When “Helping the Bees” Hurts

Many of you are probably wondering what I mean by “when helping the bees hurts.” Am I talking about getting stung? While I agree getting stung wouldn’t feel good, that’s not what I am talking about. What I am talking about is much more complex and the “hurt” can have much greater and longer lasting impacts than a sting.

Over the last few years there has been a growing public interest in bees and increased awareness of the population declines many species are experiencing. While honey bees are often the poster child for bees, our native bee species are starting to get increased press as well. All of this interest and awareness has led to many people wanting to know what they can do to help the bees. That’s a good thing and I am happy to see so many people wanting to take action.

The problem is when we get tunnel vision. We all do it. I think it is human nature. We get so focused on “fixing” one problem that we forget to look at the impacts our solution can have on everything else. Adding to the problem is the fact that we are all busy. We have so much going on that we often choose what looks like a good, one-size-fits-all solution that we don’t have to think too hard about. This is especially true when the solution is being offered by someone we think should know something about the problem and its solutions. However, we forget that those people are also busy and no one knows everything.

So what does all this have to do with bees? I am seeing more and more companies offering seed mixes for pollinators, campaigns to “help the bees” by planting certain seeds, or lists of plants that bees like. On the surface this sounds like a really good thing. However, too often, those seed mixes or plant lists contain invasive species.

Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is a highly invasive species which should never be planted even though honey bees use it. In Kentucky, it is considered a severe threat because it spreads so easily and out-competes native plants. While helping the bees by planting flowers, shrubs, and trees that they will use is a good thing, it shouldn’t be done in such a way that it hurts the rest of the environment. Photo credit: Zeynel Cebeci

An invasive species is any non-native species that spreads rapidly and out-competes native species. One of the reasons that invasive species can spread so rapidly is because they lack the natural predators and diseases that are found in their native homelands. Don’t get me wrong, not every non-native plant is invasive and no plant is inherently “bad.” Even our native plants can become invasive when planted in certain foreign countries where they become the non-native species with no natural checks and balances.

Why should we care about invasive species? Because “helping the bees” by planting invasive species hurts the rest of the ecosystem. Scientific studies have shown that areas with high invasive species populations often have lower wildlife diversity. Because of the ecological damage that invasive species cause, each year local, state, and federal agencies across the country spend millions of dollars to manage invasive species populations on public lands. Often that means spraying the plants with some pretty harsh herbicides to try and kill them. Without the invasive species problem, those herbicides wouldn’t need to be sprayed and the money could be spent elsewhere.

I know I look at the situation differently than many people because I am both a beekeeper and a wildlife biologist. My wildlife biology training means I’ve studied the plants and animals that live in our natural ecosystems. It also means that I’ve seen the damage invasive species can do to our natural ecosystems. As a beekeeper, I want to do everything I can to help the bees (honey bees and our native bees) and I want to encourage others to do the same thing. As a wildlife biologist, I also believe helping the bees is important, but not at the expense of the rest of the ecosystem. There has to be a balance.

Let me clear. I don’t think anyone who is trying to help the bees by planting flowers or trees is consciously trying to hurt the environment or any part of it. I also don’t think the companies creating the seed mixes or lists of plants is trying to hurt the environment or any part of it. I believe everyone is trying to do a good thing. They just lack the knowledge or understanding of the potential impacts of some of the things they are planting or encouraging others to plant.

For example, recently a horticultural organization worked with research scientists at a university to develop a new publication. The new publication lists trees and shrubs that bees like and was designed as a guide for garden centers and nurseries to use when helping their customers choose plants that will help the bees. When I first heard about it, I was excited because I think it could be a very useful guide and educational tool that could help a lot of people. Unfortunately, the list contains several invasive species. The fact that those invasive species are still commercially available only adds to the confusion and problem.

I think part of the problem is a lack of communication. The resource managers know how much damage invasive species can cause. The horticulture industry knows what plants propagate well and meet their customers’ needs and wants in different landscapes. The beekeepers know the importance of having a steady supply of bee forage available. The native pollinator researchers know that native pollinators don’t always use the same plants as honey bees and vice versa. And many homeowners want to make conscientious decisions with their landscaping that will support bees and other pollinators. Each group has knowledge that the other groups could use. However, all those different groups aren’t talking to each other.

Some of the groups are talking to each other, and the number of groups at the table appears to be increasing, but not all of the groups are included. Highlighting this is the fact that two of the plants on the horticultural organization’s list are identified on a map of invasive species found on the campus where their research scientists are located. So either the different groups aren’t talking even within the same university or they aren’t listening to each other.

Please understand, I’m not trying to put anyone down. That’s why I’m not naming either the organization or the university in the text of this article. I’m glad the horticultural organization cared enough to make the list and I’m glad the university is involved in this type of work. I’m just using this as an example to highlight how deeply the communication problem runs.

Although honey bees and bumble bees may be drawn to the golden raintree’s (Koelreuteria paniculata) multitude of yellow blossoms, it is on the invasive species watch list in Kentucky. The Kentucky Exotic Pest Plant Council defines watch list species as “exotic plant species that have not been observed or well-documented in Kentucky, but have invaded native plant communities in neighboring states.” Photo credit: Meneerke bloem

I’ll be honest. I don’t know what the solution is to all of this. However, I think we can all agree on at least two things. 1) Helping the bees and other pollinators is a good thing. 2) Not harming the environment while helping the bees (or anything else) is also a good thing. After all, nothing exists in a vacuum and we are part of the environment too.

Personally, I believe it is possible to help the bees without hurting the environment. My desire to do so and to help others do it is one of the reasons why we started our nursery. I think one of the steps in making this happen at a large scale is for resource managers such as wildlife biologists, ecologists, and foresters to join the horticultural industry and others in the conversations about pollinator conservation. However, I’m afraid that will take time and is beyond my control.

In the meantime, it is going to be up to the homeowners and customers to do their research before buying and planting anything that is supposed to be good for bees or other pollinators. In Kentucky, the Kentucky Exotic Pest Plant Council maintains a list of species known to be invasive in the state. It’s a pretty good place to start if you are looking for a quick answer to how invasive a plant may be in this state. Many other states have similar organizations that maintain lists for that particular state because what is invasive in one state may not be in another.

If you have questions about a plant’s potential to be invasive or how much bees may use a given plant, feel free to contact me. I may not know the answer off the top of my head, but I know the places to go look for the answers. I’m happy to provide any help or guidance I can for others who think helping the bees shouldn’t hurt.


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