Honey vs Native Bees

I am sometimes asked why native bees cannot provide the necessary pollination services, which implies that honey bees, as an imported species, are trespassers on American soil. The same argument applies to plants, that we need to replace ‘exotics’ or invasives‘ with native species.


Let’s ignore for a moment that fact that many of the 4000 species of bees native to north America also appear to be in decline, which is troubling in itself, and extend this question a little further.  If we need to replace exotics with natives then horses, domesticated pigs, cattle and even chickens must go, which means no beef, veal, bacon, pork, but also no dairy products - milk, cheese, yoghurt    Most of our fruit trees were originally imported at the same time as the bees, so oranges, apples, pear, plums,  peaches and apricots would no longer grace our tables, as well as potatoes, tomatoes, avocados, sweet potatoes, strawberries, carrots, radish, spinach, beets, cabbage, cauliflower, dates, figs, olives, pineapples, grapes, legumes, watermelon, rhubarb - you get the picture. Even dandelions were imported by the New England settlers to provide leafy greens early in the year. An interesting exercise, say at dinner, is to remove first from one’s plate everything that was pollinated by a honey bee, followed by all of the non-native foods.   That would include coffee, regular tea and chocolate, and anything that included wheat or rice. With a hamburger, for example, one is left with the the tomato.


To go even further, much of our life style is not ‘native’, but based on European culture - our houses, language, much of our music, educational system -  the same culture that provided us with honey bees which of course are themselves not native to Europe but are ‘exotics’ from Africa. The chances are good that the substantial majority of people reading this newsletter, were they plants, would be labeled as ‘invasive.’


So where would that leave us?  


Protein would not be difficult to find - venison, bison, alligator, bear, wild boar, possum, groundhog, raccoon, squirrel, wild turkey, rabbit, prairie dog - but the side dishes might be a little more sparse.  The staples would be  corn, squash and beans, with pumpkin, wild onions, cactus and wild rice in support.  To drink there might be a variety of herbal teas, for example peppermint, spearmint, clover sage and rosehips.


Berries would be plentiful - blueberries, raspberries, huckleberry, cranberries,  - and some fruits - black cherries, chokecherries, mayapples,  concord grapes, crabapples, black walnuts and prickly pear. 


It’s a ridiculous notion of course.  The point is that we have developed an industrial  commercial agricultural system that, apart from grasses like wheat, rice and corn which are essentially wind pollinated,  is strongly reliant on honey bees because of  the behavioral traits that make them particularly effective as pollinators. The fact that honey bees over-winter as colonies, compared to most other bees which leave a queen or eggs to hatch in the spring based on warmth or daylight hours, allows them to build up quickly in the spring to the point that they are at peak capacity when the main nectar flow starts.  And the unique dance language allows bees to focus their pollination activities and act collectively, compared say to the size of the bumble bee which makes him the best single pollinator but he works alone and is not plant loyal, thus making the fertilization process less efficient.


We know that the latest generation of insecticides is systemic; ie. the toxins will appear in every cell of the plant as it grows, and every insect that feeds from those cells will die, whether it be bee, ladybug or aphid, beneficial or not.    We have some control over honey bees in that we can move colonies in and out of fields before spraying, but we have no control over native bees which are totally susceptible to man’s use of chemicals. 


As with so many things the answer lies in a balance.  A Xerces Society publication, Organic Farming for Bees - Conservation of Native Crop Pollinators in Organic Farming Systems, which promotes the use of native bees, says in part that  “Wild native bees improve the pollination efficiency of honey bees in hybrid sunflower seed crops by causing the honey bees to move between male and female rows more often.  The only fields that had 100% field set were those with both abundant native bees and honey bees.” (My emphasis)


The United States is big enough to provide a home for people of many origins and ethnicities in what I imagine to be a salad bowl rather than the more conventional melting pot. Just as lettuce is lettuce and a carrot is a carrot, so do they combine to form a different and greater whole. One does not have to lose one’s identity to be an American.   It’s like individual honey bees working in equilibrium as a superorganism, or native and  exotic plants interacting to develop a more expansive landscape.  Mother Nature has done this for literally millions of years.  The trouble comes when we try to manipulate and control nature for our own particular benefit in the form of vast expanses of monolithic crops and orchards, or genetically altered plants that allow us to kill everything else that is considered a ‘weed’ or ‘wild’ or ‘invasive’ that grows between the rows.  We interrupt the natural order of things, often unaware of the consequences, and instead of healthy competition between species we tip the playing field and one species becomes dominant. 


Increasingly I think of it as capitalism without a conscience.


Honey bees are our canaries in the coal mine, telling us that our environment is increasingly toxic. Yes, the bees can ‘disappear’ and we can fool ourselves into thinking that countries like China, Chile, Israel and South Africa will supply us with the fruits and vegetables we can no longer grow in sufficient quantities ourselves.  But that is like hanging out the washing as a hurricane approaches. We are denying the main issue which is why are bees, birds, frogs, toads, bats and many other species diminishing at ever increasing rates, what has our role been and what do we need to do to change this pattern?   


That requires action rather than words, perhaps sacrifices and change, even a redefinition of what we have long accepted as quality of life and standard of living, not to mention ‘progress.’  It’s easy to find excuses and blame, and more onerous to take the initiative, which is what beekeepers do every day.




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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

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