Is keeping bees bad news for wild pollinators?

30 January 2018

Interview with

Dr Jonas Geldmann - Cambridge University

Who doesn’t like to think of the humble honey bee, buzzing about helpfully pollinating crops and wild plants? Concerns over declines in honeybee populations have resulted in substantial media coverage and a push to up their numbers. But some scientists think that this focus on honey bees could be causing problems for other pollinators. Katie Haylor spoke to one such scientist - Jonas Geldmann from Cambridge University. First, Katie asked why bolstering honey bee populations might mean trouble...

Jonas - Honey bees are, effectively, an agricultural species: we generally have them to produce honey and we have then to pollinate our crops. But when the amount of nectar and pollen from our crops doesn’t match the number of honey bees, they will go and forage in natural habitats in nature all around us, and that can create competition with other pollinator species.

Katie - What kind of other pollinators are we talking about?

Jonas - Primarily bees. But it’s also butterflies, it’s hoverflies that help the natural habitats with the pollination services.

Katie - Do we have an idea of how much responsibility these wild pollinators bear in the terms of the services they provide?

Jonas - I guess there’s two aspects to that: in terms of the actual agriculture where we depend on our honey bees, there are studies that show that as much as 50% of the pollination services could, potentially, be delivered by our wild pollinators, so they could play a major role there. Outside of our crops they could, potentially, be responsible for all of the pollination.

Katie - Okay. So managed honey bees are affecting the resources that are available to these other wild pollinators, is there anything else that we should be concerned about?

Jonas - Honey bees also carry a lot of diseases that they can transmit to wild pollinators simply because they share the same flowers. It’s almost the same as if have a candy bowl on a table that’s sort of equivalent of the flower, and if one person who’s sick eats a bit of candy out of that, the next person who’s going to take some candy is likely to have a higher risk of being sick as well.

Katie - Oh dear. 

Jonas - Yeah. I think it’s important to say this potentially is a problem in some of our very resource poor habitats where most of our threatened pollinators are. The biggest problems to pollinators, both the managed honey bee and the wild pollinators is still intensive agriculture it’s pesticides, it’s this simplification of the landscape that leaves less and less wildflowers around for both the honey bees and the wild pollinators to forage on. But, when that’s the case, there will be areas where the wild pollinators will likely be additionally threatened by the fact that there are honey bees.

Katie - What can we do to address this balance?

Jonas - In the areas where we have set aside land for nature and for biodiversity, we probably shouldn’t have honey bees and this probably includes a buffer. Honey bees can forage as much as 10 kilometres away from their hives, generally less, but they can move that far away so it will likely require a buffer. In the areas where that’s not the case I think there’s a need to assess what the actual need is for honey bees. Right now, because there’s a fairly large disconnect between the farmers who need pollination services and the predominantly hobby type of honey bee keepers, there’s no coordination between what actually is the needs for pollinating services from the honey bees and for the number of honey bees, and this is obviously in space but also in time. Many of these agricultural crops are in bloom for a very short period of the year.

Katie - So a more strategic matching of the number of managed honey bees compared to the wild pollinators.

Jonas - Yes

Chris - What is the comparison when one considers the impact of people keeping a few bees - a few million bees - compared with farmers with intensive agricultural methods, pesticides, other kinds of chemicals that are going on those fields, is it not just kind of David and Goliath?

Jonas - It’s another complicated question. In much of western Europe, the United Kingdom including, biodiversity is in a massive crisis. We’re seeing declines of insects way beyond the pollinators and this is likely largely because of an intensive agriculture that both takes up a huge amount of area where there is growing nothing but one single type of crop, they’re clearing out the areas around the fields and they’re using pesticides that kills almost anything that’s on the field and is likely to have an impact outside of the field. This is obviously across almost any organism the biggest problem for nature. But honey bees are an exceptionally effective pollinator and collector of nectar, so in areas where there are absolutely no agriculture but where there are very pristine nature, very valuable nature, and people are putting these honey bee hives in, they are having an impact on the native wild pollinators and they’re having it for no good reason. So I think it is a place that is still worth exploring even though it’s by no means the biggest challenge to nature in the UK or anywhere else in the world really.


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