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The Bee Guy On World Bee Day, let's not just focus on the honey bees

Paul Handrick says time is running out for wild bees but there’s lots we can do to help.

LAST UPDATE | 20 May 2022

SO IT’S 20 May. That means it’s World Bee Day again when many turn their attention to bees at least for a few moments.

It’s the day allocated to celebrate these fascinating vital creatures. These creatures have buzzed about this planet for around 130,000,000 years. These creatures flew at the feet of dinosaurs.

Did you have any idea that there are approximately 20,000 recorded species of bee throughout the world and the majority of these bee species are Solitary Bees? That’s right, around 90% of bee species are solitary bees that build individual nests, don’t have a queen, don’t produce honey and don’t swarm.

There are over 250 species of bumblebees – the fat ‘furry’ ones that establish nests every spring containing anything from 50 to a couple of hundred bees over the summer months.

So why then when the word bee is mentioned do most people immediately think of honey bees, hives, honey, swarms and people in dodgy space suits? Why indeed given that there are in fact only eight species of honey bee on the planet?

A clue to this apparent blinkered understanding of bees lies in the origins of World Bee Day itself.

Bees and beekeeping

The first World Bee Day was celebrated in 2018. Slovenia had proposed the concept of a World Bee Day and after three years of International effort, UN Member States unanimously approved the proposal just before Christmas 2017.

World Bee Day had arrived.A great day for all bees.Or was it?A great day for all bees?All 20,000 species of them?

You see the devil is always in the detail and in this case the detail is the date – 20 May. This date was chosen as it was the birthday of Anton Janša.

Who’s Anton Janša when he’s at home I hear you ask. Janša, when he was at home, in Slovenia, in the 18th century, was a pioneer of modern apiculture. Apiculture being “the care and management of honey bees for the production of honey and wax.”

So World Bee Day was advocated for and established by beekeepers, who only keep honey bees, on the date of the birth date of a pioneer of modern beekeeping. Do you see where I’m going with this? No? I’ll spell it out then as plain as I can.

Honey bees are a kept creature. They are not endangered. Our focus needs to be on native wild bees – bumblebees and solitary bees – so this constant placing of honeybees in the spotlight either knowingly or in a lot of cases unwittingly is not helpful. In fact, it’s a hindrance to the messaging and work around saving native wild bees.

So to then have World Bee Day specifically on a date that celebrates a keeper of honeybees, despite the good intentions, does not set out on the right foot and could be seen as missing the point when these beautiful wild creatures are already down – or almost 20,000 species of said creature.

You see native wild bees are in all sorts of trouble – 40% of bee species worldwide are threatened — four out of every ten. A study in Argentina last year found that one-quarter of bee species are no longer showing up on sighting records and this is despite an increase in data collection and citizen scientists out looking for them.

In Ireland, we now have one hundred and one species of bee. Seventy-nine of these are solitary bees, 21 are bumblebees and yes, you’ve guessed it and your maths is spot on, one species is the honey bee. One-third of our 101 bees are in trouble here with some estimates that we are losing them at a rate of between four and five per cent per year.

So basic maths, which I believe we still teach in school, and a little bit of cop on should lead us to the conclusion that we need to act and act fast to help our little friends. And they are our little friends.

Humans – no friends to bees

I haven’t the space here to get into all the good things, all the vital things bees do for us but trust me they do only good for us and even beyond all this goodness the fundamental fact is that they have a right to exist, to be(e) regardless of their benefit to us. All creatures do.

So their place on this planet, their home too, should not and ought not to be spoken about in terms of economic benefit to us.

They’re stunning wonderful creatures and they were here first – way first – that should hold weight and it brings us sweet as honey to the point that needs to be considered first when we have notions of saving them – given bees have thrived for so long – 130 million years remember – (whereas us, well we’ve only been around for a couple of hundred thousand years): why are they so suddenly and so drastically in trouble?

The clue is in the previous sentence and the answer has two letters the first being U and the last being S. Bees are in trouble because of – us. And in order to truly help them, to make amends, we need to own that fact. We have within the last 100 years destroyed and taken their habitat – where they live and shelter and breed. We have absolutely diminished their forage sources – what they eat.

We have poisoned them directly, poisoned their food and poisoned their habitat. A real full on triple threat – with chemicals borne of the horrors and depravities of war and then subsequently marketed for profit as solutions to non-existent problems to the masses.

We have helped spread disease among them far and wide in our use of them as a commodity. And now we’ve thrown in the mother of all RKOs to finish them off – climate breakdown – which yes we are 100% taking the credit for.

Industrialisation of nature

So we’ve done this to them. (To the entire natural world but we’ll focus on bees given the day that’s in it). And still, these wonderful docile creatures keep giving to us. So what can we do to help? What ought we do? What will we do?

Let’s start with the can. We can stop kicking it down the road! It’s our responsibility to action this and action it honestly and bravely and not leave it to future generations – it will be too late. No might be. Will be.

We can realise, we can wake up – that is the first step to recovery here. We need to actually realise the following:

  • That the problem exists in the first instance
  • The seriousness of the situation
  • The causes
  • That we can do something about it.

We need to realise that keeping hives of honey bees is in no way and by no stretch of the imagination any part of the solution. In fact, many including myself would argue that keeping hives of honey bees is actually now part of the problem. Honey bees compete for ever scarcer resources with native wild bees.

Back to the maths: at the upper end of the scale one well-managed hive of honeybees with 60,000 bees with even just one-third of the workers making 1000 flower visits per day requires how many visits to flowers? 20 million flower visits per day. This has an impact.

Moving honey bees from place to place for pollination services and to access forage also has the potential to spread disease to native wild bees. So installing a hive in your garden, on your business premises or rooftop or even on your wildlife sanctuary is not about saving bees and nature it’s about keeping bees.

An engaging hobby. Extracting honey. Sure it might make you aware of nature. Closer to nature. But it is not about nature conservation. It’s not about saving bees. This isn’t a swipe at beekeepers and beekeeping, I have met many and they love nature and love their bees, but really it’s rather a nod to the truth.

We need to realise that the poisonous chemicals in insecticides, herbicides and fungicides are exactly that – poison. A recent study in Germany found pesticides and glyphosate in air samples taken in the darkest depths of their largest forests and at the top of their highest mountains.

These chemicals are now like whichever Gods you may believe in – ubiquitous. Everywhere. They’re flowing through your veins. They’re in your urine. They’re in your breast milk. We need to stop worshipping these false gods. Fast. Some scientists are warning that a teaspoon of a neonicotinoid pesticide is sufficient to deliver a lethal dose to 1.25 billion bees – and your pet’s spot on flea treatment possibly is full of it.

We need to realise that the choices we make about our diet not only affect our own health but the health of the planet. The health of bees. The food we choose to eat and the way we choose to produce it is up there with the biggest factors in the demise of nature. The demise of bees. And it is a choice. Never forget that.

We should also know that there are alternatives to the mass land use for beef and dairy products over generations that have seen nature and bees pushed to the edge. To the hedgerows which they’re now coming for too. There are alternatives to the chemical annihilation of nature, soil, water, air and bees. It’s not a debate as to whether we can feed the world without all this. We can. The debate is the distraction. The delay. Don’t get bogged down in it. We don’t have the time.

We also need to realise that when we walk into our friendly garden centre, local store or DIY on a Saturday morning and purchase some plants to put in our gardens that those plants, even the ones labelled as bee-friendly are often treated with a cocktail of chemicals which could actually be harmful to bees and the natural world. Little trojan horses of chemicals which we welcome with joy into our gardens and homes.

So these are just some of the realisations we need to come to. Not a pretty picture really is it on this day of the bees? So do we just accept this? Carry on regardless? Sorry little guys we love you today, yay bees,’s..just..too..much.

What can be done?

No, we do not. We cannot. We ought not. What we ought to do is take both personal and collective responsibility. Take it square on the chin and get up and do it again and again and again. We need to change things for the bees. For us.

So here are six things we, you and everyone ought to do right now:

1 – Start demanding and making better food choices. Better food systems. It’s uncomfortable. It’s unpalatable. It’s a pain in the posterior but we’re literally eating the future. Let’s demand more honesty and transparency about what is actually in our food and how it is really produced. Let’s look at the hidden costs, the unaccounted for costs of what we produce. A UK based study suggests that if just 2% of farmland was returned to organic traditionally managed meadows with wild corridors joining them up the bees could start recovering within five years. That’s just one in every fifty acres. That’s doable. Very doable.

2 – Stop using poisons in your garden, on your street, along your ditch, on the curbside, around trees, in parks, on golf courses, at sports grounds, in car parks, on school grounds, on farms and by rivers. They are not necessary. They harm. They are so last century. We’re better than this now. They are symbols of our complacency in a bottle labelled with a skull. We’re better than that.

3 – Start demanding plants that are not treated with chemicals at your Garden Centre, supermarket and DIY store. Ask questions and if they don’t have an answer, ask the question again. Create the demand for chemical-free plants and they will fill it. Realise your power here. There is huge potential for locally grown plant micro businesses throughout the country to step in and up here. In the meantime – plant swap from trusted local sources and grow your own from untreated seed.

4 – Embrace wild in your garden. Nature is gloriously messy. Don’t leave a strip for nature but take a strip for yourself and leave the rest for nature. She needs it, you don’t.
Don’t just do ‘No Mow May’ but also ‘Too Soon June” and ‘Keep It High July’ when it comes to grass in your back yard. Throw in a small pile of sand/soil/rubble in sheltered south facing spots and watch the solitary bees arrive. Leave the weeds – they’re beautiful and vital. They’re wildflowers supplied by nature to feed nature. Dandelions, thistle, nettles and all the others…get to know them a bit better.

5 – If you can’t bring yourself to embrace the wild don’t hassle others who do. We hear this all time here. It’s so sad especially in this great age of diversity, when somebody does the right thing for nature in their own garden – in their own garden – that their community and neighbours often deride them for it. Instead, champion them for doing the right thing. We have a lot more to worry about on this planet at the moment than Imelda next door letting her grass grow long and her dandelions flourish. We should praise these wild pioneers not push them into plastic grass submission. And please, no plastic grass, it does no one any good, anywhere and is of no use to nature whatsoever.

6 – Don’t keep hives, keep flowers. If you really want to help native wild bees encourage, grow and keep flowers everywhere you can. Wildflowers. Chemical free flowers. How awful would that be? A world full of flowers. Full of colour. Full of goodness. Full of bees.

Will we do these things? The answer to that one lies with you. Each and every one of you.
The bees await the answer in ever decreasing numbers. They have no power in this. They are fully dependent on our benevolence. On our ability and willingness to go gently with the world.

Let’s not keep them waiting. Let’s not let them down. Let’s go gentle and honest and brave. We should celebrate bees today, for sure, but maybe given the place it sprang from we should rename it World Honey Bee Day and celebrate Honey Bees for the wonderful amazing creatures they are – but separate that sentiment out from our native wild bees that are in so much trouble so as to break the cycle of misunderstanding.

Every bee is vital. Not just honey bees. And every day should be Bee Day. Not just 20 May.

Happy Birthday, Anton Janśa.

Paul Handrick, known as The Bee Guy runs The Bee Sanctuary in County Wicklow.
Save the bees with us by becoming an Official Friend of the Bees via the website -


Paul Handrick - The Bee Guy
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