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Conserving honey bees does not help wildlife

  • Written by  Jonas Geldmann and Juan P. González-Varo
  • Published in Opinions
Is a focus on honeybees a distraction – or worse – from the plight of wild pollinators? Is a focus on honeybees a distraction – or worse – from the plight of wild pollinators? thka
07 May
Lack of pollination of commercial crops is an issue of agricultural, not environmental importance

Wild pollinators are declining. In the UK, many of the 250 native wild bee species are suffering under the impacts of lost natural wilderness and increased use of pesticides and herbicide, as well as a homogenisation of the landscape in general. The great yellow bumblebee, for example, has lost 80 per cent of its range in the last 50 years and is now limited to coastal areas of Scotland.

The stories of bee declines are familiar to most, as is the importance of the services they deliver through pollination, from which as much as 75 per cent of all globally important crops benefit. However, declines in pollinators have been associated with one species above all: the western honeybee. Concerns have mostly been related to the potential loss of pollination of our food, where the action accounts for as much as eight per cent of global yield.

However, lack of pollination of commercial crops is an issue of agricultural, not environmental importance. Despite this, the two are habitually confused, with honeybee losses typically viewed as being an environmental concern.

bumblebeeNumbers of great yellow bumblebees have fallen dramatically (Image: Tacio Philip Sansonovski)

This focus on honeybees might not only fail to contribute to the conservation of most wild pollinator species but could under some circumstances even challenge them. There is increasing evidence suggesting that honeybees, due to their unnaturally high densities in many parts of the world associated with beekeeping activity, can exacerbate declines in wild pollinators. This is obviously an issue where they are introduced, but also within their native range in Europe, honeybees have been shown to depress the densities of wild pollinators both in the agricultural landscape and in surrounding natural habitats. This can potentially lead to honeybees competing with wild pollinators in periods where mass-flowering crops are not in bloom and in natural landscapes where flower resources are sparse. Further, honeybees are also linked to the spread of diseases to wild pollinators via shared flowers, and they can have a negative impact on plant communities through preferential flower visitation of the most abundant plant species.

The potential risks of honeybees to wild pollinators does not mean they’re not useful for improving the yield of many mass-flowering crops. Likewise, many of the factors that are negatively affecting honeybees, such as neonicotinoids, parasites and diseases, are also harming native pollinators. But conservation strategies optimised for crop pollination are unlikely to be the best for securing wild pollinators.

We see a need for a conservation strategy that focuses explicitly on wild native pollinators and the main drivers of their declines, not on agricultural yield. This will require prioritising efforts in the remaining natural wild landscape and protected areas; ensuring these are managed in a way that increases their ability to support wild pollinators. While the wild and natural areas will be the most important for wild pollinators, the agricultural landscape both in and around the fields should not be ignored. Here, strategies already suggested to help honeybees, such as banning certain pesticides and restricting their general use, are laudable and will also benefit wild pollinators. However, prioritising wild pollinators will likely also involve avoiding managed honeybee hives in the most valuable natural landscapes where they are likely to do the biggest damage to wild pollinators.

wild beeAre wild bees losing out to their commercial competitiors? (Image: Per-Boge)

In other areas of conservation importance, beekeeping may require impact assessments that consider potential spillover after the bloom of adjacent mass flowering crops. This may require a better assessment of when, where and in what densities honeybees are required to ensure crop-pollination without harming wild native pollinators or plants. Importantly, it will be critical that management practices address the periods where insufficient mass-flowering crops are in bloom, as this is when honeybees compete most intensively.

It is important to say, that just as banning people from driving without a seat belt is not the same as banning cars in general, potential restrictions on managed honeybees is not the same as banning beekeeping. But managed honeybees should be a means not an end and keeping honeybees should not be an additional pressure on wild pollinators. Thus, strategies to ensure sufficient crop-pollinations need to incorporate the potential competition with native wild pollinators. And while honeybees can (and have) helped shine a light on the plight of pollinators, as naturalists we must insist that it is the wild pollinators and not the managed honeybee that is in urgent need of conservation attention.

Jonas Geldmann and Juan P. González-Varo are part of the Conservation Science Group at the Department of Zoology in the University of Cambridge

This opinion piece is modified from Geldmann and González-Varo (2018): Conserving Honey bees does not help wildlife, Science, 359, 6374, 392-393, DOI:10.1126/science.aar2269. With permission

This was published in the May 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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