The honeybee Apis mellifera is native to Europe and was brought to N America in the 1600’s by colonists. In southern areas this European bee has intergraded with a “killer bee” or Africanized bee which is a hybrid of two other subspecies. The Africanized bees which entered via a release in Brazil and migrated northwards are not individually more dangerous, but they attack more aggressively and in larger numbers. There is a huge scientific literature on honeybees and their numerous relatives (about 4000 species in the US and Canada!). I highly recommend a 288 page basic introduction to the complex literature: “The Bees in Your Backyard” by Wilson and Carril, 2016, Princeton Univ. Press.
So it may surprise you to find that the beloved honeybee is an EXOTIC, NON-NATIVE, FERAL inhabitant of N America and as such poses a considerable potential threat to native bees and all animals which feed on plant nectar and pollen. For the most part this threat has not been recognized nor evaluated scientifically due to the mistaken notion they are native and the value of honeybees in agriculture. They pollinate a large proportion of our crops including virtually all almonds. There are many questions about the true value of honeybees to agriculture such as the degree to which native pollinators would replace them if there were not extensive uses of pesticides and wide spread destruction of the natives by many human activities. Indeed the presence of honey bees themselves must severely reduce the numbers of native pollinators by outcompeting them for nectar and pollen. If these flower products are limited, as surely they must be in most situations, how can the presence of many tens of thousands of very efficiently foraging honeybees in a small area fail to negatively impact other animals feeding on the same resource?
I show two photos of honeybees visiting the flowers of two native flowers, the cone flower Echinacea and the cactus Opuntia. I also illustrate the most common method of cultivating honeybees in rectangular hives- which can be transported long distances to fertilize crops. They are also typically placed in large numbers in local areas when not in use to pollinate crops. This can potentially devastate the native pollinators within several miles of this massive population of honeybees. Such grouping of hives is unfortunately commonly seen in natural areas normally assumed to be subject to some protection against feral species such as this. Honeybees escape to the wild and build combs, usually inside tree trunks, but sometimes you will find combs outside as is the case here. Colonies will occasionally swarm establishing new colonies elsewhere. My philosophy is to destroy all wild hives if possible since they can only cause damage to native pollinators with little or no benefit to crops. In Florida there is an additional incentive to destroy wild hives since they can potentially be quite dangerous since most will contain Africanized members. A simple technique to destroy wild hives is to wait until the winter air temperature falls into the 40’s when the honeybees are quite lethargic, and then cut open the hive tree with a chain saw and spray the bees with a fast acting pesticide. The wild hives may potentially be gathered in and put in a domestic hive, but very few bee keepers are willing to do this anymore without a hefty fee.
I have developed a very simple indicator of the local impact of honeybees based on the relative numbers of native pollinators to non-native honeybees observed in specific garden areas. My experience over many areas of eastern N America is that honeybees dominate the insect fauna at flowers in many locations. Of course this varies due to the time of day and temperature- bumblebees are homeothermic and can forage during cooler weather when other insects cannot. Our new location in the Piedmont of NC (eastern Alamance County along the western side of the Haw River) is one of the very few I have encountered where there are virtually no honeybees seen at yard flowers. This must mean that there are both no domestic hives being maintained nearby (within 5+ miles) and very few wild colonies.
One of the interesting difficulties in identifying bees is that there are quite a few mimics. I show photos of a “bee fly” that resembles a yellow jacket (actually a wasp) and some bees. The robber fly shown is a close mimic of a bumblebee and quite an efficient predator on bees. One of the strangest mimics is a carrion beetle that bears a surprising resemblance in flight to a bumblebee. I also show a sweat bee on a sunflower and a fig beetle foraging on milkweed. This is to illustrate the enormous biodiversity of not just bees but other insects that forage on flowers for nectar and pollen, all of which are threatened by non-native honeybees.
One of the stranger methods of obtaining nectar from flowers is found in bumblebees and carpenter bees which have broad heads and short tongues. So they “steal” nectar by biting the bases of narrow flowers and sucking out the nectar from the flower corolla tubes. Many wasps also feed on nectar as adults (see example of paper wasp drinking nectar from a crown of thorns plant); yet the young are fed a carnivorous diet obtained by the adults tearing caterpillars, butterflies and other insects into pieces.
Butterflies and moths are also potentially negatively impacted by the feeding of honeybees which outcompete them. This snowberry clearwing moth is also a bumblebee mimic and hovers like a hummingbird while feeding on nectar. The spectacular polyphemus moth is actually not so impacted since the adults do not feed, only live a few days, and die after reproducing. This is not the case with butterflies such as this spectacular zebra swallowtail (common in our woods where their larval food paw paw is abundant) which would have to compete directly with honeybees for nectar if honeybees were present in our location.
In conclusion I ask you to put aside all the good feelings you have about honeybees and their delicious honey (bee “vomit” regurgitated from their stomachs!) and instead consider how they most likely are having a large negative impact on native pollinators. Do the right thing for NATURE, do not buy honey, kill any wild hives you encounter, and discourage the use of domesticated hives transported to pollinate crops. We need many more studies to evaluate the viability of native insects as crop pollinators. It is also not impossible to imagine living without some products which are basically non-sustainable without the use of non-native honeybees- almonds for example. I like almonds too but would gladly give them up to save thousands of native pollinators which are being destroyed by non-native honeybees to provide a non-essential product. Do we really need almond “milk” considering its negative ecological impact? Consider the relevance of the “Tragedy of the Commons” ( https://www.wallstreetmojo.com/tragedy-of-the-commons/) made famous in early English history whereby the common land resource of each village was pillaged by the few for their own selfish goals.