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Think of honey bees as ‘live­stock’ not wildlife, argue experts

pub­lished 10 Feb­ru­ary 2018 | mod­i­fied 10 Feb­ru­ary 2018

Con­trary to pub­lic per­cep­tion, die-​offs in honey bee colonies are an agri­cul­tural not a con­ser­va­tion issue, argue Cam­bridge researchers, who say that man­aged honey bees may con­tribute to the gen­uine bio­di­ver­sity cri­sis of Europe’s declin­ing wild pollinators.

Honey beesHoney bee for­agers loaded with pollen on the hive land­ing board.
Image in the pub­lic domain

The ‘die-​off’ events occur­ring in honey bee colonies that are bred and farmed like live­stock must not be con­fused with the con­ser­va­tion cri­sis of dra­matic declines in thou­sands of wild pol­li­na­tor species, say Cam­bridge researchers.

The con­ser­va­tion­ists argue, in an arti­cle pub­lished on 26 Jan­u­ary in the jour­nal Sci­ence, there is a ‘lack of dis­tinc­tion’ in pub­lic under­stand­ing — fuelled by mis­guided char­ity cam­paigns and media reports — between an agri­cul­tural prob­lem and an urgent bio­di­ver­sity issue.

In fact, they say domes­ti­cated honey bees actu­ally con­tribute to wild bee declines through resource com­pe­ti­tion and spread of dis­ease, with so-​called envi­ron­men­tal ini­tia­tives pro­mot­ing honey bee-​keeping in cities or, worse, pro­tected areas far from agri­cul­ture, only likely to exac­er­bate the loss of wild pollinators.

The cri­sis in global pol­li­na­tor decline has been asso­ci­ated with one species above all, the west­ern honey bee. Yet this is one of the few pol­li­na­tor species that is con­tin­u­ally replen­ished through breed­ing and agri­cul­ture,” said co-​author Dr Jonas Geld­mann from Cam­bridge University’s Depart­ment of Zoology.

Sav­ing the honey bee does not help wildlife. West­ern honey bees are a com­mer­cially man­aged species that can actu­ally have neg­a­tive effects on their imme­di­ate envi­ron­ment through the mas­sive num­bers in which they are introduced.

Lev­els of wild pol­li­na­tors, such as species of soli­tary bum­ble bee, moth and hov­er­fly, con­tinue to decline at an alarm­ing rate. Cur­rently, up to 50% of all Euro­pean bee species are threat­ened with extinc­tion,” Geld­mann said.

Honey bees are vital for many crops — as are wild pol­li­na­tors, with some assess­ments sug­gest­ing wild species pro­vide up to half the needed “pol­li­na­tor ser­vices” for the three-​quarters of glob­ally impor­tant crops that require pollination.

How­ever, gen­er­at­ing honey bee colonies for crop pol­li­na­tion is prob­lem­atic. Major flow­er­ing crops such as fruits and oilseed rape bloom for a period of days or weeks, whereas honey bees are active for nine to twelve months and travel up to 10km from their hives.

This results in mas­sive “spillover” from farmed honey bees into the land­scape, poten­tially out-​competing wild pol­li­na­tors. A recent study by the co-​author of today’s Sci­ence arti­cle, Dr Juan P. González-​Varo, showed honey bee lev­els in wood­lands of south­ern Spain to be eight times higher after orange tree crops fin­ish blooming.

Keep­ing honey bees is an extrac­tive activ­ity. It removes pollen and nec­tar from the envi­ron­ment, which are nat­ural resources needed by many wild species of bee and other pol­li­na­tors,” said González-​Varo.

Honey bees are artificially-​bred agri­cul­tural ani­mals sim­i­lar to live­stock such as pigs and cows. Except this live­stock can roam beyond any enclo­sures to dis­rupt local ecosys­tems through com­pe­ti­tion and disease.

Dr Juan P. González-​Varo, co-​author, Con­ser­va­tion Sci­ence Group, Depart­ment of Zool­ogy, Uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge, UK

As with other inten­sively farmed ani­mals, over­crowd­ing and homo­ge­neous diets have depressed bee immune sys­tems and sent pathogen rates soar­ing in com­mer­cial hives. Dis­eases are trans­ferred to wild species when bees feed from the same flow­ers, sim­i­lar to germs pass­ing between humans through a shared cof­fee cup.

This puts added pres­sure on endan­gered wild Euro­pean bee species such as the great yel­low bum­ble bee, which was once found across the UK but has lost 80% of its range in the last half cen­tury, and is now lim­ited to coastal areas of Scotland.

Both wild and cul­ti­vated pol­li­na­tors are afflicted by pes­ti­cides such as neon­i­coti­noids, as well as other anthro­pogenic effects — from loss of hedgerows to cli­mate change — which drive the much-​publicised die-​offs among farmed bees and the decline in wild pol­li­na­tor species over the last few decades.

Honey bee colony die-​offs are likely to be a ‘canary in the coalmine’ that is mir­rored by many wild pol­li­na­tor species. The atten­tion on honey bees may help raise aware­ness, but action must also be directed towards our threat­ened species,” said Geldmann.

The past decade has seen an explo­sion in research on honey bee loss and the dan­gers posed to crops. Yet lit­tle research has been done to under­stand wild native pol­li­na­tor declines, includ­ing the poten­tial neg­a­tive role of man­aged honey bees.”

Geld­mann and González-​Varo rec­om­mend poli­cies to limit the impact of man­aged hon­ey­bees, includ­ing hive size lim­its, the mov­ing of colonies to track the bloom of dif­fer­ent crops, and greater con­trols on man­aged hives in pro­tected areas.

Honey bees may be nec­es­sary for crop pol­li­na­tion, but bee­keep­ing is an agrar­ian activ­ity that should not be con­fused with wildlife con­ser­va­tion,” they write.

This arti­cle has been repub­lished under Cre­ative Com­mons.

(Source: Uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge news release, 25.01.2018)

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