Gardening on the Planet

As pollinators for a native plant garden, honey bees suck!

Guest Rant by David Schmetterling, Montana Wildlife Gardener

That’s right, they suck.  Someone had to say it.

If you want honey bees (Apis mellifera) for say, I don’t know, honey- that is great.  No problem.  If you Beehave converted a heterogeneous, beautiful landscape of native plants and wildlife into a monoculture for crop production, and every plant requires pollination in the same, narrow, discrete window, honey bees are for you.

However, if you are interested in any of the following:  biodiversity, bee conservation, pollinator conservation and diversity, wildlife gardening, native plant landscaping, getting your native plant garden pollinated, or just plain learning about the really cool insects in your garden, then yes, honey bees suck.

Somewhere along the way of promoting awareness of pollinators and their role in plant, wildlife and bee conservation, people wove in honey bees.  This is really unfortunate, so I am trying to set the record straight. 

In our garden I have collected over 150 species of bees and “pollinators” and one of those species is honey bee.  In fact, honey bees in our garden are pretty uncommon, especially outside a narrow time of day and time of year.  The diverse species of native pollinators provide so much more than pollination to our garden.  Just as a small example, the larvae of the flower fly (Spilomaya spp.), a yellow jacket mimic, pictured below, are effective predators of aphids in the garden (including our vegetable garden).

I venture that honey bees are pretty ineffectual pollinators of most things- especially native species.  As far as colony collapse disorder, although academically interesting, don’t be fooled: it is not a conservation issue.

Honey bees are native to Eurasia (where most of our noxious weeds are coincidently from), and share no evolutionary history with plants in the U.S., and in particular with plants of the intermountain west of Montana.  Consequently, they are not effective pollinators of the diverse native plants we have here. They will only pollinate over a narrow range of dates and temperatures, and can only exploit certain sizes and shapes of plants.  Again, too narrow a range to be effective. 

For example, in the Missoula valley, and in my garden, spring arrives with sagebrush buttercups (Ranunculus glaberrimus) that flower in late February or early March.  They often arrive when snow still covers the ground and most days are barely above freezing, and the blooms can be rapid.  This time of the year, nary a honey bee is in sight or even able to survive – these blooms predate the hives trucked in from the south.  Native flowers come and go, blooming across different days (and some only at night) from snowy spring until late October, long after the honey bees head back down south or hunker down trying to survive.

Even as temperatures become more appealing to honey bees, morning and evening can be too cool for them to do much of anything beyond surviving.  Sure, on a warm July afternoon, honey bees will be out in force pollinating some things, but they don’t do much.  Our native pollinators, including moths, butterflies, bees, flies, beetles, ants, and others are so diverse in terms of habitats they occupy, body sizes and morpholoogy, that they can pollinate and exploit a diversity of native plants that no truckload of honey bee hives consisting of identically sized and shaped honey bees could even imagine.

So, yes, honey bees are great for producing honey.  They are great for pollinating commercial crops (though their value is probably grossly overstated), but they have little place in conservation and little room in my garden.

Posted by on March 8, 2012 at 4:29 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet.
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32 Responses to “As pollinators for a native plant garden, honey bees suck!”

  1. This is an interesting rant and I observe many dozens of species of bees and wasps (paperwasp pictured) in my home garden that doesn’t include a big vegetable garden and does include a lot of natives. The community vegetable garden, however, is a different story. Honeybees are in abundance there (and that is why you plant flowers that attract them as well, or let some vegetables go to flower, such as radish–last year my Black Spanish radish plants were crawling with many hundreds of honeybees-and the pods are delicious). Honeybees do increase crop yield–no question about it. In my educated opinion, I would say that humans/honeybees/food crops have had a close simbiotic and evolutionary existence for many thousands of years. I would not buy that their importance for our food supply is “grossly overstated.”

  2. Tara Dillard says:

    A vegetable garden specialist told my client not to hire me. She should only plant things to feed insects or wildlife or……

    A year later, after she had hired me & installed my landscape design, her vegetable garden specialist told my client, “You have the highest vegetable garden yields I’ve ever seen.”

    Why is her yield highest? Plant in the style of historic Italy. Increase pollination from all sources all year.

    Ironic, an ornamental Landscape Design specialist taught a home vegetable garden specialist how to increase vegetable garden yields.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. H says:

    That’s a wasp in your picture – not a beloved honeybee.

  4. Monica Felt says:

    Thank you for saying it. Many people are not aware of other pollinators and their important roles in the garden. I recently learned that Bumblebees pollinate tomatoes better than honeybees and this makes sense because tomatoes are a North American native too. The Bumblebees have the correct frequency of wing flap (sonic frequency) to get the job done- thereby filling out our tomatoes and finishing off their pollination needs-tomatoes are only partially self-fertile.

  5. Susan says:

    Very interesting subject. I’ve been wondering about what other polinators exist for my black currant (cassis) bushes on my balcony this year, since last year I left them to attract on their own and I ended with one currant. My currants will be flowering in the coming weeks and I plan on hand-fertilizing since it’s still too cold for the bees, but I’ve been feeling that they’re a rather inefficient for my location. It’s refreshing to get a different perspective on the bees.

  6. Excellent post! While the honeybees may be excellent for crop pollination (since most of our crops are from Eurasia and other non-North America locales), for our native plants, they are just one of many, many pollinators…and probably a very insignificant one at that. I’ve been photographing and learning about my native pollinators here in south central Kansas for a couple years now. It’s fascinating to see the variety of species attracted to my native prairie plants!

  7. Kevin says:

    While I agree that our native pollinators are very diverse and intriguing, as a gardener I feel that honey bees are useful critters, introduced or not. And that photo is not a honeybee.

  8. Thad says:

    This comment is aimed at those who read headlines and then comment … the author clearly states that the image is of a larvae of the flower fly (Spilomaya spp.) … read the article, and maybe you will learn something!

  9. When it comes to pollinators, everybody is welcome to the party in my garden! At least honeybees don’t drill into my deck joists like the native carpenter bees do… but honeybees do make the best bee beards I think. So I welcome them along with all others — I just don’t rely on them.

  10. tropaeolum says:

    If the death of the Eurasian honeybees brings attention to the over-use of insecticides and herbicides, then bring on the publicity! Saving the honeybee might just save out native pollinators, too.

  11. skr says:

    It may be true that honeybees aren’t that great way up north in Montana, but down here in Southern California they are out working every and all day. They also hit up blue flowers that the natives seem to avoid.

  12. David says:

    Great comments!
    Just to clarify, though, the insect pictured is neither a wasp nor a honeybee – it is a fly. A fly that mimics a yellowjacket. I am sure the Spilomaya would be proud to know its deception was complete- even able to fool people in a close up photo and much larger than its actual size!

  13. Marilyn says:

    http://montanawildlifegardener.blogspot.com/2011/07/these-are-not-hymenoptera-you-are.html

    Here is a link to a post at the author’s blog about things in the garden that look like bees and wasps, but in fact are NOT bees or wasps. If you really look carefully at your pollinators, you’ll find a wide diversity of things you may not have expected. Many creatures that look like bees are flies or even moths.

  14. Kat says:

    I think the problem is that if you hover your mouse over the photo, the text reads “bee.” It’s not a bee, and not even a wasp, but a fly. Can the text be changed to clear up this problem?

  15. donna says:

    Love my honey bees, but my natives mostly attract native bees, flies, cute little tiny wasps, and the big “bombers” as I call them, the mason bees. They are all terrific and I enjoy the abundance of all the different critters in my organic garden. If you want these lovely critters in your garden, you almost have to stay organic. I rarely see them in the yards around me that are mostly monocultures and grass.

  16. Nora says:

    My neighbor started keeping bees about two years ago. They have definetly increased my vegetable crops. My take-away of this story is that our pollinators are very diverse, and that you shouldn’t rely on a single species. Our neighbor gives us a gallon of honey every year, for putting up with the buzzing. Couldn’t have found a better deal!

  17. Laura Bell says:

    We’ve had a warm, dry winter but sure as the world, once the fruit trees began blooming, the weather turned windy, cold & wet. My son (a big fan of backyard fruit) knows enough about honeybee activity that he was worried for me and the lack of honey bee pollination action. I told him that while honeybees are great, the other pollinators in the yard likely do more for us. Now he wants to know more about these other pollinators so he can make sure he knows who to thank.

  18. Pam J. says:

    The guest ranter says:
    “if you are interested in any of the following: biodiversity, bee conservation, pollinator conservation and diversity, wildlife gardening, native plant landscaping, getting your native plant garden pollinated, or just plain learning about the really cool insects in your garden, then yes, honey bees suck.”
    I am interested in all of the above, and I’ve been a beekeeper. Beekeeping is a really fun thing to do, some might even call it “cool.” In the local beekeeping association I belong to, you never find members who start keeping bees because they expect their gardens to look better. They do it for the honey. Or, like me, for “learning about really cool insects.”

    [I think my post is mostly because you said "bees suck" and that I cannot abide!]

  19. UrsulaV says:

    I just think it’s funny how many people immediately jumped on the chance to apparently prove the ranter wrong by saying “That’s not a bee!”

    Until my neighbor started beekeeping last year, I never saw honey bees in my garden at all. Now there’s a steady stream coming and going…to the pond, to get water in summer. Most of the pollination is still being done by other critters.

    I daresay European honey bees are fabulous for pollinating historically European plants (they do like my basil!) but the heavy lifting in my garden are native pollinators, and I’m very glad they’re there.

  20. Marry me. My wife won’t mind.

  21. anne says:

    For years we brought commercial hives of honeybees in to pollinate our orchard. One of the things that narrow pollination window does is facilitate a narrow harvest window, which (in our cherries in particular) can save some time, energy and money at harvest time.

    But then one year my husband got swarmed while placing the hives (the tractor hit a bump in the road and a super opened up), resulting in a very painful and life-threatening bout of stinging. The next year, we didn’t bring in the hives, and discovered that we had a very decent crop anyway.

    Then we started noticing the many different pollinators out there. Our orchard is surrounded by forest on 3 sides, so I’m guessing that helps with the diversity. We haven’t brought the hives in for years; harvest is a little trickier, but we feel it’s worth the hassle.

  22. Folks might be interested in this publication. (Low-res version available free online.)

    Managing Alternative Pollinators: A Handbook for Beekeepers, Growers, and Conservationists

    http://www.nraes.org/nra_order.taf?_function=detail&pr_id=191&_UserReference=C3C42FA35C2BE6794F5952A5

  23. Angie says:

    I love all the native pollinators in my garden, I love my native plants too but my garden is diverse and full of non native plants and yes it’s even home to honeybees. I didn’t get honeybees because I wanted them to pollinate my garden, I didn’t even get them because I wanted honey. I got them because honeybees need help, which is the same reason that I have Mason bee hives and leave dirt exposed for ground nesting bees and holes and brush piles for bumblebees. You can’t turn back the clock, we can’t eradicate all the non native plants and insects from the US, they are here and like almost all of us that aren’t Native American, now call this their home. I like diversity in my garden and I’m happy that I’m able to have it in the form of plants and insects!

  24. You’ve got lots of comments but I have to chime in too- my garden takes all comers. I have lots of different types of bees in my suburban garden including native, honey, bumble bees and carpenter bees. I appreciate them all.
    And I grow lots of edibles, and make sure to provide flowers, native and otherwise.
    I don’t get that there has to be two camps for our bee pollinators- can’t we just all get along?

  25. Town Mouse says:

    This dovetails nicely with my Co-blogger’s observation here in California. Rosemary visited by honeybees, and by nothing else. Native plants visited by lots of other critters (bees and flies pretending to wasps and other interesting delights).

    So, it cuts both ways. If you want native pollinators, plant a little more than just rosemary.

  26. Tami says:

    “I venture that honey bees are pretty ineffectual pollinators of most things- especially native species.”

    I’d agree with this statement, except you don’t offer any evidence supporting it. Just collecting 150+ species of other insects doesn’t measure Apis mellifera’s pollination effectiveness. It’s unfortunate that you’ve labeled bees as insects that ‘suck’ at a task without proving it.

    My DH and I had bees for over 10 years in Cache Valley, Utah – a place with a climate and range of plant communities in common with the Missoula Valley. My garden was overwhelmingly native plants and it thrived with the attentions of my honeybees and bazillions of native pollinators. And, yes, they gave plenty of attention to my rosemary and lavender blooms too. It’s simply nonsense that there’s some sort of natural Jim Crow laws keeping one group of insects on one group of plants and another on a separate group.

    This coming summer, take a few trips around your valley and up into the surrounding national forests to see that neither natives or honeybees are ‘better’ than each other. First, I’d like you to find a field of alfalfa being grown for seed to see the big boxes of native leafcutter bees deployed to effectively pollinate the non-native alfalfa. Then I’d like you to travel into the high country to find the stacks of non-native honeybee hives deployed to capture the native wildflower and famous Montana huckleberry nectar flow. Neither should be effective or even happening using your reasoning!

  27. Excellent comments (I misidentified the “paper wasp”). I learned a lot! I think we can all agree; the greater diversity the better. And…always question what you hear. Now I am much more skeptical about the importance of honeybees to some food crops and will be observing the plants much more closely this year.

  28. Dan says:

    Great to point out that honeybees are not native, but this article would be more informative with facts. It’s unfair and unhelpful to compare the pollination efficacy of a single species (honeybees) to those of a large group of species (ALL native pollinators); of course the latter will always win out.

    Incidentally, many of the agricultural crops that are very efficiently pollinated by honeybees are US natives (eg blueberries and cranberries). So, the dichotomy between agricultural crops and native plants is also unhelpful.

  29. Dave says:

    Different creatures pollinate different things, for example flies are great for pollinating paw paws because that fruit is not attractive to other pollinators. Native plants are not as attractive to honey bees because there are usually plants with more pollen or nectar blooming at the same time.

    Honey bees are perfect for pollinating our food plants though. Typically you get more fruit and larger fruit after honey bee pollination. Native flowers are pretty and most can be consumed if one is hungry enough. But, I prefer regular veggies and fruits.

  30. It is interesting seeing the number challenges to the guest rant: honey bees have quite obviously captured the imagination of many people in ways that native pollinators have not.

    Schmetterling has clearly touched a nerve, but his premise is nonetheless true: honey bees are not native and are not especially effective pollinators for most kind of plants (even imported agricultural plants). Honey bees are relatively easy to manage, because of their social nature, but providing healthy habitat for native pollinators can be as effective or more effective. That, I think, was Schmetterling’s point.

  31. Tony Allen says:

    If you want for insects and other creatures to pollinate your garden, go with plants where insects like to feed on as well as birds. Bumblebees may not be as effective, but if you want something native, ladybugs can pollinate as well. They like aphids too, so it’s a win-win.

  32. Sergio says:

    With the right plants and temperature, bees will be attracted and do their part in the process of pollination. Although it might be true that bees aren’t great pollinators in your garden, they have another purpose perhaps?

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