Are honey bees native to Britain? And does it matter?

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It’s no secret that I’ve become frustrated over recent years by the general confusion in the media between the concerns relating to honey bee health (which are largely veterinary/husbandry problems, though pesticides may also play a role) and declines in wild pollinators, which are a wildlife conservation issue mainly due to habitat destruction, though again pesticides are probably having an impact.

That frustration came to a head last year when colleagues and I published a short letter in the influential journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution that was prompted by a throwaway remark in an earlier article stating that honey bees “are essential pollinators for the maintenance of natural biodiversity”  No they are not.  And you can read for yourself why we responded to that article if you follow the link above.

In a recent posting on the Adventuresinbeeland blog, Emily Heath discussed her attendance at a recent British Library event about pollinators and pesticides.   I commented on the blog and in passing mentioned honey bees as being “not native” to which one respondent demurred and wrote:   “I thought honey bees ARE native to Britain, although they have been bred with various breeds ……. Apis mellifera mellifera is a British native, isn’t it?”.   I’ll paraphrase my response here:

The only study that I’m aware of that has addressed this question is Norman Carreck’s paper from 2008 – you can download a PDF of that article here.  Norman is convinced that Apis mellifera mellifera is native to Britain but, as I interpret it,  the evidence he presents is circumstantial and the earliest archaeological remains of honey bees are all associated with human settlements. Even if honey bees were originally native to Britain, the present situation, in which honey bees have been selectively bred and hybridised, is akin to using Tamworth pigs as evidence that wild boar are native.

However for me the most compelling evidence that honey bees are not native is ecological: despite their generalist nature and ability to form large colonies when managed, out in the wider countryside of Britain honey bees do not do particularly well. “Wild” honey bees are never very abundant (compared with some bumblebee species, for instance) and feral colonies in natural settings are few and far between.

This prompted a to-and-fro discussion with Emily that you can read for yourself.

Are honey bees native to Britain?  The jury is out but the balance of evidence as I see it is pointing to them being a human introduction.  Does it matter?  In many respects, no.  Honey bees are (like any other agricultural animal) a utilitarian species that provides us with a range of benefits.  But in one respect it DOES matter – and that is in relation to how we formulate and put in place strategies to reverse the decline of wild pollinators such as bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies.  If honey bees become the central focus of such strategies (and funding), due to confusion in the minds of the public, MPs, policy makers, businesses, the media and other influential bodies, then wild pollinators would lose out.  In my opinion that would be a great mistake.  I’d be interested to know what other people think.

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11 Comments

Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Pollination

11 responses to “Are honey bees native to Britain? And does it matter?

  1. Very interesting post, thank you! I have been contemplating and writing about this for a while, except in an Australian context – we are one of the few continents/regions that doesn’t have a native Apis spp. of any kind. Apis mellifera are naturalised here and there are plenty of feral hives…which is great for gardeners and pollen-limited crop farmers, but not always good for native wildlife (feral bees make hives in tree hollows that some endangered birds and marsupials also would like to use for nests). This isn’t really an issue on an everyday ‘average person’ level; however, it is amazing how few members of the public realise that honeybees aren’t native and there are thousands of other native pollinator species waiting in the wings!
    I agree with you, it does become an issue when you scale to a policy-level. Wild pollinators are extremely understudied and under-appreciated here in Australia – our government has jumped on the ‘pollination’ Research & Development bandwagon, but are only focusing on the honeybee industry. Considering we are the only country in the world that hasn’t got Varroa mite (and it’s generally agreed that it’s not far away) this blinkered vision could be dangerous for pollinated crop industries.
    I think that the honeybee industry is essential for it’s original uses – honey and beeswax – which are important consumer and medicinal products. We have turned honeybees into pollinating machines, which then puts pressure on the honey and beeswax industries – but all of this is often forgotten in the media hype! 🙂

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    • Thanks, glad you like it. A similar situation exists in the USA where Apis also is not native. I suspect that honey bees are seen as an easy fix to the “pollination crisis” and hence become the focus of so many campaigns. We need to work to change that perception!

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  2. I agree with you that sometimes bumble bees get forgotten about, while solitary bees nearly almost do. I think a lack of forage and habitat destruction affects all types of bees though, including honey bees, which is why providing enough forage is so important. From a husbandry perspective I could manage my bees perfectly, but that’s no help if it rains for weeks on end or every garden around me gets paved over. Sugar syrup feeding can’t replace all the vitamins in nectar and I see pollen substitute as a poor alternative to real pollen. More flowers of the right sort please, for the sake of all the bees.

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  3. There are many other pollinators, maybe we should not worry too much about honey bees.

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    • Thanks for your comment Martin and on one level you’re right, there are many other pollinators. But under some circumstances, for example early, mass flowering crops where there are few, if any, native pollinators, honey bees are currently the only option. I for one would like to see that situation changed.

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  4. Hi Jeff,
    Thanks for posing this provocative question. Do you think people have been aware of the way honeybees benefit crops by pollination before it was “officially” discovered by scientists?

    There’s a discussion on a blog I’m following [http://www.honeybeesuite.com/take-the-pollinator-challenge/#comments] questioning why folks brought honeybees to North America–ie was it just for the honey because they would not have known about the science of pollination.

    I’m studying turn of the century farming books-funny how some of them don’t mention honey bees at all, and yet in the 1870’s there was a movement to plant bee forage in North America. The interest waned and then seemed to expire sometime in the 1950’s. I supposed the obsession was with honey plants as opposed to plants that would provide nectar for pollinators, but I wonder if there were enough New World bees around at that time that they didn’t have to worry too much about lack of pollination, even with Old World plants.

    I am researching the history of hedgerows and I wonder if the hunter-gatherers who left strips of uncleared land were aware of how their interventions in the landscape affected birds and insects. Pollinators have been venerated by many cultures, so there must have been some awareness of the relationships among flowers, fruits and bees, don’t you think?

    Cheers,
    Lori

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  5. Hi Lori – thanks for the comments. I’m sure there must have been some “folk awareness” of the role of pollinators for crop plants prior to its discovery by scientists in the 18th century, but I’ve not seen any published evidence. Wouldn’t surprise me if early Chinese or Muslim commentators wrote about it, but that would need a specialist in those texts to research it properly.

    Best wishes,

    Jeff

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  6. This post is very relevant to the recently published paper:
    Enhancing gardens as habitats for flower-visiting aerial insects (pollinators): should we plant native or exotic species?
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2664.12499/full
    The study was carried in England. Not surprisingly, honey bees preferred the ‘near-native’ plants (not from England but other European areas).

    Liked by 1 person

    • David in Kent

      Honeybees are not much interested in whether their target flowers are native or not but rather whether they provide accessible supplies of good quality nectar and/or pollen.. They do love rosebay willow herb!

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  7. Pingback: Your honey bee phenotype (breed): Part I - Natural Beekeeping Blog

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