Wednesday, June 8, 2016

There’s more to bees than just honey

This piece appeared in thespec.com on May 25th, June 2016

Honey — I could take it or leave it. But many of us love the sweet taste of that sticky mess honeybees make from the nectar they gather from flowers. And now that bees and other pollinators are on the decline, efforts across the world are stepping up to do something about it.

It's not just that we won't have honey anymore if we lose the honeybees; the concern is also that we will lose pollination — a far more serious issue, as it affects food production.

But here's the thing: if we lost our honeybees today, we would still have pollination.

In Ontario alone, there are over 400 species of wild bees — and surprise! They are pollinators too!

"Typically all agricultural pollination that involves bees assumes that it is done by honeybees," laments bee expert, Dr. Laurence Packer (Professor of Biology at York University). "In Britain, that is not the case because there are not enough hives to account for production."

While in North America, the fields are much larger, "We actually don't know how much other pollinators contribute to production." But because the livelihood of beekeepers depends on the honeybee, if colonies die off, it's a problem.

Here's the thing — according to Packer, honeybees are good at pollinating due to their sheer numbers. "Take 10,000 foraging bees. The overall effect is going to be positive even if they are each doing a bad job on a per visit basis. Individually, they are less effective than a lot of other pollinators/bees."



Packer says that when it comes to backyard veggies, we don't need honeybees. He grows plenty of vegetables in his own garden and there are no beehives in sight.

As well, some vegetables, take squashes are best pollinated by a specialized native bee — the hoary squash bee. Tomatoes are best pollinated by bumblebees (they have strong muscles and shake the flowers).

So what of the campaign to get beehives in the city for "more pollination and better food production," as a Hamilton beekeeping duo are pitching (See The Spectator story from the April 13 edition.)

"I think they have their place but not in every one's backyard. At that density, the honeybees will starve because there won't be enough flowers for them. Honeybees will also outcompete the native bees and so we need areas where there are no honeybee hives," Packer says.

Packer proposes a survey of native bees be conducted for at least two years — to get baseline data — before putting hives in the city. Then we can study the impact of honeybees on native bees in the city. His advice is to avoid putting out hives near bee biodiversity hot spots (such as in parks on sandy soil).

The fact is, honeybees take the available resources very efficiently and as a result, that impacts the abundance and diversity of wild bees.

"If we have a situation where honeybees outcompete other pollinators and a disease wipes out most of the honeybees, who is going to be left to do the pollination?" Packer asks. "It's dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket."

Are honeybees harmful to native bees?

Brenda Van Ryswyk, a Natural Heritage ecologist with Conservation Halton, is concerned about the lack of understanding by people even knowing that we have native bees. Most people are surprised to learn the European Honeybee is not native to North America and is certainly not our only pollinator. "We don't understand the impacts of honeybees on wild bees because the honeybees are well studied and native pollinators often are not."

When it comes to backyard apiaries, Van Ryswyk says that it makes sense if you are a coop or restaurant wanting to provide local honey but the idea that honeybees are environmentally friendly? "There is no evidence of that and it may indeed be the opposite," Van Ryswyk says. "There is no environmental reason to need more honeybees. They were brought over by settlers. Their main purpose is to gather nectar to make honey — honey for us."

It's also easier to study honeybees, according to Van Ryswyk: "The colony is easy to observe. Native bees, being solitary are really hard to study."

As well as concern over the competition for nectar in urban areas as noted above, the 30 metres away from a property line bylaw shows only how far from a property line they must be, not how close a hive is to any other hive. The registration of hives with the province is mainly used as tracking the number of active bee hives, is how Van Ryswyk understands it. And with no regulation or management for spacing of honeybee hives, there is the danger of oversaturating the areas — as such, affecting neighbouring hives. And then there is the unknown effects on our wild native bees "Pathogens spillover, parasites fungus, mites — all these haven't been studied much in relation to native bees," she says.

Van Ryswyk also questions the aforementioned article that claims, "the city is devoid of the deadly neonicotinoid insecticide found in farming areas."

"I fear this may not be true — I do not know of any hard data to base this comment on, it is a false assumption that agriculture is the only area these pesticides are used," she argues.

Van Ryswyk points to a study that showed big box ornamental flowers had neonicotinoid content at 82 micrograms per kilogram in plants, one sample as high as 750 micrograms per kilogram. In agriculture, neonicotinoid levels average at 50 grams per kilogram, "So we can't make these assumptions." Neonics are still on store shelves or plants we purchase and we often just don't know it. The study showed that in London, Ontario, 100 per cent of ornamental flowers that this study tested had neonicotinoid contents.

Van Ryswyk agrees with Packer that the emphasis for pollination is pretty "untrue." "We designed agricultural practices at such a huge scale so that the honeybee is the only bee that can cover that scale. It's the scale and methods that makes agriculture dependent on the honeybee."

Van Ryswyk quotes a story about one squash farmer she heard off who took out the hedgerows around his farm and "cleaned up" the field for many years. As a result, his production went down even after he started renting honeybee hives for pollination. When the farmer learned about the native Squash bee, he worked with a group to replant hedgerows on his farm for pollinator habitat. After replanting the hedgerows he stopped having to rent the honeybees and his production increased by 30% (production increased even with the decrease in land area farmed!).

"Media has focused on the honeybee because it is a crop that has a lot of money involved and they are easily monitored," Van Ryswyk concludes. "But we need our native bees too."

Beatrice Ekoko is a freelance writer based in Hamilton.