Honeybees: natural wildlife or farmed livestock?

Ask someone to conjure up an image of nature, and a few things will probably come to everyone’s mind – a stream, some trees, maybe a little plant, and a bee working hard to pollinate its flowers.

But scientists at the University of Cambridge are urging people to think again, and not to consider honeybees as wildlife; instead, they should be considered livestock. Writing in Science, Jonas Geldmann and Juan P González-Varo say that the popular misconception that farmed honeybees are part of nature risks confusing issues affecting agriculture with those affecting biodiversity.

Honeybee losses in recent years have been much higher than expected, which is largely attributed to colony collapse disorder (CCD). A colony experiences CCD when the majority of its workers abandon the hive, and with it the queen and her brood. This affliction is caused by several different factors, including a parasitic mite (Varroa destructor), various diseases, and possibly the effect of pesticides used in agriculture.

The decline of honeybees could have a devastating impact on food security. A third of the food we eat requires pollination by insects, and up to 75% of our food benefits from insect pollination in some way. Honeybees play an important role in this, and the western honeybee (Apis mellifera) is the single most important species for pollination of food crops. Their role as producers of honey is also important economically.

But focusing on honeybees could be dangerous, say Geldmann and González-Varo, because we risk ignoring the thousands of species of wild pollinators that are also crucial for pollinating crops and other plants. They warn that farmed honeybees can also damage many of the 20,000 other bee species that exist in nature by transmitting diseases and competing for food, and they urge commercial beekeepers to change their management practices.

A honeybee (Apis mellifera, left) and a bumblebee (Bombus terrestris, right) pollinating flowers. Confusing the plight of one with that of the other risks mixing agricultural and environmental concerns, say scientists writing in Science. Photos by FrauBucher and payayita, both on Flickr.

In 2014, work led by Mark Brown at Royal Holloway University of London revealed that diseases that affect honeybees can also spill over into bumblebee (Bombus species) populations. The researchers showed that Apis and Bombus species at several sites in the UK shared the same strains of viruses such as the deformed wing virus, suggesting that the viruses are transmitted between the two. Bumblebees are in decline around the world, largely because of changes in land management – many Bombus species only travel short distances from their nests when foraging for food, and large fields without flowers leave bumblebees unable to feed. Diseases transmitted from honeybees could harm Bombus colonies further.

Honeybees used in food production are farmed on a massive scale, and hives are often moved from region to region to pollinate different crops, such as oilseed rape. But once the nectar in the crops’ flowers is depleted, the honeybees continue to feed on wildflower nectar.

“Keeping honeybees is an extractive activity,” says González-Varo. “It removes pollen and nectar from the environment, which are natural resources needed by many wild species of bee and other pollinators.

“Honeybees are artificially-bred agricultural animals similar to livestock such as pigs and cows. Except this livestock can roam beyond any enclosures to disrupt local ecosystems through competition and disease.”

In their paper, Geldmann and González-Varo criticise campaigns such as those by the Nature Conservancy and Greenpeace, which advocate honey bee conservation – and even suggest that buying local honey might help!

The authors do concede, however, that such campaigns have helped raise awareness of the plight of pollinators in general. But the danger appears to lie in confusing the two problems as one environmental issue.

What can we do, then, to protect wild pollinator populations from the impact of farmed honeybees and the other factors that threaten them? Geldmann and González-Varo recommend that conservation strategies be built around preserving wild bee population numbers, rather than focusing on agricultural yields. They also call for a ban on placing commercial honeybee hives in protected areas and suggest limiting both hive size and the length of time a hive is kept in an area.

Buying locally-produced honey is, of course, a great way of supporting your local economy. But it should not be confused with conservation.