Honey Bees vs Native Bees

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Robert Pavlis

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.

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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.

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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

 

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. 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!

28 thoughts on “Honey Bees vs Native Bees”

  1. How timely for me to stumble upon this article. This weekend on NPR, or one of the public radio networks, I heard a scientist who is working to battle the decline of native species of bees, as opposed to the European honey bee. Although there is a multitude of native species, some have nonetheless gone extinct. My views on protecting the European honey bee have changed altogether. Your article has given me important information that I hope to use in educating people who think as I used to on this native bee subject.

    Reply
  2. I’ve never seen any marketing ploy calling for planting of specific or native plants to save honey bees. I have heard of a few campaigns calling for plantings to help native bees( which of course refers to what region or area one lives in). My limited knowledge of honey bees is that most places in North America at least honey bees have little chance of long term winter survival on their own in the wild. I would assume( mental references will be forth coming) most larger regions for example provinces and states would consider wild honey bee populations as an invasive species and as such would not endorse such campaigns and in some areas such practice would as such be illegal probably with fines attached for purposely OR irresponsibly introducing alien species. Just saying. Cheers. PS . Honey bees and native bees( which also produce honey they just don’t store massive amounts) are all in fact bees so a title ” plant flowers to save bees ” should not be confusing anyone. Thanks for the article lots of interesting perspectives.

    Reply
    • Re: “I’ve never seen any marketing ploy calling for planting of specific or native plants to save honey bees”. Cheerios is such an example.

      Faral honey bees are common in warmer areas of North America. I tried to find out how common they are, but could not find any numbers.

      Reply

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