Honey bees are a globally distributed livestock animal, however for some reason they are not considered as such. There are approximately 2.8 million imported honey bee colonies in North America, with around 30,000 bees per colony that is a livestock population of roughly one billion. The most popular bee on the market is the European honey bee because of its honey production capabilities. Just like other livestock the presence of honey bees affects the native flora and fauna of the ecosystem they are placed into.
Bees are essential in supporting ecosystems by facilitating pollination for multiple plant species. However a bee is not just a bee. Honey bees are extreme generalist foragers and monopolize floral resources thus leading to exploitative competition—that is, where one species uses up a resource, not leaving enough for wild native bee species. Further, honey bees are not great pollinators because they are very efficient at bringing nectar back to the nest to make their honey. In comparison wild bees take extended journeys from the nest where they stop multiple times pollinating as they go. Therefore, the presence of honey bees establishes a declining cycle of pollination which damages the longevity and integrity of the entire ecosystem.
Now, there has been a lot of talk about protecting declining bee populations in recent years as a conservation effort and because of this a lot of funding has gone into research for things like developing bee-friendly habitats, and the effects of neonics (a kind of pesticide). This wider attention that bees were receiving was initially thought to be helpful in bringing attention towards the plight of native species. However, in most cases this has not happened. Sheila Colla, an assistant professor and conservation biologist at Toronto’s York University, Canada advocates that “Beekeeping is for people; it's not a conservation practice” and while honey bee–centric businesses often support initiatives that benefit native bees, such as developing bee-friendly habitat, the financial contributions pale in comparison to what could be achieved if funds were applied to these initiatives directly. “Beekeeping companies and various non-science-based initiatives have financially benefitted from the decline of native pollinators,” Colla explains. “These resources thus were not allocated to the actual issue people are concerned about.”.
There is no point passing blame or pointing fingers at corporations for leading us down this slippery path. At this point, what is important is that we acknowledge the attention placed on saving honey bees has been misguided and if it continues it will lead to further environmental damage, from a conservationist’s point of view, native bees are the ones in dire need of support.
Source: Valido et al. (2019) Nature; McAfee (2020) Scientific American