Awareness on the threat of the entire natural environment collapsing because of bees (or the lack thereof) has been a topic that has increased in discussion over the past couple of years. And as a result, the enthusiasm towards housing bees in gardens and orchards have increased in parts of the world, especially Europe. But this has had some serious drawbacks as well, which can paint a valuable picture to Sri Lanka’s future action plans in bee conservation in the future.

Competition and domestication

If you remember science class from school, you’d remember that competition is a key part of natural selection. Beings of the same species compete among themselves and other species for food, resources, potential mates and more.

Natural selection happens when a mutation of some sort gives an added advantage to a being, and makes it more likely that those with the same mutation continue, and produce offspring. This continues to the point where those with the advantageous mutation beat the competition and outcompete others, and voila!  A new step in evolution has taken place through natural selection.

Domesticated animals are different. Since these are tamed beings, the only mutations or adaptations they will have are ones that we impose on them that bring benefit to us. Domesticated dogs, various vegetables and fruit are great examples of this, and are products outside of the process of natural selection.

These are in ways beneficial for both species of animal and man, but have some serious drawbacks. A good example of this would be domesticated sheep, who literally will continue producing wool until and as a result, overheat in warmer weather and possibly die. Of course that’s not even considering the parasite infestations and the restriction on movement that they’ll experience. Domesticated sheep would literally die if we didn’t shear them every year.

Back to bees

Believing that they are contributing to the environment, many might house honey bees in their gardens and orchards. The problem lies therein. Not all bees make honey, and the bees kept in these hives purchased are domesticated honey bees.

 By increasing the presence of domesticated honey-bees in an environment, we would then be unnaturally increasing competition for pollen, in which wild bees who don’t have the protection of a human taking care of them in a man-made apiary, would most likely lose out on.

Not only that, modern beekeeping practices (on the industrial and orchard based side anyway) have been known to spread many diseases and parasites among bees, of which there may be ones that wild-bees haven’t adapted to, or be able to resist.

The natural environment is a very sensitive system, with many interconnected elements that depend on one another to have balance. Needless to say, the introduction of honey bees (introducing too many of them anyway) would throw off the natural balance and could easily wreak havoc in the insect world, including other pollinators.

What can be done?

Well the best thing to do is avoid introducing domesticated honey bees if your goal is to save bees. Of course, if you just want to have an apiary to collect honey of your own, that’s perfectly fine, as long as you’re being sensitive to the needs of the environment.

A good option would be to grow as many flowering plants as you can. That way, your domesticated honey bees would compete less with other wild bees and other pollinators. You get plenty of honey, bees get a fair share, and the impact caused is minimal. Also, avoid the harmful practice of transporting apiaries constantly between different orchards. One of the biggest reasons for the spread of disease among honeybees is observable in the harmful practice of using bees to pollinate almond orchards. You might want to do some reading on that one.

As for those who want to support wild bees, and give them a fighting chance, the best thing you could do is grow plenty of fruit and flowering plants as well, with plenty of bright, colourful flowers to attract bees and other pollinators.

You could also additionally create a shelter for bees, and allow wild bees to naturally fly in and take up residence if you’re comfortable with it, and have a large enough garden or orchard to be sure you won’t be disrupting the bees, nor any of your family members (including young children and pets).

It’s fairly easy to build a shelter, and some can be ordered online as well. But growing pollen-rich flowering plants really is the best thing you can do to be of help. Also, avoid uprooting weeds and other wild plants. As attractive as a well-manicured lawn may look, it’s a barren wasteland for many insects that would rather enjoy the natural plants they are accustomed to. Sometimes, their entire life cycles may depend on them. Leave a patch of your garden to allow wild weeds to grow and you’ll instantly notice an increase in insect population and diversity in your garden.

Of course, these are some basic actions you can take to help care for the pollinators in your area. Remember, bees are great, but introducing honey bees isn’t the answer to setting the natural balance and order right again. An honest mistake could leave you doing more harm than good.

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage