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. I was kindly corrected about my mistake by Dr Cartar himself!)

How could anyone be 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 imported species that steals (OK, he says “robs”) food from native bees. You see, our western 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 (of what I saw as) errors in Dr Cartar’s claims. 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.

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 probably not in the case of Calgary – the limiting factor here is not forage, but it is nesting sites for native bees. There is probably no shortage of forage for honey bees and wild bees to share. Flowers with nectar are generated with more abundance than bees can 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, most of 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! I said this to Dr Cartar and suggested that if he really wanted to help native bees, we should 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 think 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, opposition to urban beekeeping is perhaps misdirected.  Or, I could be wrong.  I haven’t studied the issue rigorously, scientifically. I’m writing as a beekeeper might think about this.

Here is what I think. First, I think Dr Cartar is wrong to pick on hobby urban beekeepers. These people are allies, not enemies. 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 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. We all want to live in a world 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 bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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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