The Plight of the Bumblebee

PPhoto by Tobias Maschtaler on Unsplash

Perhaps it comes as a surprise to learn that wild bees are much better pollinators than honeybees. Bumblebees, for instance, have a unique method known as “buzz pollination”. They will shake flowers at a certain frequency allowing for more pollen to be released, thus creating a more effective pollination process. Honeybees, on the other hand, cannot do this.

A research article published in the found that pollination by wild bees yields larger strawberries in comparison to honeybees. The study found that if the honeybee was to displace its wild counterparts entirely, farmers may end up with sub-optimal yields year after year. So why then, you may wonder, do beekeepers not farm the bumblebee instead? It’s quite simple: the bumblebee does not produce as much honey as does (the western honeybee) — not as much honey, therefore not as much financial gain, therefore not as much interest. Straight economics.

So, save the bees, yes — but especially the wild ones. The truth of the matter is honeybees do not live in harmony with wild species of bee. They compete for space, for food, and because they are so proficient in numbers they easily win the battle, forcing the population of their wild neighbours to decline ever further.

Roughly 20,000 species of bee currently exist, with almost all of them in decline. Almost all, that is, except for the farmed honeybee, whose numbers have grown a staggering 45% in the last 50 years. These numbers may look good superficially, but it is important to take into consideration the fact that the honeybee is native to Asia, Europe, and Africa. Our shipping them all over the planet for pollination purposes of certain crops, like almonds in California, has played a role in the drop — or extinction — of wild bee species who were native to areas where honeybees were not.

Commercially raised bees can also have their own unique diseases — diseases which will decimate wild bees who come in contact with them in shared foraging sites. Take, for instance, Deformed Wing Virus (DMV) — the virus is found in honeybee colonies infested with Varroa mites, the presence of which is enough for beekeepers to decide to cull huge portions of their colony, if not their entire hive. DMV will cause wing and abdominal abnormalities, damaged appendages, paralysis of the legs and wings, and eventually death.

A team of researchers published their findings on the disease associations between western honeybees and bumblebees in the journal Since honeybees share foraging sites with other wild pollinators, the risk of interspecific transmission of deadly pathogens is high. The researchers conducted a survey in 26 sites across Great Britain and the Isle of Man; 20 bumblebees were collected per site with 11% of those surveyed found to have presence of DMV.

However, the researchers made clear that this is a conservative estimate, as bumblebees in the later stages of DMV will have severely deformed wings, therefore making them incapable of flight and unable to be captured by their sampling protocol. The growing trade of bumblebees and honeybees for pollination services across the globe is likely exacerbating this impact.

The researchers summed up: “Our results provide evidence for an emerging pathogen problem in wild pollinators that may be driven by (honeybee).”

It is a little strange, then, to see the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT) — the UK’s largest bumblebee charity, set up due to their concern about “[T]he plight of the bumblebee”—still promotes the practice of beekeeping. In fact, they go so far to say it’s: “[D]efinitely not something we want to prevent or avoid. […] Several of the Trust’s staff and supporters are beekeepers.”

Listed number one of their four main organisational aims is to “Enhance the understanding of bumblebee ecology and conservation”, which, it’s reasonable to assume, would extend so far as to promote abstaining from honeybee farming — therefore cutting down on the spillover risks associated between that species and the species of bee they are trying to protect, the bumblebee.

“Whilst the impacts of managed honeybees likely contribute to the problems bumblebees face,” Darryl Cox, Senior Science and Policy Officer for the BBCT, says, “the evidence does not suggest they are a major driver of population declines, which in the UK has largely been driven by the loss of flower-rich grasslands. […] Despite potential negative consequences honeybees can cause, they are important economically and culturally, as well as ecologically. It is important to talk about the potential risks of beekeeping without demonising or blaming the industry — we want to work with beekeepers and other interested parties to find the best solution. […] Like it or not, beekeeping is an established industry with important economic, ecological and cultural reasons for being.”

Ecologically, wild bee species and wild pollinators in general are actually better at pollination than honeybees, as we have learned. And saying something is important “culturally” is really saying nothing at all, since there were once a myriad of cultural norms that we no longer practice. Does anyone remember witch-burning? That was once a cultural norm. As were arranged marriages, which unfortunately still persist in certain parts of the world. Discrimination against women for property ownership — another cultural norm once upon a time. Female genital mutilation is a cultural norm where it occurs, however to label this barbaric act as “important” would be ridiculous and asinine. So, really, saying a cruel practice is something that should continue because it is important culturally is an absurd yardstick to use for which to draw your morals upon.

The economical impacts of honey are deserving of a mention. Is it more important to spend money on an unsustainable system which could potentially lead to the further extinction of wild bee species, or to invest in more sustainable practices which could allow native wild bees and other pollinators to bounce back? Honey need not come from overworked, underfed, susceptible-to-mass-die-off, honeybees.

The mind-boggling loss of wildflower meadows — 97% in the United Kingdom since World War Two — has played a pivotal role in the decimation of wild bee populations, of that there can be no doubt. However it is staggering to suggest that the proliferation of honey farming is not also a major driving factor in their continuing decline. If a morbidly obese person went to their doctor complaining of chest pain, the doctor wouldn’t say the patient’s consumption of soda is what’s ruining his health, while neglecting to mention the fact the two doughnuts and bar of chocolate the patient was having for breakfast each day was also acting in a detrimental way. And, as Cox said, “[T]he impacts of managed honeybees likely contribute to the problems bumblebees face[.]” — which shows the BBCT is aware of the issues around honey farming, yet are doing nothing to change it — effectively being and the loss of bumblebees at the same time.

Surely it’s in our best interest if we stop causing wild pollinators any and all unnecessary harm?

“In an ideal world yes absolutely, however lots of different stakeholders have their own interests, whether that be a beekeeper keeping bees, a farmer using fertiliser instead of growing hay like they used to, a local council or an individual mowing their lawn every week. We can’t simply tell these people to stop doing things (much as I wish we could sometimes), but we can try to bring them with us — show them the evidence and why it’s important, and hopefully persuade them to do things differently.”

By the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s own admission, more research is required into the spillover of viruses like DMV. Is the organisation currently undertaking or helping garner funding for any potential future research?

“BBCT is a conservation organisation, and although we carry out research monitoring bumblebee populations across the UK, we are not a research institute. We do occasionally partner with institutions and students on projects and we would certainly be interested to partner on a project looking into this if we could and resources were available,” Cox says.

On the BBCT’s position statement page, they say a precautionary approach should be taken when placing a honeybee hive in areas where wild bees are present, due to the associated issues between the two different species interacting. Surely it would be better to simply not implement an unnatural hive at all, as that would nullify any potential health risks associated between farmed and wild bees occurring in the first place?

“Unfortunately, things are not so simple and even if we did call for people to stop keeping bees completely, it is unlikely we’d get very far.”

Calling for people to stop keeping bees doesn’t seem high on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s agenda, anyway. The list of companies they partner with on their online store includes Bán íon, a company who sell honey-based soaps in their range of products; Bee Clean Soaps who, along with also selling honey-based soaps, sell honey tea, beeswax candles, and donate 10% of their profits to the BBCT; Health is Wealth, who are in the process of bringing into production a bee pollen and bee propolis product; and Honey Bee Beautiful — a business run by beekeepers who sell an entire range of honey-based skincare and bath products. For every purchase made on Honey Bee Beautiful, a portion of that money goes directly to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

The BBCT’s interests appear blurred between conservation of the bumblebee and taking money from the honey industry — an industry which is, in its way, making their job harder. To ask their supporters to cease consuming honey would almost certainly result in these partnerships ending, leaving them without that extra vital funding for their conservation work. It is a difficult situation to be in.

If the opportunity arose, however, to switch to a sustainable, plant-based honey product, would the BBCT promote their supporters to make the change?

“Hypothetically,” Cox begins, “if the product met our due diligence checks and the supplier was a supporter of the charity I can imagine we would promote it. However, I don’t think we would be arguing for people to use an alternative to honey to save bumblebees because there is little evidence to suggest that would be a useful thing to do. I think a larger impact could be achieved if more people bought organic produce, however there are socio-economic barriers which would need to be overcome first.”

Supporting the honey industry in any way is not the best method of protecting these incredibly important insects. Put simply, bees are exploited. Buying honey and other bee-products gives money to those doing the exploiting and allows them to continue. There are fundamental aspects of this industry which pose a severe threat to bees, and therefore to us. Without bees around to pollinate our 400 agriculture crops of which we rely on them to do, we would be looking at a world struggling to meet the nutritional requirements of its growing population. National Honeybee Day in the UK cites beekeepers as a vital part of the solution, which is a little like the Diabetes Association citing Coca-Cola as a great way to control your blood sugar. With so many plant-based, cruelty-free, and ecologically-friendly alternatives to honey currently on the market, there is simply no excuse for continuing to choose the cruel and environmentally detrimental option.

If we do, not only could we be looking at a world without any wild bees at all, but due to the increasing use of harmful pesticides, loss of wildflower habitats, and the selective breeding in farmed honeybees which causes a narrowing of their gene pool, making them more susceptible to mass die offs, the idea of a world without bees is not simply fear-mongering, it is a real threat. The usual little frantic buzzing of bee wings whizzing by our ears in spring and summer may become nothing more than a distant memory, a talking point we share to the next generation who marvel at a world in which crops like avocados, coffee, apples, and cotton, grew like weeds from the once fertile soil.

A blog focusing on environmentalism, veganism, and health.

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