Bees Must Be Understood, Not Saved

byRu Wikmann|7 June, 2023

Bees in a honeycomb blog pic

Photo byChris Parkes

If someone told me 10 years ago that I'll be running a startup focused on technology for bees and their keepers, the look on my face would have been bemused, to say the least. Life really works in mysterious ways. I met my co-founder at a hackathon. As an electronics engineer, he wanted to solve beekeeping problems observed in his father's hobby. We built a prototype of a beehive monitoring system and won. Now we've grown to six core team members, and recently BeeSage celebrated its third birthday.

The support we've received venturing into this field has been tremendous. Everyone gets it. We don't need to spend time explaining who our customers are. And no one is asking “Why tho?”. People inherently know that bees are very important for humanity. At times it even tips into well-intentioned remarks like “Save the bees!”.

But what does this actually mean? It implies that bees are in danger. And that humans are the unsung heroes bees have been desperately waiting for 120 million years. Isn't that a bit arrogant? Let alone the chutzpah of virtue signalling about saving the bees after ravaging and polluting their neighbourhood… to me it sounds like a truism bordering on banality, designed to stroke our egos, if not to obscure from the real issues. If I was a bee, I would not approve of this stance.

Also… do we even know what a bee is? Let's investigate.

Health worries of honey bees

When referring to bees people with or without knowledge in taxonomy typically mean western honey bee (Apis mellifera), the most common of the only two honey bee species semi-domesticated and used as livestock. It's certainly a pollination powerhouse, as it services a wide variety of agricultural crops and is the most frequent floral visitor of crops worldwide. The other one is eastern honey bee (Apis cerana).

But did you know there actually are 20,000 species of bees? Yeah, I was pretty gobsmacked too, upon learning this figure. Could it be that too much focus on honey bees ignores all the other species of bees essential to a functioning ecosystem? And are honey bees actually threatened?

We should be precise about how we assess it. Given that there are 20,000-80,000 honey bees in a colony, we're not exactly going to be able to count each individual bee. So I downloaded the data on colonies worldwide from FAOSTAT. In 2011 there were 81,405,847 beehives and 101,624,052 in 2021. Wow, that's an almost 25% increase in 10 years! It certainly shows that beekeeping is becoming more popular. But it doesn't say anything about the health of honey bees.

It doesn’t look too good how the graph below is trending, though.

blog graph

Last year was the highest annual colony loss on record for sideliner beekeepers in the U.S. For hobbyists it was even worse. Obviously 53% of colonies dying is not normal. The main reasons for their health decline are pesticide exposure, the spread of pests like Varroa mites, invasive predators like the Asian hornet (Vespa velutina), poor nutrition, and various other stress factors like climate change.

Wild bees, nature's gentle stewards

So now we know that honey bees, although highly important, are just the tip of the iceberg. What do all the other species do, and why should we care?

Wild and managed bees are key pollinators, ensuring or enhancing the reproduction of a large fraction of the world's wild flowering plants and the yield of ~85% of all cultivated crops. A global decline in bee species richness is undeniable, and could lead us to massive starvation. I mean.. cereal grains wouldn’t be affected, as they’re pollinated by wind, but the cascading effects of biodiversity loss are pretty unpredictable. Strangely, “Save the Bees” campaigns often don't even mention wild bees. And sadly bee-washing is a thing.

Demand for pollination is growing 7X faster than the global stock of honey bees. They can't keep up with the demand, thus the world really needs to protect wild bees or we're all gonna be in trouble soon. 99.96% of bees don't even make honey! Wild bee biodiversity and abundance ensures that plants will be pollinated even in cases where certain species fail to perform. It enables resilience to climate change and acts as a buffer in case of unforeseen circumstances. The total value of animal pollination services to the economy is estimated to be as high as 577 billion dollars per year.

Bee data is lacking

Almost 15% of bee species in Europe are threatened with extinction or considered near threatened. However, for 56.7% of species there is not enough scientific information to evaluate their risk of extinction and thus, they are classified as Data Deficient. When more data become available, many of these might prove to be threatened as well.

Even for our beloved western honey bee the population trend is unknown. The EU aims to put Europe's biodiversity on the path to recovery by 2030. As part of this plan, the European Commission proposed the EU's first ever Nature Restoration Law. Moreover, they recently issued a revision of the EU Pollinators Initiative, stating Improving knowledge of pollinator decline, its causes and consequences as the number one priority.

This is where BeeSage comes into play. Through telemetry data from our Smart Beehive Scales, managed honey bees can be used as a proxy for understanding the impacts of various environmental agents on wild pollinators. We can use them as a radar for wild bee decline, and this data would inform potential actions taken for pollinator conservation efforts: providing nest sites, planting pollinator-friendly flowers etc. By tapping into Earth Observation data and publicly available data sources, we'll produce custom maps to identify factors affecting the survival of wild bees.

Save the flowers instead

But what can you do to help? Perhaps you're not a beekeeper, and you don't know much about data or programming either but want to make a difference. Whether you have a piece of land or just a balcony, you can always grow some pollinator-friendly plants. Type this keyword in your search engine of choice and discover a whole new world. You'll gain a rewarding hobby that truly provides support for our vital winged workers and ecosystem defenders, in this way becoming a blossom ambassador yourself.

Provide nesting sites by leaving patches of bare or lightly vegetated soil for ground-nesting bees, and consider installing bee houses or providing bundles of hollow stems for cavity-nesting bees. Reduce lawn area, replacing it with a wildflower meadow. Lawns offer little food or habitat for wild bees. Refrain from the use of pesticides, especially insecticides, if you have a garden. Support local conservation efforts by protecting and preserving natural habitats such as meadows, forests, and wetlands.

Share this article with your environmentally conscious friends and known polluters alike. People often are too busy to think about the bigger picture, despite meaning well. Only through collective efforts can we make a difference. At BeeSage we'll continue growing our team of workers, and moving towards our mission of enabling bees to share knowledge with humans through real-time data.