What do you know about bees? That they produce honey? That they live in a hive? That they swarm?
Well, I have news: These characteristics don’t actually describe most bees in the US. Of the roughly 4,000 native species, not a single one produces true honey. Not one! Most of them live alone. Most of them have no queen.
The bees that many people are familiar with are honey bees, Apis mellifera, a nonnative species that Americans brought over from Europe centuries ago. Beekeepers manage them like any other farm animal, to produce honey and pollinate crops.
European honey bees are arguably the world’s most famous insect. They’re honey bees! Fuzzy, buzzing, honey-making honey bees! And they deserve at least some of this attention. About one-third of the food we eat comes from plants that honey bees pollinate, and they face several threats, which has fueled a national campaign to “save the bees.”
But all of that attention on honey bees has, some ecologists argue, overshadowed their native counterparts: the wild bees. They’re an incredible bunch, found in all sorts of colors and sizes, and they’re important pollinators, too — better, by some measures, than honey bees. On the whole, native bees are also at a much greater risk of extinction, in part, because of the proliferation of European honey bees.
Honey bees are ultimately not at risk of disappearing. So perhaps, then, all this time we’ve been saving the wrong bees.
“People are devoting a lot of their love and attention and funding to honey bees,” said Hollis Woodard, a bee researcher at the University of California Riverside. “That can be detrimental to wild bees. If we really want to say, ‘Save the bees,’ I think we need to get some facts straight about who’s who and what’s what.”
The rise of the honey bee
The bee that many Americans adore was carried here on wooden ships 400 years ago. At the time, US farms were small and pollinated by wild insects. Settlers used the new bees (newbies?) for candle wax and, of course, honey.
But in the following centuries, as farms spread and native pollinators declined, honey bees became big business as commercial pollinators. Conveniently, the bees pollinate a wide range of crops and they live in colonies that can be trucked across the country, arriving at farms when plants are in bloom.
Today, the US has nearly 3 million colonies of honey bees, amounting to tens of billions of bees. They pollinate roughly $15 billion worth of crops each year, from California almonds to zucchini.
Honey bees became popular because they help produce our food. What turned them into environmental icons, however, was a somewhat misleading narrative around “the decline of bees” that emerged in the aughts.
Around 2006, beekeepers started reporting huge losses of honey bee colonies. “That rang alarm bells,” said James Cane, a bee expert and researcher emeritus at USDA. “The business of bee keeping was under threat,” he said, and calls to “save the bees” circulated.
This threat was, and still is, very real. On top of pesticides and the loss of habitats, parasitic mites were spreading rapidly among hives in the 2000s and causing colonies to collapse, which is still a concern today.
But the decline of bees, as most of the public understands it, was always about managed, nonnative honey bees, not wild bees. This distinction is important because European honey bees have a whole industry working to sustain them — to treat sick colonies — whereas wild bees don’t.
Even at the height of the bee declines, there were still more than 2 million colonies in the US. Globally, meanwhile, honey bee colonies are now up more than 80 percent since the 1960s.
“There are likely more honey bees on the planet now than there ever have been in history,” said Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, a nonprofit that advocates for pollinator conservation. “There’s not a conservation concern.”
The same can’t be said for native bees.
Many native bees are at risk of extinction
If native bees aren’t like honey bees, what are they like? Most of them are solitary and nest in the ground. Most don’t have queens. They don’t do dances to find honey. And none of them produce the kind of honey we eat (bumblebees do make a honey-like substance from nectar, though in much smaller quantities).
They’re also a diverse bunch. Some are just a couple of millimeters long and look like gnats, while others — bumblebees and carpenter bees, for example — are longer than an inch. Many bees consume nectar and pollen, like honey bees; others eat oil!
The images below show just a handful of them, from the small, metallic sweat bee (which will, indeed, drink human sweat) to the furry, and even cute, American bumblebee.
As a group, wild bees are considered incredibly important pollinators, especially for home gardens and crops that honey bees can’t pollinate. Tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, for example, require “buzz pollination;” bees have to vibrate their bodies to shake the pollen free — a behavior that honey bees can’t do (bumblebees and some other native species can).
Yet these free services native bees provide are dwindling. While wild bees are, as a group, understudied, existing research suggests that many species are threatened with extinction, including more than a quarter of North American bumblebees.
“From a conservationist’s point of view, native bees are the ones in more dire need of support,” Alison McAfee, a bee researcher at the University of British Columbia, has written.
These include species that are already federally endangered — like the rusty patched bumblebee — and a pipeline of others that are “marching towards the Endangered Species List,” Woodard said.
The main threat is the same one facing nearly all wildlife: the destruction of natural habitats, such as grasslands. “Native bees have been in retreat to the extent that wildland habitat has been in retreat,” Cane said.
He used Iowa as an example: Over the last two centuries, the state has lost more than 99 percent of its tall-grass prairie, mostly to industrial agriculture. So has Illinois. Prairies are full of wildflowers and an incredibly important landscape for bees, including the rusty patched bumblebee.
Pesticides and fungicides are a problem, too, especially a group of chemicals called neonicotinoids designed to kill agricultural pests. “We have just shown time and time again that neonics are bad,” Woodard said. “They get taken up in the pollen in nectar; they hurt bees in many different ways.”
As Vox has previously reported, US pesticide regulation is often behind the science on how these agrochemicals harm bees and other pollinators. (Neonicotinoids are mostly banned in Europe but remain legal in nearly all of the US.)
More and more, research also points to yet another, somewhat paradoxical threat.
How honey bees might hurt wild bees
Honey bees are highly skilled foragers. A single colony can collect about 22 pounds of pollen pellets (pollen mixed with some nectar) over three summer months, according to a 2016 study led by Cane.
That’s enough to feed the offspring of 110,000 solitary bees, the study found. “Honey bees are exceptionally good at removing pollen from landscapes,” Woodard said.
And that can be a problem for native bees. In certain landscapes, where flowering plants are limited, native insects compete with honey bees for pollen and nectar. As a result, they may have to travel farther to forage and ultimately gather less food for their young.
Plus, some native bees only collect pollen from one or a handful of flowers; unlike honey bees, these species can’t easily switch from one source of food to another as pollen runs low.
“You can’t have a finite resource, add a domesticated animal that consumes it, and expect that everything is hunky dory afterwards,” Cane said. (A growing body of research shows that competition with honey bees is bad for native bees.)
Commercial beekeepers often let their bees forage in natural ecosystems when the insects are not working on a farm, Cane said. In Utah, where he’s based, managed honey bee apiaries are sometimes parked on public lands, and each one might have 30 or even 60 colonies. It’s like a city of people hungry for food, ready to pillage the countryside, he said. There are also colonies of “feral” honey bees — those that aren’t managed by humans — across the country.
Competition isn’t the only concern. Dense colonies of honey bees can also be reservoirs for viruses and other microbes that can cause wildlife diseases, McAfee told Vox. Experts like her fear that those viruses could spill over to the native bee populations, though there are still plenty of unknowns. “We don’t know to what extent those viruses cause true disease and sickness in the native bees,” McAfee said.
What’s clear, she said, is that scientists need to better understand and eradicate disease in managed honey bee colonies to stop potential deadly spillover. To protect wild bees, however, scientists will need solutions that go beyond the honey bee.
How you can help save the bees
Barring wholesale changes to our food system, we’ll still need honey bees. But we need wild bees, too.
Farms rely on them, including those with commercial crops (native bees enhance crop yields even on farms that deploy honey bees) and home gardens. If there are flowers growing in your yard — sunflowers, maybe, or echinacea — bees likely pollinate them.
That brings us to what is perhaps the easiest way that individuals can help native bees: Plant flowers! Especially native ones that bloom at different times of year. Groups like Xerces Society make this easy by providing planting guides for each region.
Native bees (and lots of other critters) also benefit from a bit of mess, Woodard said. Don’t rake up every leaf. Leave a fallen branch in place.
“We need a sea change in how we think about the spaces around us, and what is a ‘pretty space,’ and what does it mean to be a good steward,” Woodard said. “Keep things wild, leave things a little less manicured.”
What you definitely shouldn’t do, experts say, is buy a honey bee colony. “That’s definitely not helping,” McAfee said. Instead, she said, “people should think about making native bees want to come to them.”