Going native

A bumbling bee

A Calgary University professor has this to say about urban beekeepers: “It is not as rosy as they think. Every jewel* of honey that they get on their plate or in their jars is a jewel that has been robbed from native bees.” Dr Ralph Cartar also says that urban beekeepers “swamp the world with bees and the competition becomes intense and you risk losing those native pollinators.”

 *(OK, perhaps Professor Cartar said “joule” – a unit of energy – but I heard  “jewel” – a unit of pricelessness! Since they sound the same on radio, I’m using the more poetic version of the homonym.)

How could anyone be so utterly opposed to the hobby beekeeper with a colony in the backyard? Dr Cartar, in a CBC radio interview this week, explained that honey bees are an invasive species that steals (OK, he says “robs”) food from native bees. You see, honey bees are not native to North America. Or South America. Or Australia, New Zealand, India, China, and a whole bunch of places that depend on the bee for crop pollination and where a whole bunch of people who love ecology, nature, outdoor activities, and communion with buzzers have been keeping honey bees. Cartar tells us that “people seem to think that because they are important for some agricultural crops, they are good everywhere.” He says Calgary urban beekeeping should stop immediately.

Is he right? I have struggled with this myself. Beekeepers don’t necessarily have the high road as environmentalists. It is a fact that honey bees were introduced as an invasive species in most of the places they are fondly kept. And it may be somewhat hypocritical for us beekeepers to claim to represent the environmental movement while keeping bees. Unless we do something more than tend our artsy little hive.

Before I elaborate on my idea of a solution, I want to address some errors in Dr Cartar’s flawed logic. In the radio interview, the professor said, “Every jewel of honey…in their jars is a jewel that has been robbed from native bees.”  This is hyperbolic nonsense. Some nectar, certainly, might have gone to a native bee. But it is not true that every drop of nectar taken by your honey bees has been stolen from the mouth of a native bee. This is because there is much, much, much, much more nectar produced than can be used by the native bees. Without honey bees, the nectar is simply lost – it does not automatically go to feed a native bee as Dr Cartar asserts.

In Calgary, there are fewer than 300 colonies of honey bees. Calgary’s urban area covers 700 square kilometres – that means there are over 2 square kilometres for each hive. That’s 200 hectares, or one hive per 500 acres in Calgary. We usually figure that for effective pollination, you need to place 1,000 hives on 500 acres. At this rate, instead of 300 colonies, Calgary could have ten thousand and there would still be enough food for all the bees. Of course, not all the land is growing flowers – there are lawns and parking lots and skyscrapers. But Calgary has immense public parks and huge gardens, so we might calculate that a third of our land is still somewhat floral – our parks and meadows have a gazillion dandelions – plus willows, wild cherries, caragana bushes, Russian olives, goats’ beard, clovers, wild alfalfa, sweet clover, fireweed, goldenrod, asters, and I am certainly forgetting some. In his correspondence with me, Dr Cartar wrote, “If you start with the premise that populations of pollinators are best explained by floral resources (as opposed to disease, predation, weather, etc.), then a logical outcome of increasing the density of one competitor (honey bees) is to decrease the density of others.” This may be true in some situations, but I reject this basic premise in the case of Calgary – the limiting factor here is not forage, but it is nesting sites for native bees. There is no shortage of forage for the honey bees and wild bees to share. Think about the flowers – just as many creatures have thousands of offspring each generation – with only a couple reaching maturity – so, too, flowers with nectar are generated with more abundance than bees could ever cover. It is a reproductive and survival tactic on the plants’ part.

If anything, more honey bees result in more seeds, which results in more flowering plants the next season for all the creatures. Did you ever wonder why honey bees are kept near orchards, or hauled in by beekeepers to ensure pollination? It is to try to get as many flowers in touch with bees as possible. With only a few native bees, and no honey bees, in a very natural environment, nearly all the flowers with nectar and pollen will never have a pollinator visit. With a saturation of bees, more seed, nuts, or fruit are produced because a greater number of flowers are pollinated. It is really, really hard to over-saturate an area with bees. That’s why commercial beekeepers often keep 50 colonies in a single 1/10th acre lot – and they all do well! No, competition for forage from honey bees is NOT hurting native bees. I pointed this out in my e-mail to Dr Cartar and suggested that if he really wanted to help native bees, he would tackle issues around the native bees’ loss of nesting sites. Native bees do not nest in man-made honey bee boxes. They most frequently nest inside the ground. Honey bees almost never nest inside the ground. I told Dr Cartar that a single car lot or shopping plaza destroys many times more native bees than all the urban bees kept in the city. Because the problem is nesting site destruction, not floral competition, his opposition to urban beekeeping is misdirected. In his reply to me, he did not address that concern. Instead he echoed his insistence that any amount of urban beekeeping is a bad thing.

Here is what I think. First, I think Dr Cartar is wrong to pick on hobby urban beekeepers. These people are his allies, not his enemies. I realize that many young professors feel they must champion a controversial cause to be noticed. I don’t know if Dr Cartar is similarly motivated. I don’t know him. We exchanged e-mails when I tried to uncover his thoughts in more detail and when I offered him a chance to backtrack a little in his animosity towards urban beekeepers. (He was unyielding.) He seems intelligent, articulate, and I suspect that he is a really nice fellow. But if one cares about wild bees, as Cartar very obviously does, then alienating a group that also finds bees fascinating is a mistake. It is true that we beekeepers are engaged in an activity that can disrupt native bees. But we are among a small group that can be encouraged to do more than almost any other group to help native bees.

Even the most strident environmentalist needs to eat and function in society in a normal way. As an environmentalist, one does not retreat to a cave, eschew clothing and fire, and humbly scrounge for grubs and berries. The environmentalist instead tries to balance his or her carbon footprint and environmental impact by reusing and recycling, and especially by offsetting the damage we all do by contributing to carbon sequestering (eg., forests) and environmentally constructive projects. Dr Cartar wrote that it is his philosophical position that if you know something is harmful, then you simply do not do it. He has a point, but in our society everything we do is harmful to the environment. Unless we retreat naked into that cave, we are doing harm. It is more about mitigating the damage than reducing it to zero. I, for one, prefer living in a society where children have a chance to survive infancy and can have the hope of a healthy, long life. Science, technology, and even beekeeping with invasive species, has made this possible.

So here is what we can do. Set up habitat in the backyard as nesting sites for native bees. Continue to develop awareness for bees in general. Donate or invest in native bee garden projects. Plant flowers for native bees – usually these are native, non-invasive flower varieties that are not very attractive to honey bees but co-evolved with native bees and are well suited to their needs. (Dr Cartar agrees with this – he sent this link to me that can help people select appropriate flowers: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.) Do these things to reduce your “honey bee footprint” and don’t feel guilty about keeping bees in the city. You are not part of the problem, you are part of the solution.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeeping.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
This entry was posted in Bee Biology, Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof, Ecology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Going native

  1. Pingback: A Bee Won’t Hurt You If . . . | Bad Beekeeping Blog

  2. Pingback: Wild bees again | Bad Beekeeping Blog

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