The urban beekeeping fad is still going strong in the United States with city and rural folks jumping in on this exciting agricultural hobby. For some it’s the lure of fresh honey; pure in form with no water added. For others it is part of the larger gardening craze called pollinator gardens. And I suspect for most people, it’s a little of both.
On the commercial side, honey bee pollination is critical to the agriculture system that has emerged here in the United States. Crops such as blueberries and cherries, are 90-percent dependent on honey bees and almond growers rely entirely on the honey bee for pollinating their trees. It is estimated that more than a million colonies are needed each year in California just to pollinate the state’s almond crop. Some argue that if it weren’t for the introduction of the honey bee, we would not be the agricultural powerhouse we are.
But this success story is not without a down side. It is a story that plays out over and over again. We humans introduce species that are not native to a particular region and decades later wake up to the fact that there might be negative effects of this introduction. Take for instance the introduction of the European Starling in New York’s Central Park or bullfrogs in Oregon by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Both have had significant effects on native species.
And make no mistake; the honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) is not native to the Western Hemisphere. They were brought to the American colonies early in the 1600’s and by 1800, could be found from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Honey bee introductions haved occured in many other countries as well.
Now a study out of Sweden has documented the negative effect honey bees have on native bee populations. Researchers counted the number of short and long-range nesting bumble bees in twenty different areas for a season and then placed honey bee hives in ten of those areas. After some time they then counted the number of bumble bees again and found there was a staggering 81% decline of the short range bumble bees.
Honey bees are actually not the best pollinators; however they are great at collecting pollen. And they need to be. Honey bee queens can lay approximately 1,000 eggs a day and it takes a lot of pollen to feed the offspring. Honey bees can strip all of the pollen from an acre of orchard trees within a few hours. Long-range bumble bees can forage farther than honey bees, however short-range bumble bees with their hive within the honey bee foraging shadow couldn’t find enough pollen and likely starved.
And many other native solitary bees have an even shorter range than short-range bumble bees. If there was little pollen, they more than likely flew away to someplace outside of the honey bee shadow or starved.
The Swedish study article also reiterated that honey bees are probably spreading their diseases to the native bees. As a result, Sweden is considering regulating the number of hives in a given area as a means to protect native pollinators.
The United States however, has become too reliant on the honey bees for commercial crop pollination and there are few alternatives. So nothing will change anytime soon, but we need to be aware of the damage we’re doing to our native pollinators. For now we need the honey bee for food production, but we need to also consider other native pollinators in our food supply system. And once and for all we need to acknowledge the disastrous effects that have often followed the introduction of a foreign species into the fauna of a country.