Are We Keeping Too Many Bees?

Someday I’ll get around to writing a fill in the blanks form for journalists doing the inevitable urban homesteading backlash story. You know, “Folks are tired of all the chores and are dumping their [chickens/vegetables/bees] and returning to a life of [shopping/golfing/riding jet skis].” This month’s backlash story concerns urban beekeeping in London.

Reader Cassandra Silver (who has a really beautiful blog) alerted us to a bee story in the Independent, “How do-gooders threaten humble bee.” The gist of the article is that urban beekeepers in London have more hives than the nectar and pollen sources can support:

The London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) is warning that there could be “too many bees” in the Greater London area for the environment to sustain. One beehive needs 120kg of nectar and 20kg to 30kg of pollen a year to sustain its bees; honey production will decrease if there are not enough pollinator-friendly plants to meet demand.

I’m confused about the article and the quotes from the BLKA. Is the concern about the bees or about having less honey? Focusing on honey can indeed lead to bee overpopulation. Bee populations self-regulate. If there are not enough food sources colonies will die off.

That is, unless people are feeding bee colonies sugar to prop them up (and I assume they are because feeding bees is one of the many misguided bits of advice that mainstream beekeeping organizations promulgate). Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has many good reasons for not feeding bees except under certain limited circumstances. One of the unintended consequence of feeding bees is that you could easily contribute to an overpopulation problem. It would be better to let populations decline and stabilize, in my opinion.

One good thing that might come out of London’s alleged bee overpopulation problem, that the article points out, is that the situation might prompt people to plant more flowering plants. Public and private urban spaces all over the world would benefit from landscaping that takes pollinators into account. Such landscapes tend to be beautiful, nourishing both to the bees and the human soul.

On Monday, the African bee myth.

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  1. am currently feeding my bees. This is the first year for my hive and there are limits to pollen availability in my upper desert area. So I’ll feed through the winter as they spent their summer creating brood comb, but no honey comb. By next year, they should be ready to self-regulate themselves. am hoping this environment will be enough to keep a small hive going – and keep my garden pollinated. yes, I got bees for that very selfish reason! The local group that I went in with (for hive box and bee buying) are on the other side of town and have, to my mind, created a similar situation, of too many bees in a community that lacks enough pollen sources for them to all survive well. But they are all working with the advice of a “bee keeping guru”. One person already had the bees desert the hive. They will do what they need to do.

  2. I’m confused. Couldn’t you just feed the bees by planting more flowering plants and trees? Why wouldn’t that work?

    • Yes, more urban focus on nectar rich plants would help a lot, and would help more than the bees, as Erik says. But I feel like a lot of this “problem” is centered on our greed for honey. Honey is stored nectar, and stored labor. The more we take from them, the harder they have to work, and the more flower nectar resources they need. If the beekeepers left them their honey, taking only what truly and safely seems surplus (which means taking no honey at all sometimes), and didn’t freak out about the natural expansion and contractions of hive populations, everyone would probably be a lot more mellow.

    • Planting flowers can be self-limiting. To make just 1# of honey, bees have to visit 2 million flowers and fly 55,000 miles. In their lifetime, the average worker bee only produces 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey.

  3. This sounds cruel all of a sudden, like hoarding cats and letting them starve to death, except bees can just leave. Thankfully, I get my honey from a person in the country, so I know I am not getting bees that are being starved to death…I hope.

    • I have a little more time now.

      I read that Greece has a density of nine hives per acre. Given the amount of that country that is rock, it seems like London may be overreacting a little. But, yes, plant more pollinator gardens.

      But, I want to trumpet the problems with honeybees again. I have bees and I love them. But honeybees are INVASIVE, and beekeeping swings their population way out of whack.

      This is a problem because honeybees are actually wimps. They don’t fly in the cold or the wet. For that you need mason bees and bumble bees.

      But, the massing of honeybees in the warm season can outcompete the native pollinators, which can die off. Then you lose your early season pollination. Which means no apples.

      So, drill holes for mason bees. Make a bumble bee nest. Plant a pollinator garden.

      I wrote about it more and gave some links in Dance of the Honey Bee

  4. Honestly is there nothing us humans can touch and leave in harmony and unharmed?

    Good intentions and endeavor seems to be behind most things we do but the shame of the chaos and carnage we leave behind us perhaps its all best left and endured.

    I think of fish oil we take it to be more healthy at the expense of the worlds fish stock which is now dangerously low.

    This is so wrong on all levels and cruel for bees so it seems

    Humans depress me sometimes 🙁

    • It think we can help turn this one around with just a little more attention to systems theory–thinking more carefully about when we should and should not intervene.

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