Thursday, March 8, 2012

My Garden Rant Guest Rant: Honey bees suck

No honey bees here...
This post was originally published on Garden Rant (click here for the original post), if you haven't been to Garden Rant, check it out- it is one of the best garden blogs on earth (a little pun there for you).  Thanks to Susan Harris and the writers at Garden Rant for the opportunity to vent a little.

That’s right, they suck.  Someone had to say it.
If you want honey bees (Apis mellifera) for say, I don’t know, honey- that is great.  No problem.  If you have converted a heterogeneous, beautiful landscape of native plants and wildlife into a monoculture for crop production, and every plant requires pollination in the same, narrow, discrete window, honey bees are for you.
However, if you are interested in any of the following:  biodiversity, bee conservation, pollinator conservation and diversity, wildlife gardening, native plant landscaping, getting your native plant garden pollinated, or just plan learning about the really cool insects in your garden, than yes, honey bees suck.
Somewhere along the way of promoting awareness of pollinators and their role in plant, wildlife and bee conservation, people wove in honey bees.  This is really unfortunate, so I am trying to set the record straight. 
In our garden I have collected over 150 species of bees and “pollinators” and one of those species is honey bee.  In fact, honey bees in our garden are pretty uncommon, especially outside a narrow time of day and time of year.  The diverse species of native pollinators provide so much more than pollination to our garden.  Just as a small example, the larvae of the flower fly (Spilomaya spp.), a yellow jacket mimic, pictured below, are effective predators of aphids in the garden (including our vegetable garden).
Not a bee, but a fly (whose larvae eat aphids), trying to look like a yellowjacket!
I venture that honey bees are pretty ineffectual pollinators of most things- especially native species.  As far as colony collapse disorder, although academically interesting, don’t be fooled: it is not a conservation issue.
Honey bees are native to Eurasia (where most of our noxious weeds are coincidentally from), and share no evolutionary history with plants in the US, and in particular with plants of the intermountain west of Montana.  Consequently, they are not good nor effective pollinators of the diverse native plants we have here. They only will pollinate over a narrow range of dates and temperatures, and can only exploit certain sizes and shapes of plants.  Again, too narrow of a range to be effective. 
Too cold for honey bees
For example, in the Missoula valley, and in my garden, spring arrives with sagebrush buttercups (Ranunculus glaberrimus), that flower in late February or early March.  They often arrive when snow still covers the ground, most of days are barely above freezing, and the blooms can be rapid.  This time of the year, nary a honey bee is in sight or even able to survive- these blooms predate the hives trucked in from the south.  Native flowers come and go; blooming across different days (and some only at night) from snowy spring until late October, long after the honey bees head back down south or hunker down trying to survive.
No honeybees at night, either
Even as temperatures become more appealing to honey bees, morning and evening can be too cool for them to do much of anything beyond surviving.  Sure, on a warm July afternoon, honey bees will be out in force pollinating some things, but they don’t do much.   
Leave the milkweeds for the big fellas to pollinate

Our native pollinators, including moths, butterflies, bees, flies, beetles, ants, and others are so diverse in terms of habitats they occupy, body sizes and morphology, that than can pollinate and exploit a diversity of native plants that no truck load of honey bee hives consisting of identically sized and shaped honey bees could even imagine.
Don't count on a honey bee to pollinate this shooting star!
So, yes, honey bees are great for producing honey.  They are great for pollinating commercial crops (though their value is probably grossly overstated), but they have little place in conservation and little room in my garden.
Just another moth doing some pollinating in our garden, while imitating a yellowjacket!


  1. I wonder if yellowjackets are actually more effective pollinators since they inspire so many other pollinators (moths, flies) to imitate them?

  2. I think you fail to "set the record straight" with your argument. Honey bee's suck because they are getting more attention? Actually any of the actions one would take in the garden to support honey bees ALSO support all the other pollinators. The argument that they are not welcome in your garden but other pollinators are is rather strange.

  3. I have to say that in my garden, especially when the peppermint blooms, I see a LOT of different insects pollinating. And I love them all. :D

  4. The reason you dislike Honey Bees is because you are ignorant of their role in the ecosystem. Honey Bees are, bar none, the best pollinators created by nature, period.

    Unfortunately they sting, developed as a result of predation by Bears, Skunks, Racoons and the like, and recently humans, they developed that sting as a defense. They use that sting in defense of the hive not as an offensive weapon, Honey Bees are not aggressive unlike Yellow Jackets, Wasps, and Hornets.

    The reason that you don't see many is due to the lack of bee keepers or wild hives in your area, not that they're getting better "press" than other pollinators.

    Try setting up a hive in your yard and not only will your plants bloom better, you will get better vegetable production, a big benefit for you and your neighbors.

    When done right Honey Bees have the added benefit of producing honey a sweetener, an antibiotic, and a preservative. Try that with a moth or a butterfly

  5. I totally agree with Stacy. We should care about the cause of CCD as it may affect ALL pollinators, not just honeybees which would make it a potentially huge conservation issue. If a giant flock of starlings fell dead out of the sky I wouldn't say, "Oh well, they aren't native so it's not relevant. Don't be fooled by the hype!"

  6. Actually, honeybees are not as effective as other bees at flower to flower pollination, but they are more "loyal" to one food source as long as it continues to provide nectar and pollen. It is this trait that has led them to be so successful as crop pollinators. And no, I don't think their value is overstated.

    I think your article simply points out that native bees and other insect (and bird) pollinators are more adapted to local environments, but why the negative attitude? What did a honeybee do to you to deserve such a rant?

    I agree with the comment above. Have you tried keeping bees yourself? It is also true that bees situated smack in the middle of a garden may not even visit those plants or flowers, but you might be pleasantly surprised by what else they can accomplish. I think there is more to the honeybee than just honey. Thinking so is short-sighted. But, thank you for sharing your views.

  7. Role in the ecosystem? Honey, honeybees are not native. They have no role in the native US ecosystems. They are introduced. They are similar to pigeons, cats, dogs, horses, cows, fireants and apples, pears, apricots, oranges, wheat and highly hybridized crops that originated in the Americas, but no longer can live in the wild. Right now my squash plants are being pollinated primarily by native insects and I haven't seen any honey bees for a while. I don't think that they suck, but please, please don't say that we don't understand their place in the ecosystem (unless you are living in Europe where they come from).