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Position Statement on the keeping of honeybees

Bees & Co. was founded by honeybee farmer, Jez Rose. A student of the Cornell University Master Beekeeper program, our beekeeping practice is ethical, sustainable and science-led. There are many inaccurate reports regarding managed honeybees and its ethics; this position statement aims to set out our position on our approach to managing honeybee colonies and some of the most common misinformation surrounding managed honeybees.

Context

Bees & Co. is a small honeybee farm. Unlike many commercial honeybee farmers, we do not primarily manage honeybees for the commercial production of honey. Our primary objectives are in conservation and education. We only rear and manage the honeybee stock that is native to Britain and much of Europe: Apis mellifera mellifera. This bee was once native to the area north of the Pyrenees and Alps, right across Europe to the Ural mountains. A dramatic rise in the importation and cross-breeding of honeybees began taking place in the middle of the 19th Century, resulting in genetic hybridisation. The native honeybee population soon began to be replaced by imported and hybridised stock. Today native stocks are far outnumbered and organisations such as the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association consider the native honeybee to be rare.

Our critical pollinator population is far from safe. A number of complex factors have resulted in widespread losses of nature across Britain and according to leading scientists, an estimated 50-75% abundant global decline. Research programs and academics are actively trying to better understand what we can do about it. We must do something to support the native honeybee population, and indeed all pollinators that our existence relies so heavily on.

Declines and a Complex Situation

We have seen since 1900 an overall decline in the number of managed honeybee colonies; some report as much as a 75% decline across Britain. Within recent years, from 2011 to 2015, there was, according to the National Bee Unit, an apparent  resurgence in beekeeping and an increase in the number of managed honeybee colonies in Britain. The research data is provided by an optional online survey beekeepers are encouraged to complete. The data does not state the type of honeybee kept by each beekeeper, however, it is widely regarded that the native British bee population remains rare, with other honeybee stocks much more widely available to purchase. The answer is not to simply keep more honeybees, but encouraging the public to at least consider pollinators when planting, or in their gardening practice (omitting the use of chemical weed killers, for example) and to discover ways to bring people closer to Nature. For us, beekeeping is a wonderful way of achieving that.

The situation, however, is a complex one. In short, a number of factors are threatening honeybee (and indeed wider pollinator) health: lack of abundant forage (compromised by building sites; intensive farming; chemical pesticides etc); the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides; destruction of habitat; novel diseases (many introduced by the importation of honeybees).

Commercial Bee Farming Practices

We accept that each individual and business is entitled to their own view of the world, and has their own way of doing things. We actively encourage the sharing of knowledge in a safe, productive and kind environment to benefit all. We want to be clear about what our “way of doing things” looks like here for us. We do not condone the practice of mass commercial bee farming that includes the movement of colonies from forage site to forage site. Nor do we approve of mass siting of honeybee colonies in one geographic area. Honeybees thrive best with access to a wide range of dietary forage sources. We have concerns about the unnecessary stress placed on honeybee colonies when subjected to constant migration to multiple pollination sites. We do not condone the harvesting of royal jelly or pollen and consider these unethical and entirely unnecessary practices.

“Honeybees aren’t native”

Honeybees (Apis mellifera mellifera) are in fact native to most of Europe, as outlined above. There are non-native stocks of honeybees, which are kept by beekeepers in Britain, such as Carniolan, which are not native. The hybridised stocks such as Buckfast, are also not native. However, Apis mellifera has competed and found balance with the various pollinator species from a regional and geographical environmental perspective.

“Honeybees spread disease”

All pollinating insects by virtue of their existence and method of pollination, spread disease; chemical insecticide/fungicide/pesticide residue as well as myriad other spores, such as fungus. The more important focus and statement should be on the impact chemicals are having on all pollinating insects and the uncontrollable spread of this chemical residue through pollination. We know more about honeybee health than we do wild pollinator health by virtue of how closely humans work and manage honeybee colonies. Honeybees have for millennia been – and continue to be – a critical component of the eco system and food chain, but the recent threat of diseases which honeybees are impacted by is something research teams and academics are well aware of and continue to research to find a solution for. Clearly, it isn’t possible to simply stop managing honeybee colonies, however, beekeepers have a responsibility to practice clean, hygienic and safe beekeeping, with an increased focus on an integrated pest and disease management program actively in use in their beekeeping practice.

“Honeybees compete with wild pollinators for resources”

It is often found that honeybees are literally not in direct competition, utilising different resources as they fulfil different niches in their environments. That is what we would expect from an evolutionary perspective. An argument often heard is that if honeybees forage on pollen Type A and have 60,000 bees in a colony, but a native bumblebee species also forages on pollen Type A, and only has 400 bees in a colony, the honeybees will starve out the native pollinators. The reality is that there is a wide variety of forage sources naturally available (nowhere near as much as there was, with an estimated 97% decrease in wild flower meadows in the UK) and some pollinators have forage preferences and specialities: it isn’t simply a free for all buffet that the honeybees are stealing. The native honeybee to Britain, Apis mellifera mellifera, is suited to our climate and therefore more natural self-regulating and frugal with food stores. They have an anatomically shorter proboscis that some of the imported honeybee stocks do, preventing them from draining a nectar from flowers with taller nectaries.

Bumblebees pollinate tomato plants but no other pollinator does. Honeybees, while adaptive, have specific forage preferences. The decline in pollinator populations is complex and one source cannot be cited as the sole reason because it simply isn’t the case. A more productive and useful discussion is around the balance of maintaining a healthy honeybee population, both in terms of colony health and population numbers, whilst ensuring that population works sympathetically and symbiotically alongside fellow pollinating species. Considered placing of honeybee hives is one simple way we help to manage this, ensuring smaller apiaries of approximately 10 hives, whilst simultaneously planting pollinator-friendly organic flower seed mixes. However, the broader evidence demonstrates that Apis mellifera is a broad pollinator; less effective generally than the top performing non-Apis mellifera pollinators, and in the first quantitive synthesis study of its kind globally, found:

A. mellifera appears to be the most important, single species of pollinator across the natural systems studied, owing to its wide distribution, generalist foraging behaviour and competence as a pollinator….. We quantify for the first time, to our knowledge, that despite the global distribution and often high local abundance of A. mellifera, it is a frequent visitor to only a minority of insect-pollinated plant species. Even in networks where more than half of all visits are contributed by A. mellifera, approximately 16% of the plant species, on average, receive fewer than 10% of their visits from A. mellifera” 

There are many compelling arguments to save Nature and we support many of those. For example, other native pollinators, including bumblebees, also demand attention for conversation. We are not specious in our approach, however, our attention and resources are obviously focused on the native honeybee.

Data

State of Nature Report published by the National Biodiversity Network (2019)

Hallmann CA, Sorg M, Jongejans E, Siepel H, Hofland N, Schwan H, et al. (2017) More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0185809.

Natural England (2011)

The UK Bee Population (House of Commons Library, 2017)

UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences (2018)

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