Save the bees!

Posted by Jamie Stavert @jamiestavert

It seems that everyone loves honeybees and everyone wants to save them. Of course they do. Honeybees give us honey, they pollinate our crops, kids like them, and they’re great for science outreach. But despite their endearing, cuddlesome nature, I have issues with honeybees. Firstly, they’re exotic to New Zealand, some would even say invasive, and they’re probably having negative impacts on our native biodiversity. Secondly, I think they’re crying wolf (at least in New Zealand).

The general public have a terrible misconception about bees; when people think about bees they inherently think of honeybees. That’s it. One bee. Let’s save it, or we’ll all die. In New Zealand, the deluded media continues to wheeze and waffle about honeybees in peril, yet hive numbers have increased from 300,000 in 2000 to 685,000 in 2016. That’s a whopping 120% increase! Meanwhile, native bees continue to go unnoticed and unrecognised.

hive numbers in NZ

Change in the number of registered honeybee hives in New Zealand from 2000-2016. The red dashed line is when Varroa was first detected in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, few people know that there are over 20,000 bee species in the world and most of them don’t live in a colony with a queen. Rather, they live solitary lives and nest in the ground or in plant material. Globally, native bees, in combination with other wild insects, contribute more to crop pollination than honeybees. But unlike honeybees which are managed by humans, native bees are strongly affected by the bad things that humans do (e.g., agriculture, urbanisation, pesticides, climate change and invasive species). In addition, evidence is mounting that honeybees have negative impacts on wild insects, largely through competition.

Leioproctus of Coriander

An endemic New Zealand bee (genus Leioproctus)

I’m not saying that we should forget about honeybees altogether and let Varroa have its way with them. They’re important pollinators of many crops and make manuka honey that cashed up baby boomers pay $1,000/kg for to treat their pinot noir induced acid reflux. But it seems dumb to rely on a single species to do all the pollination. It’s akin to “putting all your eggs in one basket”. Resilience comes in the form of biodiversity. When we have lots of biodiversity we have many species that are equally capable of doing the job. For example, if we have 10 pollinator species that are equally good at pollinating a crop and for some reason five species go extinct, we still have five species left. However, if we have one species and it goes extinct, that’s it, game over.

So how can we save the bees? Our native bees? Essentially they need natural habitat, which provides floral and nesting resources. In New Zealand, native bees are active from September to February and require flowers (preferably natives!) throughout that period. They also require sites for nesting; small holes (2-3 mm) in timber/plant material for cavity nesting species and areas of warm, well drained bare earth for ground nesting species.

Leioproctus in hole

A ground nesting Leioproctus bee emerging from its nest hole

These solutions are feasible on a small scale (i.e., in urban gardens), but the real problem is at a much larger scale, where agricultural intensification threatens to wipe out native bee populations. Therefore, to “save the bees” perhaps we need to move beyond the capitalist dream of monocultures, mono-pollinators and massive profits, and instead vie for diverse production systems that truly value biodiversity.

For an up-to-date assessment on the global status, trends and threats to pollinators and pollination check out: the assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) on pollinators, pollination and food production.

IMG_0293Jamie Stavert is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Biodiversity &
Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is interested in how functional traits influence ecosystem function and species’ responses to environmental change in pollination systems.
 He is supervised by Jacqueline BeggsAnne GaskettDavid Pattemore and Nacho Bartomeus.

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