What is beewashing?
Beewashing is when people or organisations suggest that by supporting or increasing honeybee populations, they “saving the bees” and are playing their part in wildlife conservation. When in fact, saving honeybees is doing no favours for wild bee populations at all. At first, this might seem confusing. Why is saving honeybees not part of wildlife, and wild bee, conservation?
First we need to distinguish the difference between honeybees and wild bees. Honeybees are they only group of bees that produce honey, and they make extremely large nests of over ten thousand individuals. Globally there are thought to be about ten species of honeybee, and in the UK we only have one commonly farmed species, Apis mellifera. This honeybee species is just one of about 270 bee species in the UK. The other 270 species are made up of wild bumblebees and solitary bees. This means that when people are advocating for saving honeybees, they are only conservation one species of bee, when there are more than 270 others in the UK. Furthermore, the honeybee is quite different to the other wild bees.
There is an easy comparison to be made with bird conservation. This is because domesticated chickens to bird conservation are equivalent to honeybees for bee conservation – they are both livestock animals. If you constructed a chicken coupe in your garden and added several chickens, you simply would not be able to claim that you were playing your part in bird conservation. Similarly, adding a honeybee hive to your garden isn’t playing a part in bee conservation.
In addition to this, some studies have shown that honeybees compete directly with wild bees for floral resources in an area, and the honeybees usually win. Areas with high honeybee density tend to have low wild bee populations. Part of the reason for this is the huge size of honeybee nests, each one with tens of thousands of individuals, all foraging for resources. Honeybees are also carriers of various bee diseases, which can transmit to wild bee populations on flowers.
It’s important to realise that honeybees do have their role – they of course produce honey and beeswax, and are useful pollinators. However we also need to realise that we should not plague areas with vast numbers of honeybees, because we also need to let wild bees thrive. Many wild bee species have seen dramatic population declines in the UK over the past century, due to a number of factors, including habitat loss. Wild bees are also vital pollinators, and are actually more effective pollinators than honeybees. Bumblebees can engage in “buzz pollination”, which some plant species require to be pollinated. Adding excessive hives of honeybees to areas is making it more difficult for these important and beautiful wild bees to persist.
How to help wild bees
In order to help wild bees persist, there are a number of things that you can do, even from your own garden. It’s important to make sure that your garden, where possible, has bee friendly flowers in it. A really easy way to do this is to let your “weeds” grow. Often plants that we consider being weeds, such as dandelions, are incredibly valuable resources for bees. If you are interested in buying bee friendly flowers for your garden, Dave Goulson’s suggestions are a great place to start. Refrain from using pesticides of any sort in your garden – if they are killing your “pest” insects, they are probably harming the other ones, including the bees, too! You can also add a “bee hotel” to your garden to house solitary bees. Make sure that you buy one with holes that are at least ten centimetres deep and have “clean” edges, rather than splintered ones.
You can support insect and bee conservation charities. In the UK the largest of these are the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and also Bug Life. These charities have a number of projects that you can get involved in, such as bee walks.
Finally, you can spread knowledge about bees. When someone talks about how they are helping the honeybees for bee conservation, you can now educate them on why that is not the case, and guide them on what else they can do.
Why individual’s actions matter
When thinking about how you can make a difference to the health of our planet, starting small can make a big difference. You don’t have to afford to pay for solar panels on your house, or to buy a brand new electric car to affect the world around you. This especially applies to wild bee conservation, where small actions, such as a new patch of flowers, could be the difference between life or death for a bee, which can only fly a certain distance between feeds.
Collective consumer choice is a huge power and influence over what products businesses sell. If each individual choses to buy sustainably, big businesses will shift to sell sustainable products, and small sustainable businesses such as LEO Box will thrive. The collective effect of all of these small, sustainable purchases could be huge. Eventually, making small informed purchases could over time lead to a more sustainable lifestyle, which for many will lead to a more mindful and fulfilled life.
Who is Emma?
I hold a BA (Hons) in Biological Sciences from Oxford University, and a Masters of Research from Imperial College London in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation. Much of my undergraduate and postgraduate research was on pollinators. I am an Expert Bee Walk host for Oxford Plan Bee at Oxford University and I work in communications for a marine conservation charity.