Friday, June 21, 2013

Native Bees, Honey Bees and Natural Areas

Spring beauty bee © Beatriz Moisset

It is common practice for nature centers to have a beehive. Often, a glass wall allows observation of the colony's busy life, seldom failing to catch the eye of visitors. This serves an educational purpose by providing a great opportunity for a behind-the-scenes peek at the private lives of honey bees. Thus, visitors learn about these useful insects and their role as crop pollinators.

Honey bee © Beatriz Moisset
Sometimes I wonder if we are delivering the right message. The purpose of nature centers is to protect natural wildlife and to promote conservation of natural resources. This is clearly stated in many of their mission statements. Honey bees and chickens are domestic animals. They are both important to agriculture. However, we don't keep chickens at the bird feeders to teach about birds. Do we need honey bees to teach about insects?

Nowadays, agriculture relies heavily on honey bees; however, we must bear in mind that honey bees were introduced to this continent by Europeans a few hundred years ago. Until then, all pollination was accomplished by native pollinators, more than 4,000 species of bees and many other insects, such as flies, moths, wasps and even beetles, as well as some birds and bats.

Jack-in-the-pulpit © Beatriz Moisset
Fungus gnats © Beatriz Moisset

Native plants didn't need honey bees then, and they don't need them now. A few examples should suffice. In early spring a number of delicate little flowers carpet the forest floor. They are in a rush to take advantage of the sunlight during the absence of foliage and don’t last long. Thus, they are called "spring ephemerals." None of them is visited by honey bees. In fact, many resort to highly specialized pollinators which have been around for as long as the plants themselves. Skunk cabbage and Jack-in-the-pulpit are pollinated by flies. Spring beauties and trout lilies are visited by an assortment of bees and bumble bees; but get help, in particular, from their own specialized pollinators, the so called spring beauty bee and the trout lily bee respectively.

Azalea bee © Beatriz Moisset
Shortly after, when azaleas bloom another set of specialists comes into service, the buzz pollinators. These are experts at shaking the pollen out of the flower stamens. One of these experts is the azalea Andrena bee. Its name needs no explanation.

So, what are honey bees doing in the meantime? They devote their time to the nectar and pollen of willows and maples. Thus, honey bees make use of these trees, but the trees themselves benefit from an abundance of native pollinators and don't need the extra help. Honey bees also gather pollen from hazelnuts. This is good for the bees but doesn't help the trees in the slightest because they are wind-pollinated.

Magnolia and mordellid beetles © Beatriz Moisset
Honey bees don't pollinate azaleas or rhododendrons. They also ignore dogwoods. As for magnolias and their close relatives, tulip trees, these plants are primarily pollinated by beetles and flies, all of them native. Honey bees are more inclined to visit generalist flowers, the ones receptive to a wide range of pollinators. Therefore, native pollinators are all that the flowers need.

Another problem with honey bees in natural areas is that they may contribute to the spread of non-native plants by pollinating them preferentially. They also may compete with native pollinators for floral resources.
Tricolored bumble bee © Beatriz Moisset
In summary, native plants and native pollinators are members of a complex community. They have adapted to each other and work well together. Honey bees, while important to agriculture, are not needed in natural areas. The only justification for keeping beehives at nature centers is to use them as a gate to the understanding and familiarization with insects and their usefulness. If the visitor leaves the nature center as ignorant of native pollinators as he was when he came in, then the center has failed to deliver the most valuable message of the bees.

It is imperative that naturalists and educators at nature centers with beehives devote time to informing the public about native pollinators and their significance to native plants. Posters with this information would also be helpful.
Augochlora pura © Beatriz Moisset

Tom Bain presents some good suggestions in his blog "GeoEcology. Earth and life through time..."

 "There is an essential piece missing from the typical presentation about pollination in many nature centers, that is the discussion of native pollinators and their essential continuing role in native and not so native ecosystems. Each presentation about honey bees should be accompanied by a hands-on activity to plant native plants that are partners to native pollinators, or the construction of simple solitary bee houses from dry bamboo canes or wood blocks. We would make progress if our children earned great take-home's like solitary bee bundles in place of coloring-in honey bee illustrations; and, planting native seeds to grow purple coneflower or other natives in place of marigolds, etc. A little effort and a subtle change in emphasis would shift attention to native pollinators."

© Beatriz Moisset. 2013


  1. Great post, Beatriz. Thanks for quoting Geoecology. Thanks for supporting native pollinators in your blog.

  2. A thought-provoking post. The advantage, I guess, of honeybees is that they are easy to attract and view, with a real "wow" factor for many visitors. Your point about them being domestic is well taken.

    1. Resonating Bodies (in Toronto, Canada) has some great examples of how to easily attract and view (and listen to) beautiful native bees - check them out!