Honeybee Ecology

"Without Honeybees You'd Starve"

Beekeepers always like to point out that honeybees pollinate the agricultural crops we eat. Without beekeepers, they claim, we would not be able to eat a long list of fruits and vegetables. Even if crops do currently require honeybee pollination, that is no reason to further exploit bees by consuming honey, beeswax, bee pollen, etc. The fact that everything in our society is based on animal exploitation shouldn't surprise us since Western civilization literally began with the "domestication" (i.e., enslavement) of animals. Dead animals are used to build roads, but this doesn't justify eating animals. Furthermore, it is unreasonable (not to mention idiotic) not to use roads because they contain dead animals. (Similarly, it is illogical not to eat certain foods because bees were used to pollinate them.) People make these sorts of arguments about meat to avoid discussing the real issue at hand. The beekeepers' argument is no different. The whole question of pollination is nothing more than an attempt to divert attention away from the fact that they are exploiting animals and that honey is the product of animal exploitation.

Additionally, it is not as though foregoing honey will bring about an end to commercial pollination, so it is not clear what exactly the beekeepers' point is. Commercial honey production and commercial pollination are not the same--the bees that produce honey are not the ones doing commercial pollination. "Beekeepers may brag about the importance of honeybees in the necessary transfer of pollen, but many are not involved in the practical aspects of the service," according to Justin Schmidt and Stephen Buchmann, Research Entomologists at the USDA Carl Hayden Bee Research Center (Schmidt & Buchmann 739). Schmidt and Buchmann continue, "Bees cannot be expected to feed themselves, much less produce any surplus honey while engaged in commercial pollination" (Schmidt & Buchmann 740). Furthermore, the beekeepers have overstated their importance in crop production. Honeybees pollinate a small percentage of crops. Beekeepers may quote a figure, courtesy of the USDA, that honeybees pollinate 80% of the US crops that require pollination. First, this means that 20% of these crops are in danger because the animals that pollinate them are understudied and are likely unprotected from human pressures. Second, the 80% figure is likely wrong. Independent surveys suggest that honeybees are the dominant pollinators for only 15% of the world's crops. (Buchmann & Nabham 194); (O'Toole 170). This can be explained by the fact that the USDA is focused almost exclusively on promoting honeybees as pollinators and are unlikely to recognize the value of native pollinators. Also, not all crops require insect pollination.

Honeybees Shouldn't Pollinate

Even though honeybees are currently used as pollinators, it is problematic for a number of reasons and should be stopped. The whole enterprise is risky as new diseases can be imported and rapidly diminish the honeybee population. This has already occurred--feral (wild) honeybee populations are virtually nonexistent (Watanabe 1170), most recently due to the illegal importation of South American queens infected with two types of mites (tracheal and Varroa) (Nickens 22; Watanabe 1170). Even if these problems can be controlled in managed colonies, it may be only temporary. "[Varroa] mites in four states have developed resistance to the one pesticide approved for use against them, notes Thomas E. Rinderer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture honeybee laboratory in Baton Rouge, La." (Raloff). Honeybees will become increasingly dependent on the beekeeper as new threats appear. Beekeepers can take steps to reduce the spread of diseases but do not or cannot. For example, the Varroa mite "will continue to spread because of the commercial transport of bees and queens; the migratory activities of beekeepers; swarms that may fly long distances, or be carried by ships or aircraft; and drifting bees" (Shimanuki 1120).

While ultimately it seems desirable to have few to no honeybee colonies, in the short term, the irresponsible behavior of beekeepers is actually increasing their monopoly on pollination. Farmers who used to rely on feral honeybees for pollination must now rent managed colonies. The pollination situation reached a crisis point and honeybeekeepers emerged as the savior when, in fact, they are at the root of the problem. Additionally, the spread of Africanized honeybees will displace European honeybees and threaten the ability to manage colonies easily. Farmers have become dependent on honeybees, but someday soon, beekeepers in some areas may simply be unable to provide colonies for pollination. And, yes, the Africanized honeybee is completely man's fault--it was accidentally released from an experiment in South America and continues to spread northward.

Honeybees are not even the best choice of pollinator for many crops. Honeybees do not trip alfalfa flowers (as the Alfalfa leafcutter bees and the Alkali bees do). Honeybees cannot use the buzz pollination (the vigorous vibration used by bumblebees) necessary to efficiently pollinate tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, peppers, blueberries, watermelon, and cranberries. Honeybees cannot fly at low temperatures (like the orchard mason bee) to efficiently pollinate early-spring blooms like blueberries, the first apple bloom and almonds. This is not to imply that honeybees are not used to pollinate these crops, just that other insects could do a much better job.

Honeybee pollination is also subject to the honey market. The altruistic claim that "honeybees pollinate" isn't so selfless after all; if honey prices are high, beekeepers would rather focus on that entirely rather than pollination. If honey prices are low then the number of beekeepers declines (and the number of readily available bees along with them).

        Finally, focusing on honeybees as pollinators ignores the value of native pollinators and the fact that the presence of the honeybee harms them, as we shall see.

Honeybees Hurt the Environment

Initially the consequences of the loss of the honeybee are negative. Insects are necessary to pollinate about 15% of our food crops and honeybees currently fill a lot of that role (Adee 21). Humans are not the only ones affected.  "John T. Ambrose, an entomologist at North Carolina State University, estimates that 15 to 20 percent of a black bear's diet comes from honey, bees, and bee-pollinated fruits, nuts, and berries. A 20 percent decline in that food source could force the bears to range farther for forage" (Nickens 23). "'The basic protein and carbohydrate base in the ecosystem is going down,' says Rinderer [director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Honeybee Breeding and Genetics Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana], 'and everything else will go down from there.' A 50 percent reduction in insect-pollinated food supplies, he says, is 'entirely reasonable'" (Nickens 23). Of course, these impacts would have already occurred to a large extent because there are virtually no feral honeybee colonies left, since honeybees now require human intervention to survive in North America.

Ultimately, however, the reduction of honeybee populations would be positive because they crowd out native bee species. Honeybees are not native to North America. It is believed that they were imported from Europe in 1638 (NHB). Native Americans called them "white man's flies." Feral honeybees developed through the natural process of swarming.

When beekeepers tell you they are helping the honeybees out by transporting them to nectar flows, they are indeed. They are facilitating the honey hoarding instinct of the honeybees--much to the detriment of other pollinators (Buchmann 129). "The potential ecological effects of honeybees are likely minor compared to major changes such as deforestation, but they may be important because honeybees are nearly cosmopolitan and they may compete with pollinators, potential 'keystone' species (Paine, 1966; Thorp & Gordon, 1992; Thorp et al., 1994)" (Sugden 156). As the name implies, keystone species are ones that the ecosystem probably cannot do without. Studies led by William Schaffer, a University of Arizona ecologist, clearly showed a significant negative impact on local pollinators when honeybee colonies were introduced (Buchmann & Nabham 173). There is ample evidence for the fact that honeybees crowd out not only other bee pollinators, but also birds, honey possums and other insects (Buchmann & Nabham 174-182; Buchmann 129; Sugden 154; Kato et al.). The interspecies competition is difficult to conclusively prove for a variety of reasons. However, of 24 major competition studies only two discounted competitive effects and even these authors did not dismiss the possibility of its existence (Buchmann 129).

Honeybees steal pollen and nectar from other pollinators, but honeybees are not necessarily the best pollinators in natural ecosystems. Bees wet the pollen with saliva making it less likely to be transferred to a plant. They also travel to many different types of plants so the pollen doesn't necessarily get to the right plant (Buchmann & Nabham 62).

Loss of the native pollinators would be bad because honeybees only pollinate 16-22% of all wild plants needing pollination (Roubik 169). In addition to the threat from the honeybees, native pollinators are in decline due to habitat destruction and fragmentation, chemical farming, monocropping and insecticides, all of which only exacerbate the competition with honeybees (Sugden 156).

Buchmann & Nabham conclude, "the honeybee has perhaps had as much impact as cattle on the structure of certain plant communities. It may be apocalyptic to claim that someday beekeeping with either European or Africanized honeybees will be discussed in the United States or Mexico with as much emotion as cowboying is today, but that is indeed our prophecy. [It is already true in Australia.] Honeybees are, after all, lilliputian livestock--fuzzy herbivores with wings--that are just as capable of taming a landscape as any cow, sheep, or goat infestation. Their 'grazing' on pollen and nectar simply goes unnoticed. They may buzz softly, but they pack a big ecological wallop when it comes to altering, perhaps forever, the potential mix of forages out there on the range, in the bush, in the outback or boonies (Buchmann & Nabham 182-3).

Mindset Matters

Unfortunately, the use of alternative pollinators does not automatically result in a shift away from current mindsets. Huge (10 acre) greenhouses popular in the Netherlands have come to the United States and Steve Buchmann visited one in Arizona where they use bumblebees to pollinate tomatoes (bombiculture). "Yes, the industry had invented a new means of beekeeping, as Eurasians or North Africans had done with honeybees in the Old World, and Mayans or Aztecs had done with stingless bees in the New World. Yet each of those older forms of beekeeping was rooted in a respect for the magic of bees, and imbued with rituals to keep their human stewards humble and grateful that their relationships worked. In short, both ancient apiculture and living Mayan meliponiculture has cultural manifestations that guided them pragmatically, ethically, and spiritually. Bombiculture, however had replaced battery-powered vibrators--surrogate mechanical bees--but were nevertheless treated as just another high technology, albeit a biotechnology" (Buchmann & Nabham 166).

For Further Information

Environmental Impact of Sweeteners

A separate but related issue is that of the environmental impact of the sweeteners we use. Some beekeepers claim that honey is the least damaging sweetener. The beekeeper's argument is likely pure speculation--they are not referring to a scientific study. Few vegans use great quantities of cane sugar (due to the bone char processing) so the appropriate comparison would be to Organic Sucanat, Florida's Crystals or any of the liquid sweeteners which (when purchased in natural foods stores) are generally organic. Indeed, this is the only valid comparison because if someone is vegan for environmental reasons, they will undoubtedly seek out the least damaging sweetener.

Beekeepers claim that more insects die in raising sweetener crops. This is hard to quantify but keep in mind that honeybees live only 15-38 days in the summer, 30-60 days in the fall and 140 days over winter (Winston 55). Bees work themselves to death producing honey. Organic farmers use biological pest control to selectively hold down the populations of pests. Beekeepers also kill off mites that infect their colonies.

As for other issues, bees are trucked all over the country to follow the nectar flows. This surely more than equals the energy inputs of an organic farm. Beekeepers also use inputs like sugar, corn syrup, pollen substitutes, and grease patties that are almost certainly not organic. This is wasteful in the same way as feeding grains to cattle. Organic farms don't use pesticides or fertilizers but the beekeeper may be subsidizing destructive agricultural practices by letting his bees pollinate non-organically grown crops. Beekeepers also directly use insecticides to kill mites. So what's left? Soil erosion? Organic farmers use techniques to protect their most valuable resource. Habitat loss? As we've seen above, honeybees are a major contributor to habitat loss for many species. Organic farmers are less likely to eliminate naturalized areas around their fields and thus maintain habitats for many species.

        Finally, most countries import honey and waste resources through transportation. Approximately 42% of honey in the US has been imported. It comes predominantly from Argentina followed by China, Mexico, Canada and India (FAS) and 85% of honey in the UK is imported from Vietnam, China, Mexico, Australia and Argentina (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, 13). Germany, the world's largest honey importer, gets its honey mainly from Argentina, China and Mexico (FAS).

However, there are far more important issues than body counts or fossil fuel use. Buying honey endorses the beekeeping mindset--that animals are here for human use, that "it's OK to take things from the bees since I've put a lot of time and money into keeping them alive," and that encouraging excess production is desirable--precisely the values that are currently causing so much environmental damage.

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