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Bumble bee on phacelia The Bee Guy
VOICES

Biodiversity The Bee Guy shares some home truths about saving the bees

Paul Handrick of the Bee Sanctuary is taking issue with the direction of the ‘save the bees’ narrative.

SO IT’S 20 May. You know what that means… we’ve probably had three days of sunshine without showers, temperatures above 13º and the kids are still in school so chances are the Irish summer is done?

Well, there is that.

But no the twentieth day of May each year since 2018 has been designated World Bee Day by the United Nations. A day to celebrate bees. Why this specific date, I hear you ask. Well, this date is also the birthday of the man who, back in the day (if the day is in the 18th century) was the pioneer of modern beekeeping – one Anton Janša.

So what a fitting day to celebrate bees – right? To encourage people across the planet to recognise the importance of these wonderful creatures. To understand how our own well-being is closely linked to the well-being of bees. To communicate the plight many bees now find themselves into the masses and to inspire people to take action to ‘Save the Bees’!

To save the bees

‘Save the bees’… what a wonderful noble cause. Saving bees. And it is. And we all should get involved. Because all bees are equal and equally in trouble, aren’t they?

Because the bees work so hard. Unselfishly filling their hives up with honey for us to consume to please our now sweeter-than-ever teeth. So yes of course we should celebrate and save the honey bees. Of course…

Woooah… hold my pint! Run that last bit by me again. Real slow.

What bit?

The ‘save the honey bee’ bit.

Okay…so yes of course we should celebrate and save the honey bees…

Woooah… save the honey bees?

Yes save the bees, the honey bees. They’re in trouble.

Really?

Yes.

Are you sure?

Yes… I think…I saw an ad and it said the bees are in trouble and it showed honey bees and a hive and everything and…

Okay, my friend. Take a seat… Now if you will, let me explain about bees.

About saving bees.

First, let me provide some context… There are three basic types of bee on the planet. Solitary bees. Bumble bees. And Honey bees. Of the approximately 20,000 species of bees on the planet, only eight are honey bees.

Small Bumblebee Small bumble bee The Bee Guy The Bee Guy

Currently, around 40% of bee species are under pressure worldwide. Indeed 40% of pollinators are in trouble. 25% of bee species have not been showing up on field records over the past 20 years or so and this is despite an increase in citizen science.

Are you with me?

Yes.

Good… but brace yourself for the next bit… honey bees are not the ones in big trouble. I repeat… honey bees are NOT the ones in trouble. Don’t get me wrong, some of them, particularly in the US are deemed to be in some danger, but they’re not wild bees

No way!

Way. Honey bees are primarily a ‘kept species’. There have never before been so many honeybees on the planet. It is estimated that there are around 100 million hives on the planet. It’s a multi-billion euro/dollar industry. It is not nature or natural. These are farmed creatures. Now don’t get me wrong my friend, this is not a rant against beekeeping. Many beekeepers follow me on social media and…

Follow you on social media? Why?

That’s not important. Concentrate.

Okay.

Now where was I… yes, many beekeepers follow me on social media and agree with my messaging on this. I am not anti-beekeeping. Rather pro clarity and honesty. What I’m advocating here is a shout-out to truth and clarity when it comes to the bees that are actually in trouble – native wild bees – bumble bees and solitary bees. You see, the language around bees is alarmingly misguided. People say bee when referring to honey bees not realising or being bothered that there are so many other species of bee. When talking about honey bees we need to specifically say honey bees.

Why does this matter?

Because when people hear ‘save the bees’ many, if not most, presume bees means honey bees. Absolutely incorrectly. Are you still with me?

All good!

Good. So when people then decide to ‘help the bees’ they presume they should help honey bees (not in trouble if you remember) and so take actions that don’t actually help the bees that are indeed in trouble but which in many cases can actually be detrimental to bumble bees and solitary bees.

An example of this ‘good intentions with not so good outcomes’ is when people decide to install a honey bee hive in their garden or on their business premises to ‘help the bees’. Don’t even get me started on supposed nature reserves who knowingly get involved in this. There is no place on a nature reserve for kept honeybees. None.

Many eNGOs and bee advocacy bodies have been complicit in this myth and pushing the narrative that honey bees are an answer. They are simply not engaged enough or brave enough to face the truth. This is unforgivable given the state of bees and nature. We don’t have time for this lazy messaging.

Can I ask a question?

If you didn’t I’d be disappointed. Hit me.

Why are hives of honey bees not the answer? What harm?

That’s a very good question. I’m glad you asked that. And no I don’t have political ambition. Why? Because I’m about to give you a straight answer to the question you actually asked. Are you good at maths?

Not particularly.

Perfect, because what I’m going to tell you is really quite simple. Bear with me and let’s run some figures to show why ever more hives of honey bees are exacerbating the problem and are in no way part of the solution.

A healthy hive can have up to 60,000 resident honey bees.

Really?

Yep.

But let’s be fairer than fair and say that a hive has 30,000 honey bees. Now, let’s say that only one-third of these bees are actively foraging – again a very low estimate – that means 10,000 bees foraging.

Okay, 10,000 foraging bees. I can hear the buzz. What’s foraging?

Foraging is basically bees collecting food.

Right. Gotcha. Do they shop at BEEDLs? For the food?

Don’t!

I didn’t!

You did. Bees collect food from flowers. Native wildflowers which they have evolved with for millions of years are best. But back to these honey bees… each bee will make about 1000 flower visits in a day.

That’s a lot of flower visits!

Yes… and a lot of bees making them. See where this is going? 

I think so.

Yep, that equates to 10,000,000 flower visits per day.

Just for one hive?

10 million. Now let’s take that number of flower visits in the context of a landscape that has seen diminishing floral resources over the past century.

What’s ‘diminishing florally’?

Fewer and fewer flowers.

Okay… jeesh you could have just said that.

What we get is more creatures foraging on fewer flowers. This is the problem. If you introduce a hive into an area it puts even more pressure on the wild bees in that area. Not a hard concept to grasp, is it?

No… I get it.

And this is before we even start to factor in the potential for spreading disease as hives are moved around and long-term changes to local flora due to the influence of introduced honey bees. Don’t believe me? Google it. There’s loads of research out there. More needed.

You did it again.

What?

The flora thing.

Okay. Flowers. Happy?

No. So you’re telling me that some of the bees are in trouble but not the ones in the hives, the honey bees. And keeping hives doesn’t help the bees that are in trouble. So I’m not happy that some of the bees are in trouble. How can I help them?

Again, that’s a very good question and I’m glad you asked it.

If you really want to help native wild bees:

Don’t keep hives, keep flowers. Wildflowers. This will mean you will ultimately keep native wild bees. You’ll help bumble bees and solitary bees. The bees that are actually in trouble. Don’t spray poisons on your patch and forget neat and tidy – it’s so last century.

Resist the ‘save the bees’ industry that is monetising a lie and the well-meaning general public that is ill-informed of the actual problem. Hives make money for someone. Hives make things worse. Saving Bees campaigns run by large eNGOs with honey bees on the poster raise donations. What these things don’t do is make it better for native wild bees. They make it worse.

So sure, keep hives and honey bees if you want. No issue with that. But don’t dress your hobby/business up as a solution. It’s not.

At least admit it’s potentially part of the problem. At least that.

When it comes to addressing the issue of endangered native wild bees:

If you think hives are the answer you didn’t understand the question. Keep flowers not hives.

Keep truth not lies.

Got it?

Got it!

Then, do me a favour.

Yes?

Pass this on. Tell people. For the bees. Tell them The Bee Guy told you.

Happy Bee Day, people

The Bee Guy is co-founder of the first and only true native wild bee sanctuary on the planet – The Bee Sanctuary of Ireland. To support the work he does check out:
www.savingbees.ie. Twitter @the_beeguy.

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Paul Handrick - The Bee Guy
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