Science Says

As pollinators for a native plant garden, honey bees suck!

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Guest Rant by David Schmetterling, Montana Wildlife Gardener

That’s right, they suck.  Someone had to say it.

If you want honey bees (Apis mellifera) for say, I don’t know, honey- that is great.  No problem.  If you have converted a heterogeneous, beautiful landscape of native plants and wildlife into a monoculture for crop production, and every plant requires pollination in the same, narrow, discrete window, honey bees are for you.

However, if you are interested in any of the following:  biodiversity, bee conservation, pollinator conservation and diversity, wildlife gardening, native plant landscaping, getting your native plant garden pollinated, or just plain learning about the really cool insects in your garden, then yes, honey bees suck.

Somewhere along the way of promoting awareness of pollinators and their role in plant, wildlife and bee conservation, people wove in honey bees.  This is really unfortunate, so I am trying to set the record straight. 

In our garden I have collected over 150 species of bees and “pollinators” and one of those species is honey bee.  In fact, honey bees in our garden are pretty uncommon, especially outside a narrow time of day and time of year.  The diverse species of native pollinators provide so much more than pollination to our garden.  Just as a small example, the larvae of the flower fly (Spilomaya spp.), a yellow jacket mimic, pictured below, are effective predators of aphids in the garden (including our vegetable garden).

I venture that honey bees are pretty ineffectual pollinators of most things- especially native species.  As far as colony collapse disorder, although academically interesting, don’t be fooled: it is not a conservation issue.

Honey bees are native to Eurasia (where most of our noxious weeds are coincidently from), and share no evolutionary history with plants in the U.S., and in particular with plants of the intermountain west of Montana.  Consequently, they are not effective pollinators of the diverse native plants we have here. They will only pollinate over a narrow range of dates and temperatures, and can only exploit certain sizes and shapes of plants.  Again, too narrow a range to be effective. 

For example, in the Missoula valley, and in my garden, spring arrives with sagebrush buttercups (Ranunculus glaberrimus) that flower in late February or early March.  They often arrive when snow still covers the ground and most days are barely above freezing, and the blooms can be rapid.  This time of the year, nary a honey bee is in sight or even able to survive – these blooms predate the hives trucked in from the south.  Native flowers come and go, blooming across different days (and some only at night) from snowy spring until late October, long after the honey bees head back down south or hunker down trying to survive.

Even as temperatures become more appealing to honey bees, morning and evening can be too cool for them to do much of anything beyond surviving.  Sure, on a warm July afternoon, honey bees will be out in force pollinating some things, but they don’t do much.  Our native pollinators, including moths, butterflies, bees, flies, beetles, ants, and others are so diverse in terms of habitats they occupy, body sizes and morpholoogy, that they can pollinate and exploit a diversity of native plants that no truckload of honey bee hives consisting of identically sized and shaped honey bees could even imagine.

So, yes, honey bees are great for producing honey.  They are great for pollinating commercial crops (though their value is probably grossly overstated), but they have little place in conservation and little room in my garden.

Posted by

Susan Harris
on March 8, 2012 at 4:29 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet.

16 Comments

  1. Thank you for saying it. Many people are not aware of other pollinators and their important roles in the garden. I recently learned that Bumblebees pollinate tomatoes better than honeybees and this makes sense because tomatoes are a North American native too. The Bumblebees have the correct frequency of wing flap (sonic frequency) to get the job done- thereby filling out our tomatoes and finishing off their pollination needs-tomatoes are only partially self-fertile.

  2. Very interesting subject. I’ve been wondering about what other polinators exist for my black currant (cassis) bushes on my balcony this year, since last year I left them to attract on their own and I ended with one currant. My currants will be flowering in the coming weeks and I plan on hand-fertilizing since it’s still too cold for the bees, but I’ve been feeling that they’re a rather inefficient for my location. It’s refreshing to get a different perspective on the bees.

  3. Excellent post! While the honeybees may be excellent for crop pollination (since most of our crops are from Eurasia and other non-North America locales), for our native plants, they are just one of many, many pollinators…and probably a very insignificant one at that. I’ve been photographing and learning about my native pollinators here in south central Kansas for a couple years now. It’s fascinating to see the variety of species attracted to my native prairie plants!

  4. While I agree that our native pollinators are very diverse and intriguing, as a gardener I feel that honey bees are useful critters, introduced or not. And that photo is not a honeybee.

  5. This comment is aimed at those who read headlines and then comment … the author clearly states that the image is of a larvae of the flower fly (Spilomaya spp.) … read the article, and maybe you will learn something!

  6. When it comes to pollinators, everybody is welcome to the party in my garden! At least honeybees don’t drill into my deck joists like the native carpenter bees do… but honeybees do make the best bee beards I think. So I welcome them along with all others — I just don’t rely on them.

  7. If the death of the Eurasian honeybees brings attention to the over-use of insecticides and herbicides, then bring on the publicity! Saving the honeybee might just save out native pollinators, too.

  8. It may be true that honeybees aren’t that great way up north in Montana, but down here in Southern California they are out working every and all day. They also hit up blue flowers that the natives seem to avoid.

  9. Great comments!
    Just to clarify, though, the insect pictured is neither a wasp nor a honeybee – it is a fly. A fly that mimics a yellowjacket. I am sure the Spilomaya would be proud to know its deception was complete- even able to fool people in a close up photo and much larger than its actual size!

  10. I think the problem is that if you hover your mouse over the photo, the text reads “bee.” It’s not a bee, and not even a wasp, but a fly. Can the text be changed to clear up this problem?

  11. Love my honey bees, but my natives mostly attract native bees, flies, cute little tiny wasps, and the big “bombers” as I call them, the mason bees. They are all terrific and I enjoy the abundance of all the different critters in my organic garden. If you want these lovely critters in your garden, you almost have to stay organic. I rarely see them in the yards around me that are mostly monocultures and grass.

  12. My neighbor started keeping bees about two years ago. They have definetly increased my vegetable crops. My take-away of this story is that our pollinators are very diverse, and that you shouldn’t rely on a single species. Our neighbor gives us a gallon of honey every year, for putting up with the buzzing. Couldn’t have found a better deal!

  13. We’ve had a warm, dry winter but sure as the world, once the fruit trees began blooming, the weather turned windy, cold & wet. My son (a big fan of backyard fruit) knows enough about honeybee activity that he was worried for me and the lack of honey bee pollination action. I told him that while honeybees are great, the other pollinators in the yard likely do more for us. Now he wants to know more about these other pollinators so he can make sure he knows who to thank.

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