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