Without bees pollinating our crops, we would be hard-pressed to grow much of anything without costly and time-intensive intervention. The relationship between bees and plants is a win-win. The plant provides the pollinator with nectar and pollen for food, and the pollinator transfers genetic material for the plant that allows it to reproduce. This makes another crucial bee fact particularly concerning: The bees are dying.
Bee populations have been steadily declining for decades, but the causes of these declines are as complex as the solutions. There are many types of pollinators including butterflies, bats, birds and other insects, but bees—particularly honeybees—are the most effective and widely used in agriculture. On the surface, properly managed colonies seem like an effective way to save the bees, (and ourselves!) from an untimely demise. But the problem is more complicated than that, and has a lot to do with the relationship between managed and wild bee colonies.
We are seeing record declines in wild bee populations and biodiversity, with new research indicating that we have lost 25% of known bee species worldwide since the 1990’s alone. There are a few primary reasons that wild bees are dropping like flies, the first being habitat loss. It’s ironic, really: As deforestation rages on to make room for agriculture and human development, we’re killing off the bees necessary for plants to grow. Pesticides can also be detrimental by killing bees outright, contaminating pollen (aka bees’ food source), and altering their behaviour and ability to forage. Stress may be another factor, as bees are often contained and transported over large distances. Climate change also plays a role, as warming temperatures alter blooming seasons and change migration patterns.
As with many aspects of the food system, pollination isn’t quite as natural a process as it might seem, with more and more farmers relying on managed or commercial bee colonies to pollinate their crops. In fact, nearly three million managed honeybee colonies (made up of bees that were reared in a lab or captured specifically for agriculture) are pollinating crops on US farms every year. This makes it particularly concerning that it is estimated that US agriculture lost 44% of its honeybee colonies between 2015 and 2016 alone.
Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, is becoming more common among managed hives, which also poses an economic problem. A higher prevalence of CCD makes it more expensive for farmers to rent or buy their honeybee colonies, in turn making the product more expensive for consumers. CCD is something of a puzzling phenomenon, but experts hypothesise that it is caused by many of the same problems killing wild bees.
What happens when bee colonies collide?
Managed colonies are predominantly made up of non-native bee species, which often prove to be more effective pollinators than native ones. Alfalfa leaf cutting bees, for example, bring significantly higher yields than native species, and blue orchard bees work better alongside honeybees in—you guessed it—orchards. But artificially increasing the number of bee colonies in a given area has adverse effects on wild bee populations, with commercial honeybees competing with wild bees for food sources. These managed bees are also not necessarily contained or restricted; they can buzz their way into other ecosystems and spread diseases that can wipe out entire species of native wild bees. And because we rely so heavily on a few specific types of bees, the entire population (along with our food supply) becomes more vulnerable to these diseases.
The good news is it’s not likely that all 20,000 species of bees will go extinct, but we do risk losing biodiversity as more species are made vulnerable and die off. When commercial bee colonies fail, other pollinators do fill in the gaps, but not well enough to rely on them entirely. Other pollinators and systems aren’t resilient enough to catch up with the rate of loss, nor are they nearly as effective as bees.
Different bee species work together as part of a pollination network, and in some cases, managed bees actually perform better in the presence of wild bees. A study on sunflower pollination showed that fields closer to wild bee habitats increased their production five times over, as the wild bees encourage the honeybees to work faster and move in different patterns. Strategically restoring habitats and creating food for wild bees is essential in order for these networks to work in harmony.
Solutions for Wild Bees
Reintroduction is a tricky and highly selective process, but it has yielded some promising results. The UK-native short-haired bumblebee, for example, was successfully reintroduced to southeast England after nine years of habitat restoration efforts in the region. That said, it’s important to remember that not all species exist elsewhere. It’s often not possible to just bring them back when they disappear in a certain region, and these projects require quarantine facilities, dedicated teams, extensive research, and time—all of which are difficult to scale up.
But even in cases where native bees can’t be reintroduced, habitat restoration is key to wild bees’ survival. While restoring those habitats can be complex and tricky to get right, restoring food sources can significantly boost wild bee populations. When semi-natural habitats are integrated properly into the natural landscape, they serve as food sources and nesting sites for wild bees. There are many types of semi-natural habitats, all with varying potential and functions. Planted flower strips and mass flowering crops have been proven to increase bee density, but, depending on the flower types, may only support a handful of bee species. Flower patches can also crop up naturally on the edges of fields and fence lines, and simply leaving them alone instead of mowing or applying herbicide creates food for pollinators on land that doesn’t compete with agriculture.
Solutions for Managed Bees
Pollinator decline is caused by complex issues, so it’s impossible to place sole responsibility on farmers and beekeepers, but there are measures that they can take to manage bees properly and reduce the risk of loss or CCD. Within bee rearing facilities, better husbandry practices and screening for disease vectors is important in preventing infected bees from ever reaching farms in the first place. Once on the farm, mesh screens can help keep managed bees better contained inside greenhouses, and in turn prevent wild bees from foraging inside greenhouses. Beekeepers can also use quarantine measures to prevent disease spread. Planting wildflower field margins and hedgerows can also attract more wild bees and reduce the need for and reliance on managed bees in the first place.
Pesticides also remain a major issue for pollinators. As mentioned above, insecticides can alter bees’ behaviour and contaminate their food sources, so improved pest management practices are essential. Farms can implement pest management plans, so that pesticides are used only if the level of pests reaches a certain threshold. Limiting or eliminating agrochemicals entirely benefits pollinators not only by reducing exposure, but by promoting semi-natural habitats and increasing food sources. Formal pesticide training and education can also improve pollinator health by ensuring pesticides are not overused or misused, and other pest management practices are implemented before chemical intervention.
Bees are complex. Commercial bees aren’t inherently harmful, but striking the right balance between native and non-native species is a fine line to walk. They can work better together as part of a network, but they can also cause disease outbreaks that lead to each other’s demise. We still have a lot to learn about bees and their role in the ecosystem, but we do know this: No pollinators, no food.
- Support local beekeepers by buying local honey
- Plant native flowers! For US dwellers, check out Pollinator Partnership’s garden recipe cards. UK readers – take a look at the Royal Horticultural Society website for info on pollinator friendly planting.
- Check out beekeepers on social media like Erika Thompson and Hannah’s Honey Comb
- Listen to this episode of the Green Dreamer podcast on the importance of native bee diversity
- Read more about bees needs, wildlife gardening, and other pollinators in the Curious archives: