Bugman: 'Honeybees are an invasive threat to native bees'

Bugman Ruud Kleinpaste argues that honeybees are a threat to our native bee population.

Bugman Ruud Kleinpaste argues that honeybees are a threat to our native bee population.

OPINION: Just be the bee for a little moment, will you? Notice how everybody is really concerned about this industrious creature we know as Apis mellifera? For an entomologist who's been sticking up for insects for the best part of 45 years, that is really nice to see.

It's not been easy, being a Bugman, telling stories of how important our little friends are for the smooth running of the planet. Frankly, it's been hard to turn New Zealanders' "yucks" into admiration.

After all, "bugs" are just… well… bugs! They've got six legs, they creep around, usually in the middle of the night, eat desirable plants and sometimes bite. Or is that sting? They scare the babies, transmit diseases and breed like the clappers!

But some invertebrates are now accepted in day-to-day life as being more or less beneficial; butterflies, for instance. And pollinators, such as bumbles and honeybees, and perhaps the odd praying mantis too.

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Bees, though, have made it to the top. We all know that they are rather important insects. These girls are absolute experts in pollinating flowers. Their noses (sorry, antennae) and eyes lead them to the flowers with bountiful resources of nectar (high energy reward) and pollen (protein for growing bee babies).

We know that in order to make a jar of honey they need to circumvent the globe a million times, they communicate through dancing in the complete darkness of the hive and can smell explosives at the US security points before people board a plane. Well… you know what I mean.

Perhaps I am taking the mickey somewhat; yet the truth is that these honeybees are responsible for enabling about one-third of our daily food, simply through pollinating flowers.

And now we are reading about varroa mite, foulbrood, Israeli paralysis virus and colony collapse disorder – a gaggle of organisms and disorders that threaten the honey bee worldwide. Who will be pollinating our crops, our wild flowers and our native plants if Apis mellifera goes down the gurgler?

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Well, I've been thinking about that a bit lately. And these thoughts may not find favour with some of our readers!

The honeybee is an invasive species. (So are the four species of bumblebees here, by the way.) Might as well put it out there! It's an introduced insect, imported as slave labour for the pollination of imported food crops. It is kept in captivity for the sole purpose of producing fruit, vegetables and even meat! (Cows graze grass which gets nitrogen from clover, which is pollinated by… guess who?)

Despite the worldwide perception that the bees are in trouble, it might be a good idea to point out that the number of hives on the planet are growing by the day. In New Zealand, the growth is particularly staggering: we have more than doubled our registered hives in the past 10 years, arguably due to the desire to get onto that "amazing" bandwagon we call manuka honey.

Mecaela Lynch 123/RF SUPPLIED Tony Wills, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikicommons Pjt56, Wikicommons

Stocking up to feed their larvae is why bumblebees are interested in pollen. The way they gather it is remarkable: the foraging female bumblebees grab a flower and then vibrate their wings at an almighty pace to dislodge the pollen from the anthers. Clouds of pollen swirls around the flower and some falls right on top of the target, kicking off the fertilisation routine. Tomatoes and other solanaceous crops simply love this kind of vibratory attention – that’s why bumblebees are commercially available to gardeners and commercial tomato growers alike.

The fact that butterflies regularly visit flowers (for a quick feed of nectar) is a great indicator that their actions are beneficial for the distribution of pollen. The unfurled proboscis constantly probes to find the nectar source, gathering the grains by accident, while the feet pick up a fair amount of pollen too. Curiously, those butterfly feet are also able to "smell" or "taste" the flowers and nectar. Different butterfly species prefer different types of flowers.

Our native bees tend to sip nectar too, usually from flowers that have an open nectar reservoir (manuka, pohutukawa and such species), but their real intention is gathering pollen to provide for their larvae, deep inside their tunnels in the soil. Judging from the numbers of native bees in late spring and summer, their pollination potential must be considerable in the New Zealand landscape. We have a couple of dozen species in just about all the major native habitats, right into the alpine zones of our mountains, and some have adapted themselves well to exotic plant life too.

Most people don't recognise hoverflies as flies. They hover here, there and everywhere, usually near or above pollen-rich flowers. The cool thing is that some of these hoverfly species lay their eggs among aphid colonies, where the fly’s larvae (let’s call them maggots) will feast on these small sucking insects. Blowflies are also implicated in pollination services. The brown variety is particularly active in urban gardens, especially when the resident dog is let out at regular times of the day. Handy things, those blowflies, and very proficient at multi-tasking.

The narcissus-bulb fly maggot can do some damage, but the elegant, adult fly is a pollinator that resembles a small bumblebee, with similar colouring and fuzzy hair. Experienced gardeners know that adult flies differ from adult bumblebees in a few important ways: the flies only have one pair of wings (most other insects have two pairs) and they don’t sting, which allows you to gently catch them with your hands and impress the kids with your daring trick!

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Gold rush or fools' gold? Ask myrtle rust!

We must remember that honey and bumblebees are not the only pollinators that service Aotearoa. We have two dozen or so native bee species as well, plus birds, lizards, flies, beetles, thrips and heaps of other small, native organisms, all doing what they've done for a million or more years.

Scientists are also now starting to get the uneasy feeling that bees compete for floral resources and give our native pollinators a serious run for their money. The mere presence of managed honeybees also reduces the native species' abundance through spatial displacement – perhaps bullying is a better description.

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Honeybee (Apis mellifera).

Large garden bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus).

Wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum).

Native bee (Leioproctus fulvescens).

Native bees (Lasioglossum sordidum).

Hover fly (Melangyna novaezelandiae).

Common wasp (Vespula vulgaris).

German wasp (Vespula germanica).

Drone fly (Eristalis tenax).

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris).

Short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus).

Small garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum).

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The truth is, we know very little about our native pollinators and their ecology as well as their response to urbanisation pressures and habitat destruction.

On top of all that, the honeybee seems to be a mediocre pollinator of many native plants, preferring to work with exotic flowers and especially those that can be labelled weeds.

Some entomologists have even raised questions about bees acting as vectors for plant diseases. It shows you that we know little about our favourite insects, the bees.

But the impressions I get are of an invasive species that competes with natives and creates a weedy landscape, altering the environment and changing ecological health. Reminds me of trout! 

 - NZ Gardener

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