Beekeeping has become popular in rural areas, suburbs, and cities and that means more Honey Bees foraging in the wild – even if that “wild” is a city park or highway median – and this has raised concerns about what impact these managed Honey Bee colonies might have on our native bees. Put simply, do honey bees compete with native bees for pollen and nectar, depriving them of essential resources? It is not an easy question to answer because there is little data. Most of the information is anecdotal at best. Controlled experiments involving insects in the wild are difficult to design and experiments that are carried out are often on a very small scale. So, we’ll start with a few things we know.
We know that Honey Bees are not native to North America, but they have been here for a long time. Colonists brought them to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1622. Today, most Honey Bees in the region are the Italian (Apis mellifera ligustica) or Carniolan (Apis mellifera carnica) subspecies of the Western Honey Bee. In the four hundred years since Honey Bees were introduced, they have not become widespread in the wild. Beekeepers work hard to keep their colonies alive and often fail. Honey Bees do occasionally escape from managed hives due to overcrowding (a normal part of population growth) or to avoid disease and form feral colonies. These feral colonies are uncommon and not likely to be a factor in a large and diverse ecosystem. But even if there is not a large population of feral Honey Bees thriving in the wild, a managed hive in a suburban backyard has lots of bees – between 20,000 and 80,000 with about 30% of that population foraging. It is easy to see how even a small apiary of two to four hives could dramatically increase competition for local resources.
We also know that native pollinators are in trouble with populations plummeting. Factors responsible for the decline include loss of habitat, insecticides and herbicides, proliferation of non-native plants, non-native predatory insects, and diseases. Is competition with Honey Bees contributing significantly to the decline? It seems possible locally around apiaries. But what about over a larger area?
Research by James Weaver and colleagues published in Insect Conservation and Diversity  looked at three questions. Does introducing managed Honey Bees to a site alter native wild bee foraging rates at flowers? Is the impact the same on all wild bees? Is competition from a small apiary of just four hives enough to negatively impact the native bee population? The data they gathered answered some questions and raised a few more.
Weaver introduced four managed Honey Bee hives into a 1.25 km radius study area. The study, repeated four times, determined that wild bees visited 19% fewer flowers in the study area when managed Honey Bees were present compared to absent. That means that native bees were getting 19% fewer resources locally. But not all bees were affected equally. Competition with Honey Bees had the greatest impact on larger bodied native bees with generalized diets – bees similar to Honey Bees. There was less impact on smaller bees with specialized diets. The impact was the same near the apiary and at the maximum study distance of 1.25 km. This result means that even a relatively small apiary of four hives negatively impacts native bees by “stealing” resources. But it is a small study that did not look at whether native bees simply foraged more extensively outside the study area, away from the dense population of Honey Bees, and what impact that might have on a wider area.
Honey Bees can cause problems for native bees in other ways too. Honey Bees are generalists, content to forage on many types of flowers. Because they are not native to North America, they did not evolve with our native plants. That means they are just as likely to forage on non-native invasive species as on native ones, increasing the proliferation of non-native plants that are not useful and are potentially harmful to native bees. Honey Bees are also able to transmit diseases to native bees that are new and for which our native bees have no immunity.
All of this makes a persuasive case against beekeeping and some beekeepers have hung up their bee suits for good. We do not think that is necessary. In fact, we think keeping managed Honey Bee Hives may have important benefits – even for our native pollinators. Beekeepers oppose the use of pesticides and herbicides that would harm their bees – and native bees. They support replacing monoculture lawns and decorative but useless plants with pollinator friendly gardens to support their bees – and native bees. And in areas where pollinators are in steep decline, pollination by Honey Bees helps to keep everything growing.
Before we abandon the enjoyment of beekeeping and the beneficial products from the hive, we need to look at the big picture. It does not seem reasonable that competition with Honey Bees is a threat of the same magnitude as climate change, loss of habitat, pesticides and herbicides, proliferation of non-native invasive plants, non-native predatory insects, other non-native bees introduced intentionally by the USDA or accidentally in international shipments, or any of the other challenges faced by insects in our increasingly human world. But more research is needed before we can really understand the big picture. Meanwhile, there are a few things beekeepers can do to keep the ecosystems around their hives in balance.
1. Remind everyone that Honey Bees are not native and saving Honey Bees is NOT “saving the bees”.
2. Plant native flowering plants to support native bees and other pollinators and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same.
3. Encourage friends and neighbors to replace monoculture lawns with native meadows or ground covers.
4. Encourage friends and neighbors to leave some unused ground for ground-nesting bees, and some dead trees, tree limbs, and snags for wood-nesting bees.
5. Remind friends and neighbors about the dangers of pesticides and herbicides. If they must spray, encourage them to do it at night when bees are not flying and to spray only the stems and leaves, not the flowers.
6. Talk with your HOA, town, or county about creating a healthy habitat for native insects and all wildlife.
7. Manage Honey Bee hives carefully so they don’t become overcrowded, forcing bees to seek a new home in the wild.
8. Inspect often and treat diseases and parasites promptly so they are not spread to wild bees.
9. Consider limiting the number of hives in the apiary to reduce the local impact on native bees.
10. Keep up with the research. The impact of Honey Bees on native bees is a frequent topic in beekeeping journals. As we learn more, we must do better.
Note: We have intentionally limited our discussion to the impact of small apiaries and not commercially managed hives used for large scale crop pollination. Pollination of crops by managed Honey Bees is a very complex issue with widespread implications that go far beyond simple competition among native and non-native species.
Are Honey Bees a Threat to Native Bees?