Should a “Bee City” Ban Honey Bees?

city of the bees by stuartIn February, Toronto became Canada’s first certified Bee City. This week, a bedroom community just outside Calgary became Canada’s second. I heard the news last night on a CBC radio interview of Dr. Preston Pouteaux, a hobby beekeeper who apparently got the bee city project going in Chestermere, Alberta.

Dr. Preston Pouteaux told the radio audience that he became involved in the certification process to raise awareness about the plight of bees. He became interested in bees because he was burned out and he apparently needed some soul comfort (though he didn’t say it quite that way) which he found inside a beehive. He was weary, Dr. Preston Pouteaux explained, partly because of his many years of study. Indeed.  He put quite a few semesters into his education, attending 5 colleges: Covenant College, Briercrest College and Seminary, Regent College (a graduate school of Christian theology), Jerusalem University College, and Tyndale Seminary. After cycling through these Bible schools,  Dr. Preston Pouteaux ended up with his doctorate, likely in something Bible-related.  Today, Dr. Pouteaux is a pastor at Lake Ridge Community Church in Chestermere and he describes himself as “a bumbling backyard beekeeper” with two hives of bees.

chestermere bee cityIt is remarkable that Dr. Pouteaux, a hobby beekeeper with just three years experience, was able to get the community of Chestermere certified as a Bee City. It must have taken a lot of work, especially in his dynamic community. Chestermere has an interesting history. I remember it as a farming village in the 1980s, scattered around an irrigation lake built upon a swamp. From 4,000 people in 2001 to 10,000 in 2006, to 20,000 in 2016, it’s one of Canada’s fastest growing towns. Growth like this, of course, consumes a lot of land that used to be home to a lot of birds and bees.

If groups like Bee City raise awareness of lost bee habitat and try to mitigate the natural disaster caused by runaway population growth, then they are definitely doing an ecological service. Bee City began in the USA in June 2012 when a group within the North Carolina State Beekeepers Association formed Bee City USA and the city of Asheville became certified as America’s first bee city. The project spread across the states and now into Canada.

To become certified by Bee City Canada, a 6-page application is submitted to some Bee City auditors somewhere who assess the applicant city. Applicants need city council approval to proceed and are bound by a set of resolutions and procedures that include

1) establishing a liaison with local government and a facilitator organization;

2) developing a municipal plan that encourages planting native species of flowers;

3) and meeting specific measurable targets of hectares set aside for native pollinators;

4) celebrating National Pollinator Week; and,

5) showcasing “the municipality’s commitment to enhancing native pollinator health through biodiversity and habitat”.

6) documenting all this for annual renewal of the certification.

Of these, having an annual pollinator festival in late June would be the easiest to pull off. But meeting specific measurable targets of hectares set aside in a fast-growing community will be very challenging.

chestermere offical siteIn almost all respects, this pollination certification system is laudable. However, as I researched the Bee City mandate, I found an issue which causes a bit of anxiety for me.  There is a strong emphasis on native plants as sources for native bees’ sup.

This is an initiative about pollinating insects, not honey bees: for example, on the Bee City Canada website, honey bees are never mentioned. Instead, we are told “1 in 3 bites of food we eat is courtesy of insect pollination”. The fact that 95% of those pollinating insects that feed us are honey bees is missed. Projects like Bee City – espousing native plants and native bees – could be hijacked into an anti-honey bee movement. If you’ve forgotten, 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 honey bees 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.

Regular readers of this blog may know that I’ve sparred off and on with a brilliant bee research scientist who works at the University of Calgary. Dr Ralph Cartar says this about urban beekeepers: “It is not as rosy as they think. Every joule of honey that they get on their plate or in their jars is a joule that has been robbed from native bees” and urban beekeepers “swamp the world with bees and the competition becomes intense and you risk losing those native pollinators.”

Honey bees are not native to North America. I worry that well-intended policies like Bee City may lead to unforeseen consequences. It may be hard to turn a Bee City initiative (which was started by honey bee keepers in North Carolina) into a honey bee liquidation program, but there are those who will try. Within the resolutions that cities must accept to be designated as a “Bee City” is this ominous requirement: “municipality’s commitment to enhancing native pollinator health”. Note, it says native pollinator.  Enhancing native pollinator health includes banning non-native pollinators. Such as honey bees.

Perhaps the saving grace for the Bee City mandates which are popping up around the country will be that the very people who bring the project to their towns – hobby beekeepers such as Dr. Preston Pouteaux – like honey bees.  As long as the pastor finds solace and sanity in the depths of his hives’ brood chambers, he (and others like him) are unlikely to allow the Bee City movement to turn into an eviction of honey bees from designated bee cities – even if that violates a Bee City resolution.

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.
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6 Responses to Should a “Bee City” Ban Honey Bees?

  1. Emily Scott says:

    Much as I love honey bees, I think they are right to focus on native bees instead. After all, many native bee species are much more vulnerable than honey bees. And as generalists honey bees are likely to be happy with the flowers they plant.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks to Ron Mishka for this thoughtful article. As the founder and director of Bee City USA, I would like to clarify our emphasis on native pollinator habitat. North American agriculture has become very dependent on (non-native) honey bees for pollination services. This is not because they are better pollinators than native bees, but because as managed bees, they can be transported from blooming crop to blooming crop. Although in many cases native bees actually are much better pollinators than honey bees, unmanaged bees must have year-round supportive habitat near the blooming crops if they are to survive from year to year. For most American agriculture, this is currently not the case. Honey bees can flourish in a habitat rich in flowering plants native to North America (that are free to nearly free of pesticides), but many native bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, bats, etc. have co-adapted with native plants over millions of years in specialized relationships. We view habitats rich in native flowering plants, trees and shrubs as a win-win both for managed honey bees and wild native bees. Phyllis Stiles,


    • Ron Miksha says:

      Hello Phyllis,
      Thank you for responding to this blog post.
      I have addressed some of your comments in my lengthy reply to Bee City Canada, which is just below.
      Ron Miksha


  3. I can’t thank you enough for your intelligent and detailed examination of what it means to be a Bee City and the important roll of all pollinators, including honey bees. I wish to bring some clarity on our stand on honey bees which I hope will allow you to put aside your anxieties. We would never advocate for a ban of honey bees in a city.
    We are trying to wake up the population that live in cities and towns everywhere in Canada into taking action. The most important thing we can all do is plant flowering native plants, including trees and shrubs, in all different shapes,sizes and colours, grouped together, blooming from early spring to late fall. Without question, we need more pollinator habitat! Let’s change our mentality from loving green grass to loving bees and butterflies feasting on flowers. There are other things we can do as well like leaving nesting materials for cavity and ground nester bees in our yards, stop using pesticides, and purchase our food from pollinator friendly farmers.
    There is something magical about honey bees that captures the human spirit. I’ve seen it with school children and most anyone I speak with. What each individual bee is capable of doing in their life time for the good of the hive is unsurpassable. They take care of one another from the moment they emerge from the pupa stage. Imagine. if we as humans lived our lives this way ensuring that every one of our individual actions was taking care of our mother earth hive.
    Perhaps we at Bee City Canada are dreamers, but we are not the only ones….I hope someday you will join us and the world, including pollinators, will live as one.
    Shelly Candel
    Bee City Canada


    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thank you, Shelly. I am glad to see Bee City Canada acknowledging the role of honey bees as essential pollinators and I appreciate your statement that “We would never advocate for a ban of honey bees in a city.” Thank you for that.

      As I have indicated in this blog post (above), I was concerned that the statement on Bee City’s website about 1/3 of food being pollinated by insects omitted honey bees. I feel that honey bees were intentionally left out of the discussion. If I am wrong, I suppose that the website will be editted for clarity and to reflect the role honey bees play. Your answer today does reduce my anxiety, though it seems that Bee City USA may be somewhat less friendly towards honey bees. Phyllis Stiles has responded with a comment to this blog, again stressing native pollinators’ role in pollinating our food while diminishing the importance of honey bees. Although the words ‘honey bees’ are finally mentioned, we are immediately reminded of their non-native status and we are told that they are not necessarily better pollinators than wild bees. This simply isn’t true when it comes to the honey bees’ efficiency in gathering pollen. It is the fact that they are such good pollinators that makes them a threat to wild bees. I feel that, based on Phyllis Stiles’ comments, native bees and wild pollinators are favoured over honey bees in the Bee City program. The Bee City resolution (“municipality’s commitment to enhancing native pollinator health”) favours native bee health and biodiversity – otherwise, the resolution should have said ‘pollinator health’ not native pollinator health. Zealously enforced, this resolution certainly can be used to advocate for the elimination of honey bees from cities. Honey bees may imperil the nutritional success of native bees, thus ultimately affecting native bee health – and it is native bee health that the resolution concerns.

      Here in Calgary, Dr Ralph Cartar has done thorough research on the negative effects of urban honey bees and their forage competition with native bees. He has specifically called out urban beekeepers who “swamp the world with bees and the competition becomes intense and you risk losing those native pollinators,” as he said on CBC radio. In California, honey bees were exterminated on Catalina Island to encourage native bees, so such a movement against honey bees does exist.

      I do not disagree with Dr Cartar and others who tell us that our invasive honey bees are detrimental to native bee success. However, I feel strongly that urban beekeepers are among the best advocates for expanded parks, reduced pesticides, and diverse flora in cities. As such, their interest results in a city environment more amenable to native bee success and outweighs the reduction of forage for native species. But not everyone agrees with me on this – I can envisage a movement to ban urban beekeeping because of the hobby’s environmental impact. Hopefully it will not be successful.

      Again, thank you, Shelly, for making your view clear that you feel Bee City Canada does not want to interfere with urban beekeeping. I am sure that is not your intent, I just worry about the unexpected consequences that sometimes arise from the best of intentions.

      Ron Miksha


  4. Pingback: 2016 in Bee Review | Bad Beekeeping Blog

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