There is an ongoing debate in beekeeping and environmental spheres, which squares the benefits, and also the plights of wild bees against those of honey bees. One point of view is that the success of honey bees in an eco-system reduces the available resources for wild bees, that biodiversity can in fact be a zero sum game, and as an area has limited resources, they can be exhausted. The role of conservationists is therefore to focus more upon wild bees. Others take the point of view that more bees usually result in more pollination, which is a greater good for biodiversity generally. As all bees are facing severe losses, the distinction is not helpful. Here we will take a look at some of the attributes of wild bees and honey bees, which give stock to this contention.
The elephant buzzing around the room
Wild bees are defined as any bee that is not domesticated. In Europe, North America and many other parts of the world, this means, any bee that is not Apis mellifera, or the European Honey bee. However, with more than 20 000 species of bees in the world, any discussion that attempts to cast all wild species into a homogeneous group is going to lack the details to apply to any one specific eco-system: or to provide a definite answer. This is a fundamental challenge to understanding the issue; The scope is too wide to be applicable to all environmental scenarios. Nevertheless, as a discussion with imperfect resolution is better than a discussion that has ‘died in the comb’, we will continue with this point in consideration.
In good company
In terms of social structure, bees fall into three categories: solitary, social and kleptoparasitic. (This last group is like a university student returning home on break. These bees basically drop in to take resources such as pollen). Of the 6 main wild bee species in Europe, 3 (Apidae, Halictidae and Megachilidae) have at least one genus that is exclusively kleptoparasitic.
The majority of bee species are solitary. They live alone, forage alone, and only seek the company of other members of their species for mating. When the female lays eggs, she will provide nutrition for the larval period, and will then leave them alone. European honey bees (along with some bumble bee species) on the other hand are highly social. Each type of bee in the group has a defined role to play. The main benefit to the social bee is that the specialisation of labour creates efficiencies and supports much larger populations.
In terms of distances travelled for forage, the European honey bee is the extreme outlier. They usually travel between 1 to 6 KM’s in search of food, however, they have been observed at ranges of up to 13 KM from the colony. In contrast, most solitary bees will travel only several hundred metres. Bumble bees will forage within a range of 600 to 1.7 km, but seldom venture further. Shorter trips are likely less resource demanding and also less risky. In terms of biodiversity, this means that the range of plants that can be pollinated, is far more concentrated.
Bees can be placed into two camps. Pollen specialists and pollen generalists. Specialists forage for pollen from only a few, to only one plant species and will often have a symbiotic relationship with the plant, so that it has evolved to rely on the type of bee to be pollinated. While not all wild bees are specialists, all specialists are wild bees. Generalists account for approximately 75% of species, including honey bees. In contrast to specialists, they are not restricted to one particular type of pollen, and collect from a wide range of sources. As they are not so restricted in their pollen sources, the generalist bees have a longer foraging season.
To adopt a macro outlook, the world needs both wild bee species and honey bees. In a study of 41 pollination systems from around the world, managed honey bee colonies were found to ‘supplement’, rather than ‘substitute’ wild pollinators. The same study also found that wild bees enhance fruit crop abundance, regardless of the presence of managed honey bees.
However, to ask if the presence of both wild bee species and honey bees is beneficial, it ultimately depends upon the specific ecosystem in question. It is reasonable to assume that in a defined area, the symbiotic balance between wild bee pollinators and flora, may be negatively affected by honey bees. However, this is particular to the very limited area and dynamics of that eco-system. Move even metres beyond that system and it may be dangerously inaccurate. As the environments change from forest, to rural, to agricultural, to urban, so too do the sources of growth and stressors.
Just like the larger world, that of bees is wonderful, yet always in defiance of simplicity. The best we can aim for is a healthier and more diverse world for everyone.
Wild Bees and Pollination
FiBL, Lukas Pfiffner, Andreas Muller, 2016
Wild Pollinators Enhance Fruit Set of Crops Regardless of Honey Bee Abundance
Lucas A Garibaldi, Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, Rachael Winfree, Marcelo A. Aizen, 2013
Honey bees and wild pollinators differ in their preference for and use of introduced floral resources
Christine Urbanowicz, Paige A. Muñiz, Scott H. McArt, 2020
Pitting Wild Bees Against Managed Honey Bees in Their Native Range, a Losing Strategy for the Conservation of Honey Bee Biodiversity
Cedric Alaux, Yves Le Conte, Axel Decourtye, 2019