Opinion: when people talk about bees, they are usually referring to honeybees and not the 20,000 other bee species in need of some love

By Stephanie Maher, Teagasc

Bees have been on quite a public relations journey over the last 20 years. From being once seen as the scourge of picnics and school playgrounds, the mere implication that you might consider swatting a nearby, buzzing bee is probably more taboo these days than criticism of the pope!

The message that we should "save the bees" has got through to people. In 2018, a viral story emerged of a woman in Scotland who had become best friends with a bumblebee and was applauded for her efforts. From breakfast cereal to graffiti artists, society has come to the conclusion that bees need help and they need it now.

Or do they? The fact is when people talk about bees, they are implicitly referring to honeybees, specifically the managed Western honeybee (Apis mellifera). This is the species of bee occupying beekeepers' hives up and down Ireland and many countries around the world. And guess what? It’s doing just fine.

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From Lyric FM's Nature File, Anja Murry on the 20 different type of native bumblebees in Ireland

In fact, the honeybee is doing a little too fine in many places. In 2020, the London Beekeepers' Association published a report on the London Bee Situation in which they detailed the unprecedented and completely unsustainable rise in the number of bee hives being kept in London. Numbers there have more than doubled over the last ten years.

The situation is similar here in Ireland. According to the Beekeepers Census 2019, the number of beekeepers grew by 41% between 2016 and 2019 and the number of colonies by 26%. Similar trends have been recorded elsewhere in the world and current estimates put the number of managed hives on the planet to be in excess of 90 million. Suffice to say, both in this country, and further afield, honeybees are not in decline.

So what’s the deal then? Can we stop worrying about bees? Is it a case of a job well done and time to enjoy some honey on toast? Well, managed honeybees are not the beginning or the end of the story when it comes to bee decline and it’s actually the 20,000 (ish) other species of bee on the planet that we need to be paying attention to. They actually do need our help.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Mooney Goes Wild, ecologist Dr. Karina Dingerkus on the steep decline of Irish Great Yellow Bumblebee population

Let's take a moment to consider the thousands of other bee species out there. Far from being a homogenous group, there is incredible diversity within bees. First of all, not all bees live in a hive and, indeed, the vast majority of bee species don’t do this. This is because most species of bee are solitary and every female builds her own nest and provides her offspring with food, all by herself.

What about queens? Much like in modern human society, they are uncommon in bee species as most are solitary and not social species. While all female bees have a modified egg laying body part used for stinging, these are so tiny for many species that their sting is too weak to break human skin so no, not all bees can sting you.

How about those characteristic black and yellow stripes that adorn any child’s artistic interpretation of a bee? The truth is bee species vary widely in their appearance from the blood red Sphecodes bees to the stunning iridescence of the orchid bees (found in North, Central and South America).

This diversity of species, this diversity of life, is incredibly important. Flowering plants evolved alongside this diversity of bees that pollinate them and the perpetuation of rich floral communities depends on the presence of rich pollinator communities.

For example, tomatoes, the key to an incalculable number of delicious dishes, rely solely on bumblebees for pollination. This is because only bumblebees can perform buzz pollination, vibrating their bodies at exactly the right frequency to shake the pollen loose from the anthers of the tomato plant. A fan of courgette or butternut squash? Well, you have the aptly named squash bees to thank for those summery forkfuls.

Getting a bee hive to save the bees is like keeping chickens to save wild birds

But wild bee species are in decline around the world. Here in Ireland, one third of our 100 bee species are threatened. Scientific consensus is that these threats are formed by a heady cocktail of pressures; pesticide use, agricultural intensification, habitat loss, climate change and invasive species. There is also evidence that honeybees in areas of high hive density and/or low floral availability outcompete native, wild bees for food, further twisting the knife for many wild bee species. Honeybees can also introduce pests and pathogens that native wild bees have had no exposure to, with potentially devastating consequences.

This picture is a complex one. Responsible beekeepers are some of the greatest advocates and actors in bee conservation. In many cases, honeybees are crucial for effective crop pollination and we would be lost without them. If keeping bees helps to engage more people with our natural world in a meaningful way, that in itself is valuable. But, there’s a popular saying within bee circles: "getting a bee hive to save the bees is like keeping chickens to save wild birds". Perhaps that’s just something to keep in mind.

Dr Stephanie Maher is a Research Officer at Teagasc interested in bees, agriculture and biodiversity. She is an Irish Research Council awardee.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ