprising conservationists, aiming to help save the honeybees, erect colonies of their own. Owning a beehive can be a rewarding hobby, if you know what you’re doing, and can significantly improve your crop yield, but at the cost of potentially spreading infections, and even out-competing local species.
“Keeping honeybees for pollinator conservation is like keeping chickens for bird conservation,” says Mace Vaughan, the co-director of the Pollinator Program at the Xerces Society, a non-profit that has partnered with the USDA. Ultimately, we don’t need more honeybees in North America, and in some cases, they can even harm the species that are already there.
Click here to read the full article at Discover Magazine.
Photo credit: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain.