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More Research Needed to Better Balance Honey Bees and Native Bees

apis mellifera and bombus impatiens

A review of past studies on floral resource competition between managed honey bees (Apis mellifera, left) and wild bees, such as the common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens, right) shows gaps in our knowledge about such interactions and calls for further research to better inform decisions on honey bee management and pollinator protection. (Photo credit, both images: David Cappaert, Bugwood.org)

By Andrew Porterfield

Just in time for World Bee Day on May 20, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization issued a call to protect bees, citing a need to control pesticide and fertilizer use to reduce threats to pollinator populations.

Andrew Porterfield

The FAO call left out one potential threat to bees native to the United States: Apis mellifera, the European honeybee.

Pollinators are essential to food production—almost all of the world’s most common crops depend on pollinators to reproduce. Of those pollinators, bees are the most important. About 22.6 percent of developing world agriculture and 14.7 percent of developed world farming is connected to bee behavior.

There are at least 25,000 species of bees worldwide, but the key bee for managed agriculture is A. mellifera, which is native to Europe but was introduced to the United States. While much attention has been paid to a variety of threats to A. mellifera populations, including chemical pesticides, habitat alteration, varroa mites, and beekeeping hygiene, relatively little attention has been paid to the effects the European import may have on the 4,000 species of wild American bees, which also play important roles in pollination. In fact, wild pollinators are often more efficient at their tasks than managed honeybees and can contribute the majority of pollination to up to 86 percent of crops that depend on pollinators. Thus, the impacts of honeybee management on wild bees can have a significant effect on agriculture.

Victoria Wojcik, Ph.D., research director Pollinator Partnership, and a team of entomologists at the San Francisco-based nonprofit, which conducts research and engages in educational and conservation efforts to protect populations of bees and other pollinators, reviewed published literature to identify studies that focused on the relationships between A. mellifera and native bees. The review, published this month in the journal Environmental Entomology, revealed a yawning gap of knowledge surrounding this relationship between honey bees and wild bees.

Working back through literature that appeared in searches conducted between April 2013 and August 2017, Wojcik and her team identified 19 papers that addressed A. mellifera versus wild bees. Of those papers, 14 were experiments in which density of honeybees or wild bees was manipulated, and five were observations of managed honeybees and wild insects. Seven studies looked at reproductive output in wild bees. Most of the studies were very short-term, and none were conducted in areas of current concerns over competition (western U.S. forests, southeast and northeast U.S. conservation areas, and open space in central California).

Even with this low volume of published research, the team did find common threads on bee behavior:

  • Foraging patterns by bumble bees decreased with increases in A. mellifera foraging. Increasing honeybee colonies in natural areas appeared to “push” bumble bee foragers to flowers that weren’t used by A. mellifera.
  • Bumble bees were not as likely to visit a foraging site a second time if they had encountered a competing honeybee.
  • Only seven studies examined reproductive impacts of bee competition, but six of those found exploitative competition and a negative developmental or reproductive effect on native bees when confronted with honey bees. A 1991 study showed that honey bee presence reduced larvae number, size, and reduced pollen carrying among Exoneura asimillima, a social wild bee.

Interference competition, in which organisms fight or otherwise contact each other, did occur but not as frequently as another form of competition. Instead, exploitative competition, in which resources are depleted by one species at the expense of another, was observed as far more common.

The review, the researchers emphasize, shows that “maintaining honey bee colony health for pollination services while causing minimal impact to already threatened communities of native bees should be considered when putting honey bees in floral-rich areas.”

“Trends in rural landscape development … have dramatically changed honey bee forage ability within agricultural landscapes,” the researchers write. “Where beekeepers once had ample forage in managed agricultural lands, today many more seek access to alternative lands, such as natural areas, to make up deficits.”

And there they run directly into habits of wild bees. “Decisions in these cases have largely been based on opinion rather than on scientific evidence,” they write.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor, and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies, and nonprofits in the life sciences. He writes frequently about agriculture issues for the Genetic Literacy Project. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow him on Twitter at @AMPorterfield or visit his Facebook page.

4 Comments »

  1. The companies that are spraying for mosquito’s are part of the problem with killing of pollinators for the greed of money. They are Really Not regulated …………..

  2. I’m calling journalistic foul on the spate of recent articles I have seen placing the honey bees at odds with native bees.

    So, who’s the scape goat today in the blame game on bee decline. Today’s top scape goat is apis mellifera. Seems like the latest press release being picked up by several publications is a report that honey bees are severely impacting native bee species. The researchers state that honey bees in the numbers kept by beekeepers are so thoroughly diminishing the nectar and food sources that the native bees are having a hard time surviving. They admit that as a society we need and demand foods requiring pollination but add that the honey bee is to blame for the troubles of native bees. One article I read says the solution may be to eliminate feral honey bees.

    I had to laugh as, for the most part, feral honey bees have already been decimated due to Varroa. If reducing feral honey bees was a solution then it should have been offered as a solution 30 or 40 years ago when we actually had a population of ferals. I’m involved in a local study of feral honey bees and I can tell you that even in the countryside of the largely undeveloped rural areas we are studying even finding feral honeybees is a challenge much less a problem. I believe the truth of the matter is they aren’t looking for a solution but 1) a step towards a general acceptance that honey bees are to blame and 2) an angle to obtain research funding using the honey bee as “the problem” to be studied. Hogwash.

    Do I think we can overpopulate areas with honey bees? Well, yes in some instances honeybees are overwintered and placed in stock yards awaiting pollination contracts. But I can also offer an instance not considered by the native bee researchers. An instance probably a thousand fold more frequently encountered. I have lived on poor, sandy land for the past 16 years. When I moved here the foliage was scant. So scant in fact that even insects and wildlife was equally scant. After introducing honey bees I have visibly seen an increase in both quantity of nectar producing plants as well as an increase in native bees. How? Keeping honey bees has so increased the pollination of the native nectar producing plants which in turn has increased their seed production and reproduction that the area foraged on my the bees has become much more attractive and productive to all species of bees. It is not uncommon for me to now see dozens of flowering plant species in the nearby fields that were not present or minimally present even 5 years ago. And nowadays there are many more native bees on flowers during the day when the honey bees are home bearding on the hive or working a brief nectar flow on a flowering tree.

    My take is to not play the blame game in this matter. All bees need forage. But I’m not buying the implication that the decimation of native bees is largely to be blamed on honey bees. Researchers need to look a little more to the obvious in my opinion if the intent is to truly find some solutions to native bee declines.

  3. Africanized Honey bees and those hybridized cousins have destroyed the native pollinator populations in Arizona. All experts realize that all species of honey bee is an import to the Americas (North to South) and would be best kept in managed hives for the betterment of NATURE. Politics are ruthless. The un managed wild honey bee population has created an unusual situation. Pets and people have died from attacks, but we need the bees, cannot even find some species in our big cities.

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