Not all bees are created equal

Olivia Norfolk

Over the past decade, die-offs of honeybee colonies – where seemingly overnight, the worker bees in a colony vanish, leaving only the queen bee and a few nurse bees behind – have captured the public imagination.

It’s led to a number of campaigns, including a push to ban pesticides, plant ‘bee-friendly’ gardens and encourage urban bee-keeping. ‘Save the bees!’ we are told. But are we saving the right bees?

Of the 270 bee species in the UK, about 250 are wild, or ‘solitary’, bees. Wild bees pollinate most of the crops in the UK, and they are far more effective pollinators than domesticated honeybees.

According to Dr Olivia Norfolk, a Lecturer in Animal and Environmental Biology at ARU, the domesticated honeybee can threaten the survival of wild bees and pollinators, exacerbating a genuine biodiversity crisis.

Honeybee takeover

In the mountains of Egypt’s South Sinai region, Bedouin orchard gardens act as hotspots for biodiversity, providing valuable habitat for wild plants, pollinators and migratory birds. These gardens form the basis of traditional Bedouin livelihoods, but recently, managed honeybee hives have been introduced to supplement people’s income.

Olivia’s research examines the impact of these non-native honeybees on the South Sinai. By studying the interactions between all plants and pollinators in a community, she and her collaborators found that the introduction of honeybee hives alters those interactions, so that the alien honeybees are competing for resources with their wild cousins.

Many of the wild bees and plants in the South Sinai are range-restricted, and their future may be jeopardised by the recent introduction of honeybees.

“Honeybees can be an important income source for people, as honey is valuable,” says Olivia. “But when honeybees are introduced into regions where they don’t belong, it can be devastating for the native plants and wildlife – the honeybees compete directly with the pollinating species we’re most concerned about. This intense competition damages native bee populations and will have strong negative effects on these range-restricted species.”

In her study in the South Sinai, Olivia found that alien honeybees are generalists who visited more than half of the available plant species. However, they were far less likely to visit range-restricted plants. In addition, the honeybees were less efficient pollinators than wild bees.

For the almond trees in the area, honeybees don’t increase yields, while wild pollinators do. “It’s increasingly known that honeybees are very poor pollinators, they’re not very efficient at transferring pollen from plant to plant,” says Olivia. “They’re very good at collecting pollen and taking it back to their hives, but when you think of pollinating crops, you actually want pollinators who leave some pollen on each plant they come into contact with, and on that count, wild bees do a lot better.”

According to Olivia, it helps to think of honeybees as artificially-bred livestock, like pigs or cows. “We’re trying to get people to understand that honeybees are not necessarily a good thing, as they can do real damage to wild pollinators,” she says. “People may think that introducing honeybees will benefit pollinators, but it actually does the opposite.”

A problem with public perception of the threat to bees is that many people conflate honeybees with wild bees and other pollinators, leading them to believe that establishing honeybee hives will benefit the local environment.

While Olivia’s research focuses on Egypt, the same principles hold here in the UK. Fewer honeybees is not necessarily a bad thing, because they are putting wild pollinators and the plant species they visit at risk.

Supporting our wild bees

“One thing that farmers can do to help wild pollinators is to grow multiple crop species,” says Olivia. “Growing a single crop doesn’t provide pollinators with resources throughout the year – for example, here in the East of England, we see brilliant yellow fields of oilseed rape for three weeks each spring. For wild pollinators, there’s a three week feast and then there's nothing - that's not sustainable.”

We can all play a part in our own back yards, too. The best way to support wild pollinators is to preserve their habitat and give them flowers to feed on. Avoiding pesticides and planting a wide variety of flowers will encourage visits from wild bees and help to support a healthy pollinator community where you live. And happily for the less-committed gardeners among us, doing a little less weeding will also help. Don’t think of a weed as something that needs to be pulled up – think of it as a friend to wild bees.