Honeybees are livestock just like cows

Honeybees have had a terrible time. Many hives have lost their bees over the past 12 months because of the very cold wet summer of 2012 and the long cold spring of 2013.  Honey prices will no doubt shoot up this year.

What happens to honeybee colonies when they suffer like this?

As honeybees are livestock,  if there’s a shortage one way to make up the numbers is to import them. This is exactly what one farm in Shropshire has done, importing £10,000 of honeybees from Italy. Having lost 2/3 of its bees to bad weather (and I expect Varroa did for some of them) they bought some on the open market.

The British Beekeepers Association reported last week that one third of all honeybee colonies were lost last winter. The didn’t blame the losses on neonicotinoids.

While I love honey and I understand that honeybees play some role in pollinating crops and wild plants, I do wonder sometimes what the fuss is about. There are practically no native honeybees in the UK. They died out in the 19th Century. Almost all (99%) of our honeybees are grown from imported stock.

Draw a comparison with Bovine TB. Here, another livestock animal, the cow, is also prey to a nasty disease, bovine TB. When beef and dairy farmers lose cows to bTB, they restock, just like Beekeepers.

Cows need grass and bees need flowers; actually bees are perfectly happy feeding from oilseed rape – probably the commonest “flower” in the British countryside. They don’t need wildflower meadows any more than cows do.

It may be that cows feeding on wildflower-rich pastures or from wildflower-rich hay are healthier (there is some evidence but not much). It may be that honeybees are healthier when they feed on a wider range of nectar and pollen sources than just OSR.

But my suggestion is that it is the livestock (including honeybees) that benefit from the provision of food by nature, not vice versa. To say that honeybees are worth so many millions of pounds to society, misses the point that we are using them to extract environmental goods from nature. They are competing with wild pollinators for limited nectar and pollen. These  bumblebees, moths and other insects are the real providers of pollination services to society and nature.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in bees, biodiversity, ecosystem services, environmental policy, farming, grazing, meadows, rubbish weather and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Honeybees are livestock just like cows

  1. Sasha matthewman says:

    Interesting. Surely you are not arguing for rapeseed monoculture? Do wildflower meadows matter? Beyond their intrinsic loveliness and diversity? How are the bumblebees doing this year?

    • milesking10 says:

      Hi Sasha,

      Thanks for the comment and great to hear from you. I was in Bristol yesterday which was very nostalgic and a bit weird.

      No I’m not arguing for rapeseed monoculture. I was drawing a comparison between honeybees, which are artificially introduced into the environment by us to produce honey; and wild pollinators like bumblebees, moths and so on which are wild, but provide us with a host of environmental goods. We hear a great deal in the media and from politicians about the plight of the bee, and how we all love bees and how much bees matter. Most of the time they are talking about honeybees – they don’t say talk about how much we love cows, and how much cows matter (other than in terms of them needing to not die from bovine TB.) Yet they are both types of livestock. Just like dairy cows, bees are managed to produce a product.

      Wildflower Meadows matter beyond their intrinsic loveliness and diversity – although these are incredibly important reasons for caring about their plight. Wildflower meadows provide ecosystem services to honeybees and cows, just as they provide them to us. The difference between a long-established wildflower meadow and honeybees, is that if a honeybee hive succumbs to bad weather, beekeepers can order a load more and import them in a lorry from Italy. Once an old wildflower meadow has been destroyed, it’s unique characteristics are lost forever, just like if someone demolished a mediaeval church. Yes you can create something that looks much the same, but it is a facsimile.

  2. John Kay says:

    Miles – I agree with much of what you say here, and sometimes puzzle at the embiggenment of the honey bee as an iconic species.
    Obviously honeybees are important pollinators for commercial growers but this is a matter of scale. Anyone who saw the documentary on Beeb 4 last night would know what I mean – those aerial shots of Californian almond orchards!! In that respect the HB is a production tool just as much as a mist sprayer.
    In my garden, despite the cold start, all the pollination that should have happened has happened and I haven’t seen a single honey bee – despite the nearby OSR crops. Apples, cherries, damsons, blackcurrants, redcurrant, blueberries and what looks like a monster crop of raspberries are developing apace without honeybees.
    With regard to the neonic issue – what bothers me is the the very large proportion of pesticide in seed treatments not taken up by the crop but left in the soil. What effect are these are bioaccumulative neurotoxins having on the non-target biota, what effect are they having in the water environment, and who (if anyone) is trying to find out? During the moratorium period, will all the effort be focused on bees – or what? And in 2016 or whenever I hope I don’t hear Defra’s spokes again blaming the bees for repeat feeding …

  3. milesking10 says:

    Thanks John. I wasn’t going to revisit the whole neonics issue, but you’re right. Some neonics do accumulate in the soil and this was why FERA the Government agency failed to find control plots against which they could compare neonicotinoids levels in bumble bees in their flawed research study, which was slated by the European Food Safety Agency.

    I’m afraid I don’t know what sort of monitoring is being planned before/during/after the moratorium period. Whatever is planned, it will have to take into account the long life of the pesticides in the soil.

    Whatever happens I expect the media to continue their love affair with the honeybee, while the Government continues to push for more intensive food production.

  4. milesking10 says:

    I’m just posting here a comment that came in via Linkedin earlier today from Carina Lagerstedt Nilssen:

    In Sweden we have Adopt a bee 🙂 http://world-you-like.europa.eu/sv/intressanta-projekt/oeversikt-oever-projekten/adopt-a-bee/ .

    It’s a community bee-keeping project (honey bees).

  5. Pingback: Life Streams

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