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Honey Bees vs Native Bees

This is not a comparison of honey bees and wild native bees. Instead I will discuss the miss-use of the word bee and how this is leading the general public to reach all kinds of incorrect conclusions.

Headlines about bees are common, but many are incorrect or at least misleading. What do these headlines really mean? Which bees are they talking about?

The Bees are Dying

Save the Bees by Planting Flowers

We Will All Starve If We Don’t Save the Bees

Is this a honey bee or native bee?

Is this a honey bee or native bee?

The Honey Bee

The honey bee is a non-native import into North America and most other countries. It is native to Africa or Asia but has been domesticated for hundreds of years. From Wikipedia, ” a honey bee is any bee member of the genus Apis, primarily distinguished by the production and storage of honey and the construction of perennial, colonial nests from wax.”

Honey bees are farmed and kept in bee hives – those white square boxes that everyone is familiar with. Sometimes these domesticated bees escape and form wild colonies which are then called feral honey bees.

Native Bees

I could not find an official term for wild native bees but the term native bees fits quite well. A native bee is any bee that is native to your location, but it does not include the escaped feral honey bees.

In North America we love our native bumble bees and some are close to extinction. In Tasmania, they (Bombus terrestris) are considered an invasive bee.

What is or is not native is very much a localized issue.

So What is a Bee?

You will notice that the headlines listed above and most of the headlines you will see just use the term bee. Are they talking about honey bees or native bees? There is a huge difference and without being clear, the information presented is useless. In fact it is worse than useless because it guides the reader into reaching incorrect conclusions.

Why is this important?

The number of native bees may be declining, I’ll discuss this in a future post, but honey bees are not.

There is value in planting flowers to help our native bees, but there is less value in helping honey bees. In fact attracting honey bees to our garden may be harming our native bees.

Most of the scientific facts we know about bees, are about honey bees and much of it can’t be extrapolated to native bees. But people do this anyway and reach incorrect conclusions.

Bees and Cherrios

The importance of knowing which bee you are talking about became very clear in a recent fiasco by the Cherrios marketing team.

Cherrios with missing bee

Cherrios with missing bee

General Mills, the maker of the popular breakfast cereal called Cheerios, decided to use a hot environmental topic to market their brand. They had previously invented ‘Honey Nut Cheerios” and added a friendly, cartoonish bee to the box. No problem with that, honey comes from honey bees and honey is good for you. Then they decided to give away free flower seeds and promote the idea that the seed “save the bees”. What a great marketing approach – give something away for free, and save the planet at the same time.

Unfortunately, their marketing department knows nothing about flowers or bees. Many of the seeds in their environmentally friendly package are non-native invasives and several are on US state invasive plant lists. You can read more about this problem in the CBC news report called , Seeds given away in Cheerios promotion may be problematic.

I have an even bigger issue with the marketing plan. It sends the wrong message  because it uses the generic word bee. Their slogan is “Bring Back The Bees”. Where have these bees gone? You might be thinking they are talking about native bees, but they are not. On their web site they say “With deteriorating bee colony health, bees everywhere have been disappearing by the millions”. This, as well as other statements and the fact that their product uses honey, makes it clear they are talking about honey bees. But honey bees are not disappearing by the millions. I’ll discuss this in more detail in my next post, but the number of bee hives is increasing, not decreasing.

In their video they show us the grocery store of the future – empty shelves because we lost the bees. They even mention that we would not have things like apples and almonds. But many apple orchards and all almond groves rely on honey bees, not native bees, for pollination. Since the number of honey bees is not declining this is just fear mongering – presenting false information to confuse an already confused public – in order to sell more product.

Shame on General Mills. They could have used this as a very valuable teaching moment and still marketed their product. Flowers are valuable for native bees, and that should have been the message.

Bee-friendly Flowers

There are lots of internet sources that provide a list of bee-friendly flowers. What is bee-friendly? Which bees are we talking about? Most lists are developed to attract the honey bee. There are two problems with this. First, the honey bee is a generalist pollinator and is not too fussy about which flower they visit. Almost any flower with pollen or nectar will work – they are more interested in the nectar than the pollen. Most native bees are specialists that only go to particular flowers. If you are going to select flowers for pollinators you should select for native bees.

I did a Google search for “bee friendly flowers” and out of the hits on page one, two stated the lists were for honey bees, and seven did not specify a bee type. This is quite common. Most suggested bee-friendly flowers are for honey bees, not native bees, but the real problem is that reader don’t know which bee is being discussed.

A bee-friendly flower list without the bee specified is useless.

Bee Research

You see research studies mentioned all of the time, but virtually all of these are for honey bees. Lots of money goes into research for them, but very little goes into research for native bees.

Another problem with this research is that native bees are really hard to study. There are more than 20,000 native bee species in the world – how can you study them all? Adding to the difficulty, most are solitary and difficult to find in the wild.

In one study they found that “It has been shown that the susceptibility of the honey bee, the most tested type of bee, is not a very accurate predictor of the responses of wild bees like the mason bees (Osmia), leafcutter bees or bumble bees to pesticides and that susceptibility varies by bee species and pesticide. For example, one of our recent trials showed that our Japanese orchard bee was 26 times less susceptible to contact by Provado than the honey bee, but 12 times more susceptible to Assail. Both products are neonicotinoid insecticides and in the same pesticide class” (ref 2)

The reality is that we know quite a bit about honey bees and very little about native bees. Many statements about native bees are either educated guesses or fabrications by fringe groups; a subject I will explore in a future post.

Use the Right Term

We need to start using a more descriptive term when discussing bees. They are either honey bees or native bees. The term bee should not be used unless its meaning is clear or it is referring to both types of bees. Even the simple term native bee is too general, but it is a step in the right direction.

References:

  1. Honey Nut Cheerios, Bring Back The Bees; https://bringbackthebees.ca/
  2. Pollinators and Pesticide Sprays during Bloom in Fruit Plantings; http://extension.psu.edu/plants/tree-fruit/news/2014/pollinators-and-pesticide-sprays-during-bloom-in-fruit-plantings
  3. Native Bees are Better Pollinators; http://news.cornell.edu/stories/2011/10/native-bees-are-better-pollinators-honeybees
  4. Photo Source; Muhammad Mahdi Karim

 

Robert Pavlis
Editor of GardenMyths.com
I live in southern Ontario, Canada, zone 5 and have been gardening a long time. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

I hope you find Garden Myths an educational site that helps you understand your garden better.

14 Responses to 'Honey Bees vs Native Bees'

  1. Zane Evans says:

    Your assertion, “the number of native bees may be declining, . . . but honey bees are not” is patently wrong. Also your attempt to define the native species falls far too short. Your arguments are “splitting hairs”. We have very significant colony collapse occurring as I write. These colonies are indeed, primarily honey bees. The primary cause is suspected to be the wide and growing use of neonicotinoids. Where is the science to back up your assertions?

    • Where is your proof that honeybees are declining?? I gave you a reference showing they are NOT declining. If you disagree – at least show me your data.

      Re: “Where is the science to back up your assertions?” – please scroll to the end of the post to see the references.

  2. Kyler says:

    With all do respect, you are completely wrong. Honeybees are declining by the millions. I would know since I am a beekeeper. I know beekeepers who have lost 80% of their colonies. So dont tell me that they aren’t dying by the millions. Secondly, I think the cheerio company knows what they were doing. They would of done a lot of research before spending millions of dollars on that. So I think that you need to edit your post because just glancing briefly through this I found many mistakes. This may be why people are confused because they are getting incorrect information.

    • Where is the evidence that “Honeybees are declining by the millions”? I gave you evidence to support my position and those numbers came from the beekeepers themselves – the government simple collects the data.

      I never said “they aren’t dying by the millions”. What I did say, in the next post where this is discussed, is “If you measure bee death by looking at current CCD numbers, bees are dying faster than normal.”

  3. Sarah says:

    WOW, Robert, thank you for the information on bees. Like many people the understanding I derived from the media was not correct. I am living in Guelph and getting into gardening. As I am redoing the landscape what type of plants would you suggest to encourage and attract our native bees?
    Sarah

  4. Cynthia Olen says:

    I live in the Central Valley of California, so honey bees are commercially important for almonds and some other crops. However, we are supposed to have a number of native bees, and they seem to be few and far between these days. Too many pesticides, too much habitat loss, and the 4 year drought hit a lot of plants and wildlife hard.

    We have been encouraged to plant “bee-and butterfly-friendly” gardens—which apparently means planting anything with a label on it that says such. At the same time, the drought has people scrambling to plant “natives” and xeriscapes with, to my mind, questionable labelling and information.

    Sometimes, the term “native” is used far too broadly, and this leads gardeners making the transition to native landscaping to plant species that are actually not appropriate for for their region, especially in terms of insect and wildlife benefits. California, especially, cannot be lumped into one set of “native” plants. My state is geographically very diverse, and while a plant might be a native Californian, it shouldn’t be planted in every zone that is friendly to it.

    Problem is, that websites and garden magazines that push for natives, do not provide specific enough information about which species or subspecies belongs in your little patch, and which others belong elsewhere. It’s all too generalized. “California Native!” screams the label or banner line. Okay. But what part of California, and specifically which bit of that part? It’s frustrating.

    More frustratingly is that, here in the Great Valley, so much is so over-engineered that is is practically an artificial landscape that no longer supports the original native plants and animals except in tiny slivers. In addition, these vast changes were made before any real naturalist studies were done, so what we do know is fragmentary, with much of it based on First Nations lore, paleontology, and geology rather than first hand observation by trained naturalists. People doing these kinds of studies now are basically playing catch-up, trying to identify and protect ur-landscapes before they get tilled under or paved over.

    So, we don’t know enough about the natives that belong here in the Great Valley. And, as you said, we don’t know enough about native bees—or too many other native pollinators, for that matter. What info we do get in our efforts to create an appropriate garden is too often generalized, biased, erroneous, or incomplete.

    The only thing that I can personally think to do is try to find as specific information as I can on what native plants I should use for my little patch and hope that they will appeal to the native bees, and other insects, that belong here. My little patch, though, is less than a quarter acre with a third of it buried under a house, so I don’t have a lot of habitat to offer. Any little bit helps, though, yes?

    • Very well said. The whole issue of “plant native” has been taken to silly extremes. You are absolutely correct. The other thing we are starting to realize is that our artificial environments – cities – may no longer be suitable for many native plants. Just because it grew well in the spot 200 years ago, does not mean it will grow there now.

      I do believe every bit of small area helps.

  5. Magnus Palm says:

    Thanks for another eye-opening article.

    Ever since I heard about bees dying etc, I have wondered how much it would actually matter if they all disappeared. My gut feeling is that it wouldn’t be catastrophic to mankind, not even if all pollinating insects disappeared. Most staple crops are wind pollinated.

    It would be a boring world though! Luckily, declining is not disappearing, and there are many bee species and still many pollinating insects besides bees.

  6. Great article. I think you could rename it: To Bee or Not to Bee – that is the question . . .

  7. Trees-are-us says:

    There is a strong movement here in Australia to encourage the “keeping” of native bees – not in the commercial sense but by way of installing native bee friendly nesting places.
    Commercial bees – the introduced European strains – are sadly being negatively affected by invasive Asian bees and are at the risk of infection by imported Varroa mites. Australia has the advantage of being an island, so proper management of quarantine regulations (yay for regulation) is vital to protecting the one remaining area in the world where this mite has not yet taken hold. Nevertheless, there are other threats like American foul brood that is having a destructive effect.
    The competition among native bees, commercial honeyy bees and feral commercial bees for access to native plants is of concern. Efforts are going into researching alternative insect pollination of native plants while there is a reliance increasingly on commercial pollination services using honey bees to supplement the role of feral honey bees.

  8. John Colwill says:

    Couldn’t agree more Robert. Here in Australia we have a wealth of native bees already named and probably many more yet to catalogue. We even have a native honey bee. Yet we too are told that the ‘bees’ are under threat and thus the world is in imminent danger. As far as most people are concerned there is only one bee that matters, the honey bee but that bee has gone feral here causing all sorts of problems including robbing nectar from, but not pollinating, flowers that have evolved for bird pollination, randomly distributing pollen that has led to some ‘unnatural’ hybrids and driving possums and birds out of their nesting hollows.
    My real gripe about this is that people have been led to believe it is only honey bees that pollinate flowers. As mentioned above we have a huge number of plants that are pollinated by birds but there are also mammals and lots of insects like beetles, ants, wasps, and flies that also do a great job. Some of our native species have such a close relationship with a particular insect that if the honey bees muscle in, the plant will not get pollinated and could eventually die out.
    Honey bees are greatly over rated in my view.
    Perth, Western Australia

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