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What if Honey Bees Were an Invasive Species? Thoughts on Pollinators

 
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To begin,

You would be hard pressed to find someone as passionately in love with the European Honey Bee, (Apis mellifera), as I currently am, and have been for the past decade.

That being said, a thought has been nagging at me ever since I [dropped out] of a beekeeping course last summer. Hints to this thought lie in the common name of the honey bee itself, and our understanding of mellifera's origins. Another hint came from my first hearing stories of early American Indians calling the bee, "the White Man's fly," (an interesting thread on the origins and veracity of these stories can be found here: https://www.beesource.com/forums/showthread.php?256722-White-Man-s-Flies-Bees-in-America)

The thought revealed: Are Honey Bees, whose plight for survival in the wake of Colony Collapse Disorder has captured the hearts and imaginations of progressives and conservatives alike, throughout the world, an invasive species?

I would like to begin this conversation with some articles I found with a quick Google search:


https://www.insidescience.org/news/how-bees-you-know-are-killing-bees-you-don%E2%80%99t

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-16054-5

https://www.bee-safe.eu/article/invasive-bees-do-no-good/

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/bees-gone-wild/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5198217/

https://theconversation.com/bee-battles-why-our-native-pollinators-are-losing-the-war-40620


The deeper issue here is thus: Are we doing more harm than good by propagating advocacy towards crucial environmental issues without establishing a clear understanding of larger environmental relationships and impacts with regards to native ecosystems?

Chew it up and spit it out; I am itching to hear the thoughts of other bee lovers and conservationists.
 
master pollinator
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This article  https://theconversation.com/bee-battles-why-our-native-pollinators-are-losing-the-war-40620  is about the non-native Wool-carder Bee, not the Honey Bee.


 
steward
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discussions along these lines have come up on the site before, so you're not alone in wondering. my short answer would be that there are thoughtful, conscientious, and beneficial ways to use many technologies, and there are harmful and destruction ways to use those same technologies. used as a prop for industrial agriculture, the technology of keeping honey bees is probably a net harm. used in a way that complements and benefits existing ecosystems and supports other regenerative practices, that technology can be entirely positive.

of course, that nuance is not easily captured in a short sound bite or slogan, and the concerned public is not likely to take the time to dig deeper than sensational headlines. I have already observed opinion beginning to swing away from "save the honeybees" among non-beekeepers. and these folks aren't wrong, they just don't grasp the whole picture. I wouldn't be so bold as to claim that I do grasp the whole picture, by the way.
 
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Are honey bees imported? Absolutely.

Will anything that hurts the honey bees also hurt our native bumblebees? Yeah, I am fairly certain it will.

Honey bees are not invasive because a great many native predators eat them, and that keeps the population under control. The population does not get large enough to injure the native species.
 
pollinator
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There was, perhaps, an argument to be made around the time of european contact that european imports might displace local ecology. The time for such arguments is past, as containment is not an option, and eradication would do more harm to the environment than good.

The larger issue is one of biodiversity. Does the presence of the european honeybee increase or decrease the amount of biodiversity in a given system? Does it affect the population numbers, and if so, how?

I think honey bees could be contrasted with invasive earthworm species in terms of environmental impact. Earthworms making their way into leaf litter-based systems, at last check, had the potential to change the soil that has to date supported american hardwood trees, leading to shifts in ecology. I don't see any analogous potential damage related to bee activity that isn't being caused by human economic interests.

I think the point made above that an invasive needs to have an uncontrollable expansive quality to its population growth is valid. If kudzu didn't strangle everything and didn't spread itself so easily, it would just be another fast-growing, nitrogen fixing fodder crop.

-CK
 
gardener
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used as a prop for industrial agriculture, the technology of keeping honey bees is probably a net harm. used in a way that complements and benefits existing ecosystems and supports other regenerative practices, that technology can be entirely positive.  



Agreed.

I'm going to research the subject more & seriously reconsider letting most swarms go feral though. Thanks for the new bee related rabbit hole.
 
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I welcome all species of plant and animal to my farm, regardless of where they were living last week, last century, or last millennium. I don't wage war on life.
 
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In a two mile radius of our home, there used to be two families who kept honeybees.  Honeybees were the dominant pollinator here.  Several years ago these people gave up their hobby.  Now the vacuum has been filled by bumblebees on our property, so Nature does fill in the blanks.  I prefer the slower moving bumblebees.  They're easier to see and avoid than the smaller honeybees used to be when they were plentiful.  I wonder how long it will be before humans attempt to domesticate and exploit the bumblebee.
 
tel jetson
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Marci Sudlow wrote:I wonder how long it will be before humans attempt to domesticate and exploit the bumblebee.



that ship sailed a while back.
 
Marci Sudlow
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that ship sailed a while back.



Wasn't successful then, I take it?
 
tel jetson
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Marci Sudlow wrote:Wasn't successful then, I take it?



I suppose that depends on how you define success. https://www.buglogical.com/bumble-bees-natural-pollination/
 
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Joseph Lofthouse wrote:I welcome all species of plant and animal to my farm, regardless of where they were living last week, last century, or last millennium. I don't wage war on life.


The property I live on, which is an individual allotment of native reserve land within the Creek Nation, we manage likewise.  Most of the 40 acres is deciduous hardwood forest in various stages of succession, punctuated by various bits of erosion and blight due to historical mismanagement of petroleum production and cattle overgrazing.  It's frustrating and almost funny: I like to take pictures of large or interesting spiders and other creepy-crawlies and post them on an anodyne social media account that I use mostly for maintaining connection with distant family and old family friends.  My one sister who has a bit of phobia will usually post her verbal eeks and shudders, whereupon there's another semi-local person who will *always* chime in with fifty words of high-specific unsolicited advice consisting of an expensive, labor-intensive, impractical, and utterly undesirable broadcast poisoning scheme for eradicating whatever critter was photographed.  I usually don't even bother to respond, although the other day I did feel moved to observe, as if in jest, that malathion (which the guy had recommended in all seriousness, though of course he meant that I should broadcast it from fence to fence) was not commercially available as a body spray.  
 
Mike Barkley
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Was thinking more about this subject when I remembered that 100 years ago in North America there were many more "kept" honeybees than today. Which logically means there were more feral honeybees. The honeybees weren't wiping out any other bees at that time. There must be other factors like ... hmmm .... loss of native species & habitat, poisons, & pollution perhaps. Just a wild guess.
 
tel jetson
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Mike Barkley wrote:The honeybees weren't wiping out any other bees at that time.



I wouldn't be so sure. that there aren't records of that happening only means that there aren't records of that happening. could be because all the bees were getting along just fine, but it could also be because nobody bothered (or had the resources) to look into it.

bumblebees, alkali bees, and other less well-known pollinating insects are also relatively new to the commercial/industrial pollination game, so their impacts on ecosystems are less likely to have reached anything resembling a steady state or dynamic equilibrium. that makes those impacts a lot easier to understand because they can be observed in real time. the consequences of honeybees spreading through the Americas, in contrast, are largely a case of forensics by this point, though modern beekeeping methods are no doubt causing a whole new wave of ecosystem changes.
 
Mike Barkley
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I had the same thought 2 seconds after I pushed the submit button. I suppose we'll never really know.

Not quite sure what to make of this subject yet. Maybe the best approach will be to help all the bees not just honeybees. Restoring native plants, etc. I'm loosely involved with a project like that already.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Mike Barkley wrote:Maybe the best approach will be to help all the bees not just honeybees. Restoring native plants, etc.  



Now that makes my head spin!!! Should I be planting natives from the honeybees homeland, which would be non-native where they are currently living in the Americas?
 
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Mike Barkley
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Should I be planting natives from the honeybees homeland, which would be non-native where they are currently living in the Americas?



That's not what I meant at all. Was suggesting planting/restoring native plants for the native bees. The honeybees have adapted. Will be talking to the state apiarist in a few weeks. Wonder what advice he'll have?
 
Mike Barkley
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I spent the majority of the past week in & around the veggie garden. Paid particular attention to pollinators. Glad to say there are still many. Bumblebees, honey bees, smaller yellowish bees, micro-bees, & what appears to be a different type of bumblebee that goes strictly for pumpkin. They're waiting for those flowers to open at dawn. Have a few pollinator flowers around the outside edge. Butterflies & hummingbirds were constantly present there. Much other insect life in the surrounding area too. Night time sounds like an orchestra of bugs. Don't know if it's less insects than a century or two ago.
 
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Tyler Ludens wrote:This article  https://theconversation.com/bee-battles-why-our-native-pollinators-are-losing-the-war-40620  is about the non-native Wool-carder Bee, not the Honey Bee.




But there is also this:
Wool Carder Bee Not the Terrorist Some People Think It Is.
 
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As always, the story is much more complex than an invasive vs. native dichotomy. Fossil records (https://www.sciencenews.org/article/fossil-shows-first-all-american-honeybee) show honeybees were native to North America as some point, but obviously either went extinct or were reduced in number to such a degree that they were rare. The honeybee lines we have today are indeed descended from bees imported from other areas of the world, but the honeybee that formally existed in North America is very similar to an extinct German honeybee. So those North American bees may have had quite a lot in common with the bees we have today.

Also, honeybees are incredibly adaptive and love many of the native North American plants. If you want to plant native plants for them, great. If you don't care about whether a plant is invasive or native, but rather the niche that plant fills, that's fine too. There are a lot of things to plant for the honey bee.
 
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The imported honey bee does not have adequate predators here in Australia and there are many feral colonies.
Flowering plants are less dense on our dry continent.
It is thought that some displacement or competition could occur, but it looks like there is limited interest in funding the research.

However, the bumblebee was introduced to sea-locked Tasmania 30 years ago and proliferated.
Study found that two species of native bee were displaced.
Perhaps more importantly, the native bees perform pollination services on the natives, whilst the imported bees indiscriminately pollinate weeds and exotics.

While preferencing natives, I don't mind most exotic species, my issue is when we breed disproportionately large populations and then act surprised when disease breaks out.
~100 million domesticated hives (doesn't include feral populations and unregistered hives) estimated to be between 1 and 6 trillion bees.
 
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Do other people find the whole native, non-native, invasive, discussions exhausting?  It seems to me that invasive is just a label tacked onto something to put it automatically in a bad light.  Native and non-native is just as unappealing to me.   How long does a thing have to be somewhere to be native?  100 years?  1,000?  Since the ice age?  Forever?  
 
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Trace Oswald wrote:Do other people find the whole native, non-native, invasive, discussions exhausting?  It seems to me that invasive is just a label tacked onto something to put it automatically in a bad light.  Native and non-native is just as unappealing to me.   How long does a thing have to be somewhere to be native?  100 years?  1,000?  Since the ice age?  Forever?  



Many time an “invasive” is filling a notch, maybe acting as a pioneer plant. Other times it does overtake an environment. Probably a combination of the two. The US government keeps chaining down Pinion pine forest, claiming they are “acting “ as an invasive. It could be just the Pinions reclaiming land originally cut by early miners. Or they could be responding to changes due to climate change. In any case those are my tax dollars at work. I guess they just don’t like trees taking over desert lands. Ya, the cattlemen don’t like the trees, could be the BLM just wants to make the meat packers happy.
 
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Trace Oswald wrote:Do other people find the whole native, non-native, invasive, discussions exhausting?    



Definitely! Though it might be from a different perspective. I know we are not focusing on this forum on the bad things, so I'm only ging to mention it briefly: it pains me to see people using toxic products to get rid of
"invasives", especially near bodies of water.

Tao Orion wrote a very good book on the subject called "Beyond the war on invasive species. A permaculture approach to Ecosystem restoration".
 
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Trace Oswald wrote:Do other people find the whole native, non-native, invasive, discussions exhausting?  It seems to me that invasive is just a label tacked onto something to put it automatically in a bad light.  Native and non-native is just as unappealing to me.   How long does a thing have to be somewhere to be native?  100 years?  1,000?  Since the ice age?  Forever?  



Yes, I think these discussions are tiresome, too, because plants, animals, or whatever, I wonder, too, native to when?

When I think about all of the stuff like this, I think I prefer thinking about it in the terms of "how does this affect my relationships with myself, others, and the world?"
That is more of how I like to think of this stuff. I like to think of it as "what actions will make better communities of plants, animals, and people?"
And I might not know the answers, and I think sometimes letting nature send in the weeds, send in the plaques, and what not might be part of restoring balance.
Because, I think, just for example, Colorado potato beetles wiping out a monocrop of potatoes is a sign from nature that I was doing something wrong.

I also think that separating man from nature is a little inappropriate, because I think that nature created me. So, I think that, perhaps, whatever I do is natural, which is why I think considering it from a relationships perspective, instead of a "natural" perspective is helpful.
 
Mike Barkley
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The thought revealed: Are Honey Bees, whose plight for survival in the wake of Colony Collapse Disorder has captured the hearts and imaginations of progressives and conservatives alike, throughout the world, an invasive species?



Been thinking about this subject more this winter. I consider bees an adaptive species more than an invasive species. The European honey bees were invited guests to this country about 500 years ago. They have provided valuable pollination services as well as fresh honey supplies ever since. We need them now more than ever. We have become dependent on them. Roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of all our food is a direct result of bee pollination. They probably have displaced a few "native" insects along the way but they are likely here to stay. In some respects, that is just nature at work ... survival of the fittest. That's not always fair. But it is what it is.

I needed a plan by this spring. This thread caused me to alter the original plans. Decided to capture all of my swarms if possible & to not install any in hollow logs in the woods until I learn more about the potential consequences. I'm also planting many more wildflowers than anticipated. For ALL the pollinators. We need them all, not just honeybees. If it WANTS to live here, if it CAN live here, then so be it. I will do what I can to help, not hinder their efforts. For what it's worth I don't use chemical treatments & my bees survive fairly well. I concentrate on what I can actually do now to help pollinators rather than on some theoretical solution. For the most part that means give them a nice place to live & then leave them alone. Get 'er done!
 
Jondo Almondo
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nature created me. So, I think that, perhaps, whatever I do is natural



Not everything we do is natural. Nature is trying to sequester carbon, clean water and increase biodiversity and most of what humans do is the polar opposite of that.
Pressures of natural selection aren't what they once were, as we have waged wars on predators both mammal and insect.

We shouldn't forget the ample evidence that humans can be the most beneficial element in an ecosystem or the most destructive.

Maybe it's easier to see in Australia where we've had really destructive blights of species, some of which were stopped with biological controls and elbow-grease, some that couldn't be stopped and have changed the landscape and the fauna completely.
 
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I find the honeybee is a closer match than our native pollinators for pollinating early blooming fruit trees of eurasian origin.  Compared to North America, Eurasia has many more plants (peaches, plum, apricots, magnolias, forsythia, daffodils, tulips, dandelions, henbit, etc.) that bloom very early in the season, at the time when most or all of our native pollinators are still in winter dormancy.  The vast majority of our "bloom before leafing out" plants come from Eurasia.  Honeybees form a perennial colony that starts to build up its population in mid-winter (February) and so is in a position to pollinate the plethora of very early blooming flowers, having had evolved along with them to service them.

Here in upstate SC, my peaches, plums, and apricots (and dandelions) have been blooming for the past 2 weeks with only honeybees visiting them, until just today I saw my first carpenter bee, the first of the native pollinators to appear.  

Bumblebees are practically useless for pollinating these very early blooms since there are only the few overwintering queens around and they won't start to show up in large numbers until late spring, great for pollinating the summer vegetable garden, but not the early stone fruits.  

Many of our native pollinators also have a limited season of activity when the adult solitary bees or wasps are stocking their nests, then they die off, leaving their offspring developing in their nest to produce next year's adults.  Carpenter bees are active pollinating flowers March through May, then are absent through summer until a few start to show up in the fall.  Bumblebees are the best native for continuity through the growing season, but are only available in small numbers to pollinate the very early flowers and no match for the perennial honeybee colony that can fly and pollinate flowers anytime throughout the year when temperatures are high enough for them to fly.
 
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