Which honeybees are declining and which are not?

Over the weekend there was a discussion on Twitter about “beewashing” that was spun out of this tweet by London beekeeper Richard Glassborow. Richard and his colleagues are some of the most responsible beekeepers that I know and they are getting increasingly frustrated by claims from irresponsible companies that keeping a hive of bees in your garden will help to “save the bees”, backed up by spurious claims that “honeybee colonies are dying out”.

The Twitter exchange prompted me to produce the Condescending Wonka meme that you see above because, as I discussed in my recent book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, pollinator conservation is a really complex area. But there’s no doubt that beekeeping as it’s being widely promoted is not the answer to bee conservation. Let me explain why.

The word “honeybee” does not refer to just one species. It’s most often* applied to bees in the genus Apis, especially the Western Honeybee Apis mellifera, but there are another seven or so Apis species to which the word can be applied. Of those other Apis species, most have never been domesticated and they live as free-living colonies is the various parts of Asia where they evolved. Only Apis cerana is kept in hives, as far as I am aware. The conservation status of most of these other Apis species is unclear but given that they are predominantly forest species, and deforestation is a chronic problem in Asia, we can surmise that some species may be declining. If you want to know more about them the Wikipedia page is a good starting point.

In this short post I just want to consider the Western Honeybee (Apis mellifera). This is a really knotty species to get to grips with because there are multiple subspecies and within subspecies there are various genetic lineages. In addition, the Western Honeybee has been subject to artificial selection for desirable qualities, such as docility, amount of honey produced per hive, and disease resistance, as well as cross-breeding between different subspecies**. The best recent summary of our current understanding of Western Honeybee genetics and conservation is this 2019 review by Fabrice Requier and colleagues, from which I’ve drawn quite a bit of information.

For the purposes of this explaining what’s going on, it’s easiest to think about the species as comprising three “megapopulations”:

Western Honeybees that are managed in hives: For the most part these are not endangered. Britain has as many hives now as it did in the mid-1950s and indeed globally we have more hives than ever (about 90 million hives at the last count). They are found far beyond their natural range and have been introduced into places where they are not native such as the Americas, parts of Asia, and Australia. STATUS: doing just fine.

Western Honeybees that have founded “feral” colonies: These have escaped from hives in countries where they have been introduced and become naturalised. They are doing well, too well in fact: they are a significant conservation issue in places like Australia. STATUS: doing just fine.

Western Honeybees that are living wild in their native range: This is where things become a little muddier. The African populations of the various subspecies seem to be doing well, but more studies are needed to confirm this. In Europe, actually defining what constitutes “wild” honeybees across a region where a lot of selection and hybridization has gone on, probably for thousands of years, is tricky. However there’s no doubt that wild colonies of Apis mellifera are not uncommon in suitable woodland: see this paper about free-living colonies in Ireland by Keith Browne and colleagues, for instance. Note their statement that genetic evidence shows that “the free-living population sampled is largely comprised of pure A. m. mellifera“, i.e. the European Black Honeybee. STATUS: probably doing quite well though more data is needed.

Conclusion: as I said, it’s really complicated and I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, no one does. But what IS clear is that managed Western Honeybees are not declining and keeping yet more hives of them is not going to help us to “Save the Bees”. I’ll leave the last word to Requier et al., whose review I really do recommend: “We argue for the redirection of attention from managed honey bees to the neglected conservation of wild honey bees.” Amen to that.

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*The term “honeybee” is sometimes also used for other social bees that produce honey, for example stingless honeybees in the genus Trigona, but there’s no real consensus on what “honey” actually is, and as I’ve argued in another post, bumblebees (Bombus spp.) also produce honey.

**You may be horrified (but perhaps not surprised) to learn that in the 1930s the Nazis enacted policies to ensure that German beekeepers kept only European Black Honeybees (Apis mellifera mellifera), in line with their views on racial “purity”. Then in the early 1940s, German beekeepers suffered a huge number of colony losses due to disease. The restrictions were lifted to allow beekeepers to cross their bees with disease-resistant A. mellifera carnica. Go figure.

2 thoughts on “Which honeybees are declining and which are not?

  1. Gina Rackley

    There’s a nest of very small unidentified black bees in old wood in my London garden, next to a very small frog pond, but this year it is not doing well. They are not honeybees, but the drought and heat may be having some effect on them. Just by having some old wood lodged in back gardens could maybe help some species. I now have more wood starting its journey towards rotting down, but in more shade. Finger’s crossed it works.

    Reply

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