Bees Gone Wild

Feral honeybees pose a danger to native bees and the ecosystems that depend on them

By Daniel Rubinoff  2018

As winter bears down, thoughts of summer and flowers might seem far off, but now is the time to turn our attention to the plight of pollinators and make critical changes to how we manage our environment, and the crops that feed us. Every year the common honeybee, Apis mellifera, is trotted out as a prime example (right up there with monarch butterflies) of what we stand to lose as pollinators disappear. Indeed, the honeybee is arguably humanity’s favorite insect; we’ve been keeping bees with us for at least 6,000 years, and probably far longer.

Set loose in American orchards and farm fields, the domesticated honeybee is worth an estimated $3 billion in pollination services. Its light brown and black stripes and veined, gossamer wings symbolize industrious cooperation (see the Utah state seal), sweet goodness (did you know honey can help hear burns?) and amazing insect superpowers (honeybees dance to tell their sisters where the best flowers are).

And yet all its success with humans has made Apis mellifera into something of a bee monster. In North America, it isn’t colony collapse or bee mites or pesticides that is the biggest threat to many of the 4,000 native bee species, it’s the ubiquitous honeybee.

Apis mellifera evolved in Eurasia. Archaeologists have found the chemical signature of beeswax on pottery 9,000 years old. Priests kept these bees in ancient Egypt. The Greeks were first to notice their waggle dance. With our help, honeybees live as far north as Alaska (though they have to be mailed up and reintroduced every spring) and south across the tropics as well. It’s a wildly adaptable species: willing and able to thrive on, and harvest nectar from, almost anything that blooms, everywhere from the deserts around Palm Springs, to the Chesapeake wetlands to the middle of our biggest cities.

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