Ruud Klein­paste

Ruud Klein­paste ques­tions our love af­fair with the honey bee and sug­gests all may not “bee” as it seems.

NZ Gardener - - CONTENTS -

The real truth about hon­ey­bees

The honey bee seems to be a medi­ocre pol­li­na­tor of many na­tive plants, pre­fer­ring to work with ex­otic flow­ers and those that can be la­belled weeds.

just be the Bee for a lit­tle mo­ment, will you? No­tice how ev­ery­body is re­ally con­cerned about this in­dus­tri­ous crea­ture we know as Apis mel­lif­era? For an en­to­mol­o­gist who’s been stick­ing up for in­sects for the best part of 45 years, that is re­ally nice to see.

It’s not been easy, be­ing a Bug­man, telling sto­ries of how im­por­tant our lit­tle friends are for the smooth run­ning of the planet. Frankly, it’s been hard to turn New Zealan­ders’ “yucks” into ad­mi­ra­tion. Af­ter all, “bugs” are just… well… bugs! They’ve got six legs, they creep around, usu­ally in the mid­dle of the night, eat de­sir­able plants and some­times bite. Or is that sting?

They scare the ba­bies, trans­mit dis­eases and breed like the clap­pers!

But some in­ver­te­brates are now ac­cepted in day-to-day life as be­ing more or less ben­e­fi­cial; but­ter­flies, for in­stance. And pol­li­na­tors, such as bum­bles and honey bees, and per­haps the odd pray­ing man­tis too.

Bees, though, have made it to the top. We all know that they are rather im­por­tant in­sects. These girls are ab­so­lute experts in pol­li­nat­ing flow­ers. Their noses (sorry, an­ten­nae) and eyes lead them to the flow­ers with boun­ti­ful re­sources of nec­tar (high en­ergy re­ward) and pollen (pro­tein for grow­ing bee ba­bies).

We know that in order to make a jar of honey they need to cir­cum­vent the globe a mil­lion times, they com­mu­ni­cate through danc­ing in the com­plete dark­ness of the hive and can smell ex­plo­sives at the US se­cu­rity points be­fore peo­ple board a plane. Well… you know what I mean.

Per­haps I am tak­ing the mickey some­what; yet the truth is that these hon­ey­bees are re­spon­si­ble for en­abling about one-third of our daily food, sim­ply through pol­li­nat­ing flow­ers.

And now we are read­ing about var­roa mite, foul­brood, Is­raeli paral­y­sis virus and colony col­lapse dis­or­der – a gag­gle of or­gan­isms and dis­or­ders that threaten the honey bee world­wide.

Who will be pol­li­nat­ing our crops, our wild flow­ers and our na­tive plants if Apis mel­lif­era goes down the gur­gler?

Well, I’ve been think­ing about that a bit lately. And these thoughts may not find favour with some of our read­ers!

The honey bee is an in­va­sive species. (So are the four species of bumble bees here, by the way.) Might as well put it out there!

It’s an in­tro­duced in­sect, im­ported as slave labour for the pol­li­na­tion of im­ported food crops. It is kept in cap­tiv­ity for the sole pur­pose of pro­duc­ing fruit, veg­eta­bles and even meat! (Cows graze grass which gets ni­tro­gen from clover, which is pol­li­nated by… guess who?)

De­spite the world­wide per­cep­tion that the bees are in trou­ble, it might be a good idea to point out that the num­ber of hives on the planet are grow­ing by the day. In New Zealand, the growth is par­tic­u­larly stag­ger­ing: we have more than dou­bled our reg­is­tered hives in the past 10 years, ar­guably due to the de­sire to get onto that “amaz­ing” band­wagon we call manuka honey.

Gold rush or fools’ gold? Ask myr­tle rust! We must re­mem­ber that honey and bumble bees are not the only pol­li­na­tors that ser­vice Aotearoa. We have two dozen or so na­tive bee species as well, plus birds, lizards, flies, bee­tles, thrips and heaps of other small, na­tive or­gan­isms, all do­ing what they’ve done for a mil­lion or more years. Scientists are also now start­ing to get the un­easy feel­ing that bees com­pete for flo­ral re­sources and give our na­tive pol­li­na­tors a se­ri­ous run for their money.

The mere pres­ence of man­aged honey bees also re­duces the na­tive species’ abun­dance through spa­tial dis­place­ment – per­haps bul­ly­ing is a bet­ter de­scrip­tion.

The truth is, we know very lit­tle about our na­tive pol­li­na­tors and their ecol­ogy as well as their re­sponse to ur­ban­i­sa­tion pres­sures and habi­tat de­struc­tion.

On top of all that, the honey bee seems to be a medi­ocre pol­li­na­tor of many na­tive plants, pre­fer­ring to work with ex­otic flow­ers and es­pe­cially those that can be la­belled weeds.

Some en­to­mol­o­gists have even raised ques­tions about bees act­ing as vec­tors for plant dis­eases.

It shows you that we know lit­tle about our favourite in­sects, the bees. But the im­pres­sions I get are of an in­va­sive species that com­petes with na­tives and cre­ates a weedy land­scape, al­ter­ing the en­vi­ron­ment and chang­ing eco­log­i­cal health.

Re­minds me of trout!

Apis mel­lif­era bee swarm.

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