Yes, bees are suffering – from being fashionable

We all know that bees are in trouble, right? But look closer and this statement isn’t necessarily all it seems — don’t go “bee blind”. Let me explain.

Going “bee blind”

This is a term I’ve just made up. There’s something about bees that exudes a sort of glamour — perhaps there’s a type of unconscious, deeply visceral link between our species and theirs — which can somehow cause people to act without engaging brain; after all, they provide a considerable part of our food through pollination (thanks bees!). What makes this worse is “helping the bees” is a fashionable thing to do but which can leave common sense behind. You’re capable of great critical thinking, this is really important when it comes to truly supporting bees.

Firstly, which bees are these bees?

“Bees” can cover a huge range of insects: around 270 species of honey, solitary and bumble bees in the UK alone. But their names are often too long to put in headlines leading to confusion; sometimes it’s not well explained in the text either. It’s a useful shorthand for the media but not for the rest of us, so when you see it ask yourself which bee they’re talking about. And you’d be amazed how often they get the picture wrong, sometimes even confusing wasps and occasionally hornets with bees.

In this piece I’ll be clear about which type of bee I’m talking about, and use “bees” when referring to them all (technically pollinators is a wider group of insects, but perhaps I’ll cover that another day).

When trying to help can harm

From Factcheck.

But doing something is better than doing nothing isn’t it? Well no, not if it causes another, sometimes bigger, problem. The fake Sir David Attenborough post was a corker: people believe it’s a good thing to put out sugar water when it’s really not, trusting what they thought was a reliable source without double checking.

Bees are really good at finding food — let’s face it, the species wouldn’t have survived if they weren’t — and indiscriminately leaving out sugar water can lead to all sorts of other issues. It’s also a great of example of what can go wrong with social media when wrong information goes viral.

TL;DR? Always check the sources.

Becoming a beekeeper doesn’t save bees

Olivia Norfolk explains this beautifully:

Beekeeping is often promoted as a way to conserve pollinators and, as a result, is on the rise across the UK. It’s great to see people backing the pollinator movement, but managing hives does nothing to protect our wild pollinators. It’s the equivalent of farming chickens to save wild birds.

If you truly wish to become a beekeeper and are willing to take on the responsibility, cost, learning, lack of summer holidays, sometimes sheer hard graft and frustration as well as everything else it entails, then fill your boots. But not with bees. However, understand that being a beekeeper will not help pollinators or even bees as a whole, with some research suggesting that honey bees out compete their wild cousins for food.

Look at it from the bees point of view

Bees share some basic features with us: they need air, food and somewhere for the babies to grow up, with the specifics of the last two varying between species. Honey bees are the lucky ones — they keep their beekeepers (a personal theory) which means they get a house and can be fed if they’re at risk of starvation. These managed colonies aren’t the ones that need saving: solitary and bumble bees need our help, some of these species are arguably better pollinators than their more famous honey cousins.

As with many things bee related, providing food sources is not as straightforward as it may seem. I talk about this in more detail in The Buzz About Bees, but these are some important points:

  1. Know your planting space. Not every plant survives in every condition: your soil, aspect, amount of rainfall etc. are important.
  2. Provide food all year round. Thanks to the climate crisis honey and bumble bees are flying during the winter but can’t always find food as not much is in bloom.
  3. A “Perfect for Pollinators” label means it’s a good food source, it doesn’t mean grown without pesticides. Look for organic or pesticide-free nurseries, or talk to gardeners and propagate their plants.

On the homes front, shoving a hive somewhere doesn’t really help but providing homes for solitary and bumble bees can make a difference. There are plenty of plans online, or you can buy them ready-made. The key here is thinking about the species you’re going to help: what do they need from a home? Often it needs to be facing a certain direction and attached to something solid so it can’t swing, after all you don’t want the youngsters rolling around.

Bees make money part 1: “help the bees” products

Products marketed to “help the bees” usually make a profit for someone: this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that someone may not have considered things from the bees’ point of view, deliberately or otherwise, or gone bee blind.  I’m not saying these products shouldn’t exist, but should be approached with due care and attention and checked for bee blindness. For example, some beehives aren’t suitable for the weather in this country (the weather is so important for bees finding food). Others are marketed as not disturbing the honey bees. But beekeepers don’t “disturb” honey bees for fun, we should only ever go into a hive with a reason, most of the time linked to the care of the colony. As I’ve said before, personally I don’t understand: you wouldn’t dump a dog in the garden and ignore it, why would you not care for honey bees? A lot of a beekeeper’s role is around honey bee health, there are some serious diseases that can spread quickly between colonies and perhaps other bee species, why wouldn’t we try to help?

Bees make money part 2: research and community projects

I’ve heard of some research and community projects that really concerned me: they could have been brilliant but seem to use bees, often honey bees, as an “excuse” to get funding: what they want to do doesn’t actually help bees. It such a shame that funders permit this, after all a badly designed bee project that potentially causes harm reflects very badly on them.

Now I’m not saying all bee projects and research are bad and shouldn’t happen — far from it, we need as much good information and action as possible — just think about the bees’ needs really, really hard before anything else. Applicants and funders alike need to check for bee blindness and see things from the bees’ point of view. 

But things aren’t all fine, are they?

No, they’re not, bees are facing a perfect storm of pesticides, habitat destruction, pests, diseases and climate change. But we owe it to them do the absolute best we can for them, things that really matter, not that seem like a good thing to do, we need to always be checking for our own bee blindness.

So what can I do to help honey bees, bumble bees and solitary bees?

Apart from providing food and somewhere to live you can*:

  • Look out for some citizen science opportunities involving pollinators such as The Buzz Club. The more we know, the more we can help.
  • Join charities supporting pollinators such as the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
  • Look at ways to reduce your carbon footprint and resource use. The climate crisis is the biggest challenge pollinators, as well as our entire planet, face.
  • Buy organic food to support farmers and growers who don’t use pesticides and are more likely to be held to higher environmental standards.
  • This one doesn’t cost anything: talk about pollinators — learn about them and tell others. Check any facts with expert websites if you’re not sure about the source, the last thing pollinators need is more fake news. Have a stall or do a talk at work or in a community group, you could raise money to develop a patch of planting or for a pollinator charity.

If I’ve missed an action or you decide to do something, pop it in the comments below to inspire others.

* Taken from my blog The Buzz About Bees, I’ll add more if I think of them.

Cover image by Perez Vöcking from Pixabay. Because everyone loves a fuzzy bee butt. I don’t think it’s a honey bee, the antennae don’t look right, but then I rarely see them from this angle.


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