Hooray! Today is World Bee Day. A day to celebrate bees and other pollinators for playing a fundamental role in the survival of our ecosystem, thus our human survival. It is also a day used to warn everyone that our human activity is threatening their very existence. If you ask us, this is an important message. Nonetheless, some things about World Bee Day are wrong, which must have something to do with the funding by the beekeeping industry.
How distorted is our perception of bees?
Our overall perception of bees is based on the honeybee; yellow with black strips, dances in the air, only stinging once and makes honey. However, there are about 20.000 bee species known, and most are nothing like that. The different bee species do not all have the same pollination capabilities and preferences for plants, nor do they all live in the same climate. Take the Squash bee (Eucerini) and Carpenter bee (Xylocopa), for example: As the name Squash bee suggests, they are specialists in pollinating the family Cucurbita, which includes squash, zucchini, pumpkins, and many gourds. Carpenter bees eat the petals of small flowers to get to the nectar because they are simply too large to fit in. In these cases, they do not pollinate. In contrast, other flowers solely survive on the pollination of the Carpenter bee. This shows that each species of bees plays its essential role in our ecosystem. 20.000 different bee species, but only the honeybee makes honey.
Are bees the only pollinators under threat?
People tend to focus on (honey)bees, and by doing so, they overlook the often critical roles of other pollinators within our ecosystem. Other common pollinators are ants, bats, beetles, birds, butterflies, flies, moths, and wasps. Less common, but as important, are the black and white ruffed lemurs. The lemur is the primary pollinator of traveller’s palm on the island of Madagascar. When they put their long snouts deep inside the tree’s flowers, the pollen gets stuck in their fur. Other uncommon pollinators are the Honey Possums that pollinates eucalyptus flowers in Australia and gecko’s that pollinate flax flowers in New Zealand. Like many native bee species, many of these forgotten pollinators are also under threat due to human activities and modern agriculture.
Is our food supply dependent on honeybees?
It is often said that the western honeybees are essential for our human food production and that the entire human population would starve or completely die out when the bees disappear. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. About 60% of our calorie intake comes from crops that do not need insect pollination at all: plantains, cassava, (sweet) potatoes, yams, soybeans, rice, wheat and maize. Thus, most of our diet consists of plants that propagate through tubers, self pollinate or require wind pollination to bear fruit. Crops like beans, peppers, cocoa, vanilla, tomatoes, avocado, papaya, pineapples, and squash all evolved with native pollinators and not with the honeybee.
Even though most of our crops do not rely on insect pollination, they are often pollinated by honeybees to increase crop yield. For example, the Florida almond (peach-almond hybrid tree) relies on wind pollination but is heavily bee-pollinated to increase crop yield by 10-40%. With a wide variety of crops, weeds on crop margins and enough wild habitat near crop fields, it is possible to attract native pollinators and maintain a high crop yield. Sadly enough, the agricultural land is mainly dominated by monoculture agriculture – resulting in pollination desserts. Native pollinators need to deal with insecticides, pesticides, parasites and local climate change, killing them slowly. Without many native pollinators around, crops need to be commercially pollinated with honeybees to maintain crop yield. These invasive bees bring diseases and out-compete native insects that already struggle to survive, pushing many of them into extinction.
In the end, it is not only native species that are suffering – honeybees are exploited, disrespected and drop like flies. Like all bees, honeybees thrive in biodiverse landscapes – something that large-scale monoculture agriculture does not provide. Beekeepers annually lose about 50 billion honeybees due to insecticides, pesticides, parasites and the lack of food in modern agriculture. To strengthen the honeybees for pollination season, beehives are placed in wild habitats, ultimately undermining the ecosystem and endangering all native insects. After destroying the ecosystem for native pollinators, beekeepers send their honeybees on a suicide mission on monoculture cropland – mass-killing their entire bee populations.
Year in, year out, people are shocked to hear how many honeybees die off due to this system and wonder how we can save the honeybee. But the honeybee is not the bee that needs savin’ – native species of bees are slowly going extinct and need to be saved of the honeybee and modern agriculture.
Why are beekeepers portrayed as the heroes of World Bee Day?
In 2017 the United Nations approved a proposal from Slovenia to claim the 20th of May as World Bee Day. World Bee Day is celebrated on the date that Slovenian beekeeper Anton Janša (1734 – 1773) was born (he is seen as the pioneer of modern beekeeping). This annual event is sponsored by the Slovenian government and the beekeeping industry.
The official World Bee Day website claims on its homepage that there is ‘no life without bees’ – and with ‘bees’, they mean ‘honeybees’. As explained before, this is not the case. Then why would they do this? Apparently, bee-tourism is a thing in Slovenia. A country where 1 out of 200 citizens is a beekeeper. Which makes World Bee Day the perfect marketing campaign to boost the Slovenian tourism sector and the beekeeping industry. This becomes very obvious when you further analyze the official World Bee Day website. It is full of articles about the Slovenian beekeeping traditions (incl. recipes for Dražgoše honey cookies) and tourist attractions (incl. apitherapy in Slovenia). Thus, this is not about the survival of our ecosystem and its biodiversity. It is more about boosting the finances of the Slovenian government and the beekeeping industry.
World Bee Day is disproportionally focussing on bees that produce honey for human consumption. If you go to the United Nation’s World Bee Day page, you will even find a link that says, “Learn all about honey and all the different products a bee hive can give you!”. The UN also tells people that they can help save the bees by buying raw honey. But it makes no sense that we need to steal the honey of a bee to save it – this process is not entirely bee-friendly.
Again, we are distracted from the real environmental threat in the name of money, which is not OK. Modern monoculture agriculture, including the use of the domesticated western honeybee, is a real threat – not only for the (honey)bee. Today should be World Native Pollinators Day instead of World Bee Day – #WorldNativePollinatorsDay. FYI, this should be a day to abstain from honey consumption.