What? Aren’t honeybees in decline and under threat? Well, the answer is: Yes and no:
As things stand, globally, Apis mellifera is probably the only bee species whose colony numbers are NOT in decline. Apis mellifera is the honeybee we know in Europe as ‘our honeybee’ and these bees are the ‘work horse’ (can bees be called that?) of industrial agriculture:the ‘European’ honey bee has been taken to farms across the world, starting with the pilgrim fathers – there were no honey bees in the Americas prior to their arrival. But we know today that North America is home to some 400 indigenous pollinators. And similarly, Apis mellifera was taken to Australia, New Zealand, parts of the world that had no honey bees prior to the arrival of white European settlers.
More recently Apis mellifera bees were also taken to most countries in Asia – even though there are roughly. a dozen indigenous Apis species there already (the genetic centre of origin for Apis is Borneo/Indonesia).
But: None of the local pollinators, including the other Apis bees, produce as much honey as Apis mellifera – what the black and white Holstein cows are for milk, European honeybees are for honey production and beekeeping. And, at least for now, Apis mellifera is also the pollinator of choice: colonies can easily be moved, as they are housed in boxes. The biggest such event is, of course, the annual almond pollination in California, when in February, more than 2.5 Mio hives from all over the USA get trucked, often for 1,000s of miles, for a two week work stint pollinating almond blossoms. Commercially, this has become far more important for beekeepers than a season of honey production – and there is now a shortage of hives for this event.
But of course: such a mass gathering spreads disease all around. Driving the bees over large distances at a time when normally they would still hibernate does not help, spraying the almonds with pesticides (at times even during pollination) neither. Over the past decade or so, the number of colonies that dies every year in countries with highly industrialized agriculture is as high as 50%.
But beekeepers have learnt to ‘fix it’. ‘Producing’ queens and new colonies has become big business internationally, breeders mail queens and colonies by post to their destination., Not only commercial bee keepers depend on having enough colonies. In Europe, honey bees have had an amazing press as an endangered species: endless articles warned about bee decline and beekeeping became a popular hobby. As a result Apis mellifera colony numbers are still going up. In Germany for example the number of A. mellifera colonies has been growing again since 2007 – in 2021 it had reached more than 1 Mio.
Which has led to a discussion whether there are too many honeybees, because there is fear that they out-compete other pollinators such as solitary bees etc. for forage/food.
Our landscapes used to be able to sustain many more bees AND large numbers of other pollinators: in the 1950s there were twice as many honeybee colonies in Germany – 2 million.
How was that possible? The answer is, of course, that today’s denuded agricultural landscape cannot support the same number of honey bee colonies and additionally other pollinators – 70 years ago there were flower meadows, smaller fields with diverse crops and hedges, far less pesticides were in use … By contrast today’s landscapes have nothing much to offer: Once the yellow rape flowers have seeded and been harvested – the fields are (literally) a food desert for bees and all other pollinators.
Add climate ‘change’ (I prefer to call it ‘climate weirding’, or by the older name ‘global warming’, which by now should be ‘global heating’). The situation for all pollinators has become extremely precarious: Fruit trees mostly flower earlier, well before the bees are ready, drought reduces the amount of nectar blossoms produce, and late frosts can hit colonies in the middle of a busy reproductive cycle – suddenly there is no more food available, all pollinators starve. Extreme weather is another threat: According to Australia’s New South Wales Apiarists Association the state may have lost up to 8,500 colonies due to flooding earlier in the year … raising fears that there may be a pollinator shortfall for the orchards.
So, to come back to the headline: YES, there are too many honey bees of the species Apis mellifera – particularly when measured against the area of land/forage available for them and all other pollinators. This is the result of ever more intensive industrial farming practices.
Unfortunately urban beekeeping is not much of an answer, either: Globally 3% of the earth’s surface are urban, 40% is farmland. And London beekeepers know that their 5,000 or so hives are too many for the area of parks and gardens, where their bees can feed: Fewer pesticides may be applied there (some really toxic stuff is not permitted for hobby gardening, although many park departments still use glyphosate for example), but there are simply not enough food sources throughout the season. Despite most beekeepers feeding sugar, the average honey yield/hive in London is now less than 30 kg (about 1/3 what beekeepers could harvest in a good countryside location).
So YES, we need more bees, but before that can happen, we need rejuvenated landscapes with diverse fields and flower meadows, trees and hedges. And we need to treat honey as what it is: a luxury that we have to leave mostly for the bees.
Dr. Martin Kunz has been working in ethical and Fair Trade since the 1970s and is a hobby beekeeper. Images and Text (c) and used with kind consent @M.Kunz
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