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The Birds & the Bees...

You will have undoubtedly seen the reports in the news recently around our declining bird populations. Us bee-thusiasts aren't blinkered enough to believe that bees are the only species suffering, and we appreciate that the root causes tend to be interlinked. Essentially we need to stop taking the world for granted and be more considerate in our choices, whether that's a choice not to use pesticides, or one to buy with a genuinely environmentally conscientious company, or a choice to walk a short journey instead of driving, or to pack a carrier bag to use when we go shopping. There are small things we can do to help, just a little.

But imagine if in response to the issue of declining wild bird populations, we were all encouraged to get chickens for our back gardens. That wouldn't feel like an entirely appropriate solution, surely? I absolutely love chickens; I had some when I was a child - there's something really therapeutic about watching them and listening to them gently clucking as they scrabble around for morsels. (Margaret Scratcher used to sit on my lap whilst I watched TV and stroked her). And who doesn't like the feeling of finding a warm fresh free-range egg waiting for them to collect? But those of us who keep chickens aren't under any illusion that doing so supports our general bird populations.

The chickens analogy has been doing the rounds in entomology circles for quite a while from what I can gather, as has 'saving wildlife by getting a herd of cattle', but when a point is made so well, it doesn't seem necessary to reinvent the wheel.

Now, this is a blog about bees, so where am I going with this? Well, as beloved as honeybees (apis mellifera) are to many of us, they are actually farmed, and have been introduced by us humans. I'd guess if you asked 8/10 people in the UK their thoughts on bees, they'd mention honey. Bumblebees and other wild bees, don't make honey (there's a slight disclaimer against that statement but to all intents and purposes, they do not make honey that we can harvest).

Well-meaning individuals and companies, have heard the 'save the bees' message and understandably want to help. (Well, some businesses genuinely want to help, and some want to be seen to be helping - but that's a topic for a different blog piece about 'Jumping on the Bee Bandwagon'.) Honeybees, because they are a business that brings in income for their owners, are well-funded and supported on the marketing front. There are many supporting bodies for beekeepers and their livestock. 'Well that's great' you may say 'helping honeybees will also help other bees too, right..?' but sadly, that isn't always the case.

What I must point out before I go any further, is that I do believe there is a place for honeybees and responsible beekeepers in our ecosystem. On Twitter I've encountered and am following some really enlightened and sensible beekeepers who understand their potential impact on our native bees, The issue I have a 'bee in my bonnet' about, is that getting honeybees is seen/peddled as a solution to 'saving bees' and that as a result, honeybee colonies are popping up all over, without planting to support them or consideration to the existing pollinator populations.

Apis mellifera, the European honeybee

Please remember that I write my blogs as entry-level reading for anyone with an interest in bees. My aim is to communicate my basic understanding of the issues, and perhaps act as a platform to bounce some of you into more detailed reading. I'm going to make some statements, and at the end, pop in a number of links to articles and scientific papers which between them will support these statements. You don't need to take my word for it.

Introducing honeybees to a location pushes out native pollinators. Anyone claiming to have 'increased biodiversity' simply by bringing in an apiary, is in fact negatively affecting the native pollinators in the area. There are a few issues where honeybees are concerned.

  • The first is super easy to understand - their presence increases the competition for the existing flowers. You order a pizza for yourself and it arrives. Your neighbours swing by to say hello and help themselves to your precious pizza; you are left with a much smaller amount of pizza and you are hungry. If only your neighbours had brought their own pizza with them.

  • The second is swarming. This is related to the pizza. Well, to the abundance of food. Some more visitors arrive - there's clearly not enough pizza to go around - the popular girl says she's off to the kebab place and a load of others head off after her. Some cities, including London, have seen a huge increase in the number of urban apiaries. A single apiary can contain an average of 35,000 to 40,000 honeybees (this drops to around 5,000 over winter), and requires about one hectare (that's approximately the size on an international rugby pitch) of appropriate habitat to support it. And the flowering needs to support the bees for most of the year. When a company puts a hive on its rooftop to 'help the bees', where's the planting to support them? They may assume that a nearby park will see to the bees' needs, but what about the business across the road from them, doing the same thing? And the one just down the road? Swarming is occurring in cities because honeybee colonies are not finding enough food, and their queens head off to find a better location. Her loyal subjects follow her, and we end up with urban swarms.

  • The third issue is that research has shown that honeybee diseases can pass through flower visitation, to other bees. Your neighbour with an awful cold sneezes on the pizza whilst you are in the loo. You are unaware and return to grab a slice... You don't need me waffling on to explain how that isn't ideal.

I don't hate honeybees; I was touched that this one climbed on to me; I just want to spread the word that getting a hive doesn't 'save the bees'.

There's a company bombarding me on Facebook right now with advertisements for a Kickstarter project, which is cashing in on people's eagerness to 'save the bees' and appealing to their sense of laziness and wish to receive something tangible, by selling them a contraption which contains a honeybee colony and can be placed in urban areas, even balconies. There are comments from concerned 'proper' beekeepers who are worried about the health of the colonies, the inexperience of the contraption-keepers, and them just taking all the honey produced leaving nothing for the bees, and of course comments from people like myself who don't want to see native bees pushed out by the thoughtless plonking of yet another apis mellifera colony in a location without planting to support it. And yet it seems to be very successful. It has more 'likes' and 'shares' than you can shake a stick at. It is great that there is so much support out there for 'bees', but we need people to understand that getting a honeybee hive isn't how to do it.

How can we get the message out there? Bumblebees and wild native bees don't put money directly into people's pockets as honeybees do. They aren't a business. And they therefore don't have the funding and PR team that honeybees do. You have probably heard of 'B' on Instagram? The well funded 'bee_nfluencer' account features a honeybee, which lays claim to pollinating pretty much everything. The fact that some of the things are pollinated by bumblebees, flies and other pollinators, doesn't seem to matter. Sure enough, the first project to receive funding from the endeavour, is a honeybee one. The account has a quarter of a million followers; testament to what can be achieved with a decent social media budget. It is much harder for charities to make an impact in this way; if you were donating to a small charity, you wouldn't necessarily expect your money to be spent on generating a CGI character and someone maintaining a social media account for it.

The only charity solely to dedicate itself to the interests of bumblebees is the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, but there are some other cracking charities who have similar and overlapping interests; Buglife, the Butterfly Conservation Trust, the Bat Conservation Trust, the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, Plantlife and the RSPB. These organisations have come together as part of the Rethink Nature initiative and now I know of its existence, I am looking forward to seeing what they can achieve together. Social media can be a powerful tool and it has done wonders for all manner of causes. I'm trying to do my bit with this humble, basic blog, and I've also made some memes to help spread the word. I'd be bee-lighted to see any others that people have made and don't mind me sharing. Perhaps I'll end up with a bee-meme gallery for us to pull from.

Some Relevant Twitter Accounts:

  • I've stumbled upon Charlotte de Keyzer, a blogger and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, on Twitter @cwdekeyzer; her term 'Beewashing' resonates with me and my frustration at the notion of companies 'Jumping on the Bee Bandwagon' - her term is far more succinct!

  • I also follow Api:Cultural @apiculturalLdn - one of those responsible and aware beekeepers I mentioned earlier. I have a huge amount of respect for this chap's approach to bees and the environment.

  • Steven Falk @StevenFalk1 is often the voice of fact and reason on threads discussing bees. He really knows his stuff. I was a bit of a fan-girl when I met him (see my previous post on the BBCT AGM.)

I think at some point I may put a post together to suggest some bee related Twitter accounts to follow, as I keep coming up with more accounts I'd like to share with you.

Some Papers/Articles for Further Reading:

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Nov 17, 2019

An excellent blog very well balanced and based on facts so well done.

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