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The trouble with beekeeping

Last winter, my thoughts were filled with honeybees. I bought and read a mountain of how-to books and reached out to local beekeepers for advice. I watched videos and placed orders for two hives and two nucs — prestarted colonies, each complete with a comb and a queen already busily laying eggs — to bring home in spring. I’d spent years making my half-acre of yard attractive to pollinators; now I was inviting them in en masse.

The biologist E.O. Wilson warned that the only way to save Earth’s biodiversity was to protect half of all land and sea from human interference. Sixty percent of the United States is in private hands, and I’d joined a movement to turn backyards back into habitat. This meant conserving water and creating food and shelter for wildlife by removing invasive plants and replacing them with natives local to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where I live. Where there had once been quiet and a decades-old patch of ivy, we now had an owl family nesting in a wild cherry tree, fat squirrels running amok and the strange high-pitched twitter of bats in the night.

All the life was addictive. Honeybees, I thought, would be the perfect addition. I spent hours painting and stenciling the sides of the hives to look like an old Norwegian chest. I planted flowers in what would become the “bee yard” so the bees could smell fresh lavender when they left to forage every morning. Each hive could easily have 40,000 bees or more — that meant 80,000 pets that wouldn’t need a sitter when I went out of town. The hives and the bee yard turned out beautifully. I love the hives. But I do not love the bees.

The problem started long before I got my first sting. Just a month after I installed the nucs, I came home to find one hive had swarmed. It’s a natural process that honeybees often do when things are going so well that they figure they can split up and send their genes off to multiply. I missed the actual swarming process, which looked like a cloud of buzzing black spiraling into the sky, according to my next-door neighbor, who had been home to witness it. When I got home, I could still see the swarm perched far out of reach in the top of a tall tree. They were at least four stories above my head, a mass of bees hanging over a branch. The swarm stayed for three days. Then they were gone. I couldn’t help but feel it as a kind of rejection.

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I’d first read about the plight of bees in 2006, when people started noticing that honeybees were dying in large numbers but didn’t yet know that the cause was colony collapse disorder (CCD). Usually when honeybees die, beekeepers find their bodies sprinkled outside the hive. With hives affected by CCD, adult worker bees that usually fed the colony seemed to vanish from the hives overnight, leaving behind a queen and a few nurse bees caring for the larvae.

Rather than finding one cause for CCD, the frantic research that came out in the following years noted that the bees were a little sick with everything. In other words, CCD is less a disease than a collection of maladies — mites American beekeepers never had to worry about are now endemic; diseases seem to lurk on every flower, as do harmful pesticides. If we were waging a guerrilla war on pollinators, we could hardly have done a better job. Memes started going around showing what grocery stores would look like devoid of food that relied on pollinators. Media outlets grimly repeated that “every third bite” we take relies on pollination and, by the way, the bees are dying.

“It was pretty much in every newspaper. Every news source and elected official started talking about it,” recalls Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to invertebrate conservation. Hotels and restaurants started installing beehives on their rooftops to “save the bees” — then putting out news releases to go with them. Even today, beefluencers, like TikTok’s Texas Beeworks with over 10 million followers, speak of rehoming honeybee swarms as “saving the bees.” Every year, there seemed to be a new book by someone extolling not just the environmental virtues of beekeeping but also its benefits as a calming hobby, a way to commune with the mysterious forces of nature while misted in the scent of smoke. (Smoke masks bees’ alarm pheromones, keeping the hive from going on the attack.)

But when it came to my own hives, I never found that sense of calm. I loved the scent of honey wafting into the air when I walked past the hives, but opening them up was another story. After the swarm, I found myself dreading the moment I had to tend to the hives. They were too alien, too happy to live their lives without me ever opening up their hive — even though the colony was likely to die if I didn’t. There’s a reason people refer to tending their hives as “working”: Honeybees aren’t wild insects. They’re not even native to the United States. Apis mellifera, commonly known as “the honeybee” (though there are roughly 10 bee species globally that make honey), was originally imported from Europe. Honeybees are livestock. As Hoffman Black likes to say, “Protecting pollinators by getting a honeybee hive is like trying to protect birds by getting chickens.”

Not only are honeybees not in need of saving — they could be causing problems for the native pollinators who are.

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In 2001, Alfredo Valido was in Teide National Park in the Canary Islands, studying the pollination biology of a rather alien-looking native plant, Echium wildpretii. The plant grows in tapering stalks that reach up to 10 feet tall. When it blooms, the top of the plant’s spire is covered in tiny pink flowers, a silver-green skirt of wispy leaves at the bottom. People commonly refer to it as the “tower of jewels.” It looks like it was designed by Dr. Seuss. Valido was studying which pollinators visited the plant while it was in flower, but soon realized he had to divide the data into two parts: before honeybees and after honeybees.

Every spring, beekeepers introduce up to 2,700 hives to the park to take advantage of the wild blooms, immediately changing the pollinator ecology, Valido wrote in an email. Imagine growing up in a quiet suburb only to have a fully occupied high-rise apartment appear overnight. “The impact of the beehives is so dramatic that you can detect this pollination disruption just the day after their installation,” Valido said. “Up to thirteen pollinator species were absent when Apis mellifera is around.” There simply isn’t enough food for everyone.

One of his studies, published in 2019 in Scientific Reports, showed that the honeybees monopolized nectar resources, disrupting established relationships between pollinators and plants, and were often worse pollinators than the native species they displaced. “Plant species heavily visited by honeybees reduced the number of seeds per fruit,” Valido explained.

Honeybees often either self-pollinate the same plant or, because they are super-generalists that can use pollen and nectar from a wide range of species, transfer pollen between entirely different plant species. Without pollen from the same species, the plant won’t be fertilized, and self-pollination can lead to inbreeding and lower seed-set. These wild plants were better-served by the pollinators they evolved with. But humans brought the hives in anyway.

Honeybee hives are often moved from one place to another to take advantage of bloom periods, or so beekeepers can take part in the increasingly lucrative pollination industry. In the United States, the almond industry pays beekeepers from all over the country more than $160 per hive to bring colonies into the almond groves and pollinate the trees. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of evidence that moving beehives thousands of miles over highways to pollinate a monoculture is bad for honeybees. It’s also the perfect way to spread diseases to native bee species — just think of each flower as a touchpoint like the handhold on a bus or subway car.

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Peter Graystock, a researcher at the Imperial College of London, has spent years studying disease transfer between wild and managed bee species. “Honeybees often become the dominant bee species in an area and with that their parasites are more likely to be deposited on flowers and transmitted to wild bees,” Graystock wrote in an email. The beekeepers who sold me my nucs were only a 45-minute drive from my house, but packages of bees (and any diseases they carry) are often shipped across the country to hobbyists and small-scale beekeepers. And between their vast numbers and the fact that humans are taking care of them, honeybees are a lot better equipped to handle getting sick than wild species.

“They’re in perennial colonies,” Nigel Raine, a professor at the University of Guelph, said of honeybees. “The only other social bee we have are bumblebees, and they’re only social for part of their life cycle.” Honeybees can withstand environmental stress factors better than native species, Raine said. In North America, most bees are solitary species that come together briefly to mate and otherwise live and work alone. “People are mostly not too aware of the solitary species because they’re much smaller and much less showy, though some of them are beautiful metallic colors,” Raine said. If the average person notices them at all, they’re likely to lump them in with flies.

Hoffman Black said solitary bee species are a bit like single moms. Once the female is ready to have offspring, she has to dig a hole for a nest, go to every flower to collect pollen and nectar, lay an egg, and do it over and over again, he explained: “That’s a huge amount of work.” If honeybees are in the area, this might mean she has to travel farther and take longer to get the same amount of food.

Colony life gives honeybees a tremendous advantage. There are more of them, which means not only are all the jobs split up, but individuals are relatively disposable. (There’s a reason honeybees can die after giving one sting.) It doesn’t harm a honeybee hive if 20 or even a few hundred bees die out of tens of thousands; for native bee species, that’s the end of not just those bees but 20 potential families and gene pools.

“Over the past century, many bee species have gone extinct,” Graystock said. Habitat loss and fragmentation are major causes. An article published by One Earth in 2021 noted there were 25 percent fewer bee species found worldwide between 2006 and 2015 than before 1990. “It’s true that honeybees have faced increasing losses, but honeybees are managed. We can breed them,” he added. Honeybee losses might be costly for beekeepers, and almond-growers might have to pay more for pollination services, but compared with most insects, they’re doing just fine.


In fact, there are more honeybees than ever. The Department of Agriculture shows the number of colonies continues to rise — currently at about 2.7 million. Meanwhile, there has been a notable increase in hobbyists keeping bees in cities ranging from London to Atlanta. Once you know to look for the boxy hives, you can see them everywhere, tucked into community gardens or orchards or on farms flashing past on the side of a highway. There are more than 20,000 species of bee in the world, but when you hear the word “bee,” the honey-producing kind is the one that springs to mind. It’s an image of the honeybee, not a native species, that regularly makes its way onto jewelry or dishtowels. This isn’t just an American problem. One 2016 paper found that Australian media disproportionately focused on introduced honeybees “as the most important, or only, pollinator insect relevant to Australia.”

Sheila Colla, assistant professor of environmental sciences at York University, said she’s heard the argument that if people care about honeybees, they’ll start caring about native species, too. She has yet to see evidence of that. A 2020 study to which she contributed found that half of participants believed the honeybee was a native species.

All the talk of honeybee decline has made people aware that pollinators are important to our food system; curtailed use of certain pesticides, like neonicotinoids, that have been found to be particularly harmful for honeybees; and encouraged farmers who rely on pollination to be more careful with their pesticide usage and timing. But it largely hasn’t helped native bees.

“I was the last person in Canada to see the rusty patched bumblebee,” Colla said. She did her Ph.D. on the species, knowing it was in decline but not that it would soon become locally extinct. It still exists in the United States, though the numbers are so small that it became the first bee in the continental U.S. to be listed by the Endangered Species Act in 2017.

“It’s very disheartening to keep looking for it every year and not find it,” she said quietly. Though many people know about the looming extinction of the black rhino, for example, the extinction of insects and pollinators often happens quietly. Now repeat the story of the rusty patched bumblebee for 25 percent of all known bee species.

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The rusty patched bumblebee didn’t disappear because of pesticide use; it’s in trouble because of a disease transferred by managed bee species. “Saving the bees” — when it means putting in honeybee hives or transferring other managed species like mason bees, blue orchard bees or even bumblebees from one farm to another — is what’s helping kill the ones in the wild.

“A bunch of industry has grown from people’s concern on bee losses. People are getting rich off designing different hives,” Colla said. There’s good money in selling to honeybee hobbyists.

Each of my nucs cost $175, and the hive boxes were another few hundred. Then there are the accessories — the smokers and bee suits and mite treatments and fondant to keep the bees from starving when the nectar flow ends in winter. It’s hard to walk into a garden store without seeing so-called bee hotels (which may also make bees more prone to disease, parasites and predation than just leaving space for them to nest in the yard) for sale. While native pollinators also help contribute their services to growing plants like blueberries, squash and tomatoes, we can’t sell their services — only benefit from them. It’s a thankless job.

If someone puts a honeybee hive in, they see where their money is going every time the bees go in and out of the entrance, Raine said, adding, “If native bees are there, they’re doing their job and we don’t worry about it. When they’re not there and we see a shortfall in pollination services, that’s when we notice the value.”

I wanted bees because I didn’t feel like there was enough life in my garden, but once I brought the hives in, I started noticing it everywhere. Because I was paying attention to “my” honeybees as they went from flower to flower, drank from the pond or occasionally tried to investigate my lunch on the patio, I started noticing the other insects that had probably been there all along.

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Small hoverflies — flies masquerading in a bee’s yellow-and-black uniform — floated in place in the air in between visits to the blooming salvia nearby. I noticed that bumblebees in the yard weren’t just yellow and black, but had patches of rusty orange, too. Sweat bees glinted with iridescence. A few mud dauber wasps with corseted black bodies intently gathered sand on the edge of the pond, while blue and black striped damselflies seemed to sunbathe on the warm rocks. Occasionally there were other imports like the European wool carder bee, which gardeners like for their pollination services, or the brown marmorated stink bug, which is considered invasive.

The hives did make me start seeing the world from a bug’s-eye view. Before the hives, I never stopped to take pictures of or identify insects other than a few flashy butterflies. Now my camera roll is full of them. I’m thankful for that, even if beekeeping may not be the hobby for me. Many keepers fall in love with honeybees, and the colonies are fascinating, but there’s so much that can go wrong and so many ways the hives can affect other insects — it’s not something a new hobbyist should undertake lightly. (I prepared the hives to snuggle up for winter, but when I recently checked them on a warm winter day, I discovered that neither one made it. Sadly, even for experienced beekeepers, keeping hives alive through the winter is far from a guarantee.)

With so much bad news about species decline among charismatic megafauna, large animals like pandas that are popular with the public, and also birds, insects and plants, it can feel like a rare quick fix to get some bees to set up in the garden. Despite admonishments to use less, our approach to saving the planet is often to buy something. We fill our shelves with reusable water bottles and tote bags. Online stores sell expensive products that they promise will help you waste less — a new compost bin, a reusable razor, cloth “paper towels” — as long as you actually use them. It’s only natural that we’d want to save the bees by buying them, too. The results are immediate.

If you’re enchanted by honeybees or really want honey from your backyard, become a beekeeper. But the rest of us would be better off providing safe habitat for the many insects that are already there, if only we’d look down long enough to see them.

  • Tove Danovich
    Tove Danovich

    Freelance Reporter

    Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon.