Diversity Really Is the Bee’s Knees

Backyard beekeeping seems like a solution amidst threats to pollinators, but is our emphasis on one type of bee making things worse?


People are rightfully concerned about the welfare of our pollinators, but are most policy makers and backyard beekeepers helping out the wrong kind of bees?

Bees are threatened by everything from pesticides to climate change, and their decline is a big problem for many crops and other plants that rely on them for reproduction. But the imported European honeybees that most people know are not actually at risk, and they may be taking resources away from the many native bee species that are.

That’s a problem because native pollinators are usually better at pollination. Even within commercial bee raising, bumblebees are used in place of honeybees for crops like eggplants and tomatoes because for those plants, bumblebees do a better job of shaking pollen free.

Also, diversity is what will provide the best odds of resilience in the face of warming climates and disease. There are tens of thousands of wild bee species worldwide that aren’t so easy to domesticate and raise.

Most native bees live solitary lives as ground dwellers instead of in colonies. They don’t make honey, but they also don’t sting, and they can be almost unrecognizable to the average person as bees. They can even have brilliant iridescent colours like blues and greens.

This anonymity when it comes to bee status works against them. In truth, European honeybees are an invasive species in North America. Targeting conservation efforts at honeybees as a blanket effort for all pollinators is not a balanced approach. Sheila Colla, assistant professor of environmental studies at York University, likens it to introducing invasive Asian carp into a lake to save the fish.

There are tens of thousands of native bee species worldwide, and some may be unrecognizable to the average person as bees.

That’s what makes the boom in backyard beekeeping sting. Under the misguided veil of ecological activism, there are hundreds of thousands of backyard hives in Canada and many more for commercial pollination. Each colony can include tens of thousands of bees. And the truth is that we don’t yet understand how this impacts native bees who need many of the same resources to survive.

Calgary beekeeper Ron Miksha and University of Calgary professor Lawrence Harder enlisted citizen volunteers to help them learn more.

Their 90 volunteers across Calgary are offering space in their backyards for empty bumblebee houses and leafcutter bee boards. These will be monitored and each volunteer site will be compared to see how wild bee occupancy is affected by the number of nearby managed beehives.

Pollen will then be harvested from both the volunteer nests and managed beehives to see if they share pollen from the same flower species, and are therefore in direct competition.

The results aren’t in yet, but unrestricted growth in backyard hives cannot be sustainable. Entomologists at the Université de Montréal and McGill University are already calling for municipal control over their numbers.

For citizens concerned for their local native bees, the best way to help is not to raise more honeybees, but to create more habitats. Planting native flowers and vegetables can be a big help. Gardeners might also keeps areas of soil undisturbed, and even maintain a few unraked leaves or twigs, to help native bees find a place to burrow.

Beekeeping can be a benefit; we rely on honeybees for agriculture. But it’s also possible to have too much of a good thing. Continued research will help define sustainable limits.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.