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Want to Save the Bees? Focus on Habitat, Not Honey Bees

By Rich Hatfield and Matthew Shepherd on 6. July 2023
Rich Hatfield and Matthew Shepherd

There has been an amazing groundswell of support for bees, motivating people everywhere to act—creating pollinator gardens, planting habitat in parks and on farms, reducing pesticide use or campaigning for citywide bans. It is clear that people care, and many have rallied around this issue.

For some, a tangible goal has been to get a honey bee hive. As a result, hives have appeared in gardens and backyards, on rooftops, and in parks and nature reserves. On the surface, this makes sense: if bees are declining, it would seem that more bees in more places will help. Yet, when we look deeper, efforts to increase the number of honey bees on the landscape may be doing more harm than good.


Thousands of honey bees in an open hive
Getting a couple of backyard hives might seem like a good response to pollinator declines, but honey bees can be direct competitors to native bees. A single honey bee hive can include tens of thousands of individuals, which are often in direct competition with wild bees for nectar and pollen. (Photo: Susy Morris, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.)


Which bees are endangered?

The honey bee that is widely found in North America is the western or European honey bee, Apis mellifera. It is native to Europe, Africa, and parts of Asia, and thanks to the value of such hive products as honey and wax, has been transported to many other parts of the world, including North America in the 1620s.

It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that honey bees were widely adopted for agricultural pollination. They became increasingly important with the advent of larger monocultures and the use of broad-spectrum insecticides. To fulfill the demand for crop pollination, millions of hives are managed in and trucked all over North America. Although we have seen colony losses, honey bees are not at risk of extinction. In fact, it is estimated that there are more honey bees on the planet now than at any time in human history.

In contrast, there are more than 3,600 bee species native to North America, some of which are facing a real risk of extinction. 28 percent of bumble bee species in North America are considered threatened, and more than 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species (particularly bees and butterflies) may face extinction in the coming decades. 


Mining bee on blueberry blossom
Honey bees are excellent pollinators of some crops, but not all. Native species such as this mining bee are more efficient pollinators of blueberries. (Photo: Nancy Lee Adamson.)


Five reasons why honey bees can be a problem

  1. Native plants need native bees. Native bees coevolved with our native plants and often have behavioral adaptations that make them better pollinators than honey bees. For example, buzz-pollination, in which a bee grasps a flower and shakes the pollen loose, is a behavior at which bumble bees and other large-bodied native bees excel, and one that honey bees lack.
  2. Honey bees are sub-par pollinators. The way that honey bees interact with flowers means that they sometimes contribute little or nothing to pollination. Honey bees groom their pollen and carry it in neat pollen cakes, where it’s less likely to contact the stigma of another flower and pollinate it. They are also known “nectar robbers” of many plants, accessing their nectar in a way that means they don’t touch the pollen, often by biting a hole in the base of the flower. By contrast, many of our native bees tend to be messier, carrying pollen as dry grains, often all over their bodies where it’s more likely to pollinate the plant.
  3. Hungry hives crowd out native pollinators. Introducing a single honey bee hive means 15,000 to 50,000 additional mouths to feed in an area that may already lack sufficient flowering resources. This increases competition with our native bees and raises the energy costs of foraging, which can be significant. One study calculated that over a period of three months, a single hive collects as much pollen as could support the development of 100,000 native solitary bees!
  4. Honey bees can spread disease. Unfortunately, honey bees can spread diseases to our native bees—deformed wing virus, for example, can be passed from honey bees to bumble bees—and can also amplify and distribute diseases within a bee community. 
  5. Urban honey bee hive densities are often too high. There is growing evidence of negative impacts in towns and cities from the presence of honey bees. A recent study from Montreal showed that the number of species of native bees found in an area decreased when the number of honey bees went up. In Britain, the London Beekeepers Association found that some parts of that city had four times as many hives as the city’s gardens and parks could support. The conservation organization Buglife recommends creating two hectares (five acres) of habitat for each hive, several times the size of an average residential lot in the United States.


Honey bee on flower with hunk of pollen paste on legs
Honey bees mix pollen and nectar into a moist paste that they carry on their rear legs back to the hive. (Photo: Bryan E. Reynolds.)


Native bee covered in dry, loose pollen grains
The majority of native bees carry pollen as dry grains packed between stiff hairs for transport. Some pollen is lost as they visit further flowers, enabling pollination. (Photo: Bryan E. Reynolds.)


A better way to save the bees

At the Xerces Society, we believe that our primary goal must be to reduce the threats that face all bees. It is absolutely true that honey bees don’t always harm native bees: when resources are plentiful, honey bees are present at low densities, and hives are well tended, the risks are smaller. Yet, with a changing climate and a growing human population, such places are increasingly rare, and the evidence is clear that honey bees can impact native bees.
Beekeeping is not bee conservation. If you are thinking of getting a hive, we encourage you to consider carefully why you want to do so. Managed honey bees are domesticated livestock, and their very presence has the potential to harm native species. 

Fortunately, there are actions you can take that will help both honey bees and the thousands of native pollinators that call North America home. Creating pollinator habitat has broad benefits from increasing biodiversity to combating climate change, and such habitat can be situated anywhere—in backyards, on balconies and porches, on rooftops, in office landscapes, in local parks and community gardens. 

Honey bees are fascinating to observe and manage, and can inspire people to learn more about insects. But a better approach to bee conservation is to focus on habitat. We all long to see our backyards and gardens full of buzzing bees. Know that if you build good habitat, they will come!


Diverse flowering plants in a garden patch
The best solution to bee declines is to address the underlying causes, particularly habitat loss and pesticide use. Flower-rich gardens have the ability to support all bees. (Photo: Kelly Gill / Xerces Society.)


Learn more


Matthew has spent more than 35 years working with people from all walks of life to create better places for wildlife. His career began in England and took him to Kenya before his arrival in the United States. He has worked for the Xerces Society for over two decades, initially at the vanguard of the movement to protect pollinators, but he shifted to communications, and now community engagement and conservation in towns and cities. Matthew is author of numerous articles and other publications, including Attracting Native Pollinators (Storey Publishing, 2011) and Gardening for Butterflies (Timber Press, 2016).

Rich manages all aspects of the Xerces Society’s work on bumble bees. Rich has a master’s degree in conservation biology from San Francisco State University, and he joined the Xerces Society in 2012. While earning his degree, his thesis focused on local- and landscape-level factors that contribute to bumble bee species richness and abundance. He has also investigated native bee pollination in agricultural systems in the Central Valley of California and researched endangered butterflies in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, as well as throughout the Pacific Northwest.

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