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.