The Backyard Naturalist – The Pollinator Problem
I had to replace my phone recently, something I am loathe to do since it depresses me with thoughts of landfills brimming with obsolete electronics, and inhumane conditions in lithium and cobalt mines across the world from me. To assuage some of this lowness, I looked for the most sustainable phone case I could get. The one I found came from a company that makes cases out of plant material. It feels like soft plastic, but apparently will degrade in a home compost pile within six months. Scrolling through the options, I saw all manner of graphics and images meant to invoke nature or at least some vague sense of eco-affiliated virtue. There were rivers and mountains and stands of fir trees, and there were bees. A gaggle of honeybees depicted against their hexagonal comb was named “Save the Bees.” I love honeybees as much as the next person, but I also know that they do not need saving.
Save the Bees campaigns feel right and good to people. There’s a vague and hazy sense that honeybees are in decline, and we should all plant flowers for them and even consider a backyard hive of our own. The muddiness in this well-meaning urge comes from an idea that “pollinators” is the same as “bees” and “bees” is the same as “honeybees.” A pollinator is any animal that carries pollen between flowers, thereby fertilizing the plant so it can produce fruits and seeds and more plants. Pollinators include bees for sure, but also bats, hummingbirds, flies and moths. In New England, there are several types of native bees that pollinate plants, including bumblebees, carpenter bees, and sweat bees. These native bees coevolved alongside our native trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Many are specialized for just a few plants. Honeybees, on the other hand, are European in origin, brought here by settler colonists, and are, decidedly, domesticated livestock. To say “Save the Bees” and mean honeybees is like saying “Save the Chickens.” Nothing wrong with honeybees or chickens, and if you want a backyard hive and your own honey, or your own coop and eggs, knock yourself out. Just don’t go thinking you’re helping wildlife.
There is evidence that keeping honeybees can have a detrimental effect on native bees and other pollinators. Honeybees are generalists and will feed on almost any flowering plant. For more specialist native pollinators, this can mean less food, even to the point of starvation. If you landscape your yard with native wildflowers, hoping to support declining native pollinators, but then move in a hive of honeybees, you may have done more harm than good, drawing in the native insects only to have them encounter their preferred flowers with empty nectaries and some very full honeybees. A veterinarian and honeybee expert I spoke with last year told me she thinks people should choose one or the other — grow native plants for native pollinators or keep honeybees alongside domesticated, farmed plant species. This is what orchardists do, trucking in rented honeybee hives at pollination time for apple trees, or almond trees, or whatever crop they work.
Native pollinators are in trouble. They need us to limit our use of pesticides and to provide rich habitats of flowering plants rather than sterile lawns. Honeybees are not in trouble any more than dairy cows or any other purpose-bred domesticated farm animal. I don’t expect to find the kind of “Save the Bees” phone case I’d like — it would depict a brilliantly metallic, hovering, sweat bee on a purple aster, or a fuzzed, trundling bumblebee weighting a lowbush blueberry flower. But when I think of salvation, it looks something like that.