Copper Bee Apiary

A garden apiary in Whittlesford, Cambridge, UK - honey bees and their beekeeper Hilary van der Hoff.

Unfashionable Thoughts on Beekeeping

I'm going to say unpopular things. My discontent has been brewing for a while and I've finally been tipped over the edge by a recent article in the October 2017 issue of the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA) Magazine.

The offending article was contributed by a school that has started up a beekeeping club. I quote:

As our conservation and ecological awareness grew, we realised how much bees were struggling and without bees we knew our food supply would dwindle. It was therefore a completely natural progression to consider keeping beehives at school and do our bit to help honey bees. The thought alone made us instantly excited!

Well, doesn't that give you a warm glow of ecofriendliness? But the logic is bogus.

There are good reasons for having a beekeeping club in a school, and there are good reasons for beekeeping. But "doing our bit to help honey bees" is not one of them. That part is nonsense. Or at least it is greatly overstated.

The "honey bees need our help" message tends to be perpetuated by organisations that ought to know better but can't seem to stop themselves. Presumably it makes money by attracting donations, memberships and support from well-meaning people who want to help the poor struggling honey bee. So the BBKA obviously encouraged this school with a pat on the back.

The UK is home to about 270 species of bee, including 25 species of bumble bee and lots and lots and lots of little solitary bees, besides the one species of honey bee. Many bees do face serious difficulties as a result of their native habitats having been destroyed by us humans. Not so much the honey bee. It is a generalist feeder with a medium length proboscis suited to harvesting from a variety of flowers, so is more adaptable than bees that specialise in certain flowers. Moreover, we farm honey bees as livestock. Of all bees, they are probably the furthest from extinction. Although they are undoubtedly affected by agricultural practices including intensive farming and use of pesticides, the bigger difficulties faced by most honey bee populations are primarily the diseases and parasites that have been brought upon them through international transport and poor biosecurity - in short, by beekeeping[1].

How to save the bees: stop destroying their habitat and let the flowers regrow so they have somewhere to live and forage. Installing a hive of honey bees misses the point. It's like planting a row of conifers in your back garden because you want to do something about the plight of rainforests.

I have no scorn for the school itself, which clearly had good intentions and has actually done a great thing by starting a beekeeping club. Who could blame them for thinking that by doing so they are also conserving the environment, when even the BBKA promotes this message?

School beekeeping clubs may indeed save the bees, just not for the reasons they think. Learning about nature is likely to create respect for nature, whereas ignorance breeds fear. So hopefully school beekeeping will save us from the pernicious idea that bees are a threat to children. It's always their children that people want to protect against the nasty bees, never themselves of course. "We mustn't allow bees in the garden because the grandchildren might be stung." Let the children learn to go forth unafraid.

[1] We await yet the establishment of the Asian hornet, the plague of the hive beetle and the bee-pox. If horses are scared of bees, will that keep the apocalypse away?

Update

The January 2018 issue of Science contains a paper by two scientists from Cambridge University, entitled "Conserving honey bees does not help wildlife". Told you so. The article can be read here, or see the University's comment and synopsis ("Think of honeybees as ‘livestock’ not wildlife, argue experts") here.

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