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We've been trying to save the wrong bees


For years now, conventional wisdom, popular slogans and ad campaigns have heralded the same message - we need to save the honeybees. Products from peanut butter to shampoo were proudly declared bee friendly, and companies promised to do their part to promote bee conservation. But do honeybees actually need saving? Joining us now is Rich Hatfield, a bee conservationist with the Xerces Society. Rich, thanks for being here.

RICH HATFIELD: Thanks so much for having me.

DETROW: Let's start with this popular idea that we had for years that we needed to save the honeybees. Where did that come from, the idea that honeybees were at risk of extinction?

HATFIELD: Well, I think back in the mid-2000s, we started losing a large number of honeybee hives to kind of a mystery disease that we called colony collapse disorder at the time. And honeybee keepers were losing, you know, upwards of 50% of their hives every winter at that time, and people got concerned. They learned that, you know, 1 out of 3 bites of food that we eat comes from plants that were pollinated by a bee. And they learned that - you know, they knew that honeybees were important for that. And so there was this sort of large movement to save the bees. And so I think people sort of just learned honeybees are in trouble, and I need to do something.

DETROW: Was this a case of all of that mass education worked, or is it more complicated than that?

HATFIELD: I think it's more complicated than that. I think in some ways, all of that mass education may have misdirected conservation resources in some ways...

DETROW: How so?

HATFIELD: I mean, this is a strange analogy, perhaps, but, you know, we currently have bird flu that's running through chicken populations, you know, in the world. And people are rightly concerned about bird flu in chickens, but we're not enlisting people to help chickens by having backyard chicken coops to help bird flu, right? It's a different issue that's much more complex. And potentially, by enlisting people to help, by having honeybees in their backyard and stuff like that, it may be making the situation more difficult for some of our native bees that truly are in trouble.

DETROW: Can you talk about why that is and and how we should be thinking about the wild bees that fly among us?

HATFIELD: Yeah. What we know is that probably somewhere around a quarter of our wild bee species are facing some degree of extinction risk. And so when we talk about honeybees, you know, they're struggling, but there are still millions upon millions upon millions of hives in the world. And they're at no risk of going extinct. But some of our wild bees, with their population declines, they're not managed. We can't give them, you know, vaccines for their diseases or help treat their mites. We can't even find their nests.

And so with their population declines, we actually are in some cases, talking about the threat of extinction and potentially losing species from the face of the planet. And, and these wild bees are the ones that are maintaining our wild natural areas and keeping the floral diversity that feeds songbirds, that feeds small mammals, that feeds everything all the way up to grizzly bears. And so those are the animals that I'm thinking most about when I think about bee conservation.

DETROW: Is there a sense of what was happening around 2006 when that mass die-off happened? Is there more data that's come in in the years since about what exactly was going on and what the long-term implications were?

HATFIELD: I mean, I think they're still going on. It's really just that we're throwing a lot of threats at these animals. You know, there's climate change. There's habitat loss. There's pesticides. There's diseases. And then especially for honeybees, you know, we're putting them on trucks, and we're moving them thousands of miles all over the country in search of these pollination services. And all of those things are stressors, and those threats are all still there. It's just that from my perspective, honeybees are in no danger of going extinct, and they're not native animals. So it's a different issue. It's a farm sort of agriculture-related issue as opposed to a conservation wildlife issue with wild bees.

DETROW: Have you been frustrated, then, by the the slate of recent headlines all over the place of the honeybees are fine after all?

HATFIELD: Yeah. It is frustrating because it's more nuanced than that. And I think unfortunately, we live in a world where people rarely go deeper than headlines. And if what people are hearing is that the bees are saved and they just go about their business - oh, good, we solved that problem - I don't think that's where we are. I don't think anybody that really studies these things thinks that's where we are.

DETROW: So Rich, given your expertise and given the storyline over the past two decades, what should people know about this topic as a whole, based on the polite redirections that you've given many times over the years to reporters and people you just talk to day to day?

HATFIELD: I think the most important thing for people to know is that if you want to be a backyard beekeeper, I think you should know that there are reasons to do that. It's animal husbandry. You get honey out of the deal. You get wax out of the deal. They're beautiful animals. You can learn a lot from them. But if you are concerned with the state of the environment and you want to help increase pollination services and restore sort of the world back to a place where we can feel better about it, beekeeping is not conservation. And so if you are really interested in helping to save the bees, we should really be focusing on putting flowers on the ground, reducing the use of insecticides and choosing where we buy our agriculture from and supporting farmers that are - that have habitats that support both wild bees and native bees. I think that's where we should be.

DETROW: That's bee conservationist Rich Hatfield. Thank you so much.

HATFIELD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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