We all want to ‘save the bees’ – but which bees need saving, from what, and why? Might the loss of feral bees be good? By Tabitha Carvan.

What’s the answer to Australia’s bee crisis?

Bees on a honeycomb cell at the BEE Lab hives at the University of Sydney.
Bees on a honeycomb cell at the BEE Lab hives at the University of Sydney.
Credit: Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images

As a child of the 1980s, I feel as if I personally saved the whales. I had “Save the whales” printed on my windcheater, I wrote “Save the whales” in Texta on my pencil case, and I stuck my “Save the whales” Greenpeace sticker on my bed. And the whales were saved.

Now, we “save the bees” in much the same way. I buy a cute bee onesie for our friend’s new baby because it’s important that babies promote the cause; I twist pipe-cleaners onto a headband for my child’s outfit for World Bee Day, which is a thing they celebrate at school.

Like whales, bees are good. Bees are important, we know, and they’re under threat, we know, and the very act of knowing these things makes us feel as if we’re on the right track. This is a feeling so rare that it’s worth clinging to.

But I do wonder, which bees, exactly, are we saving, and why?

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I didn’t know this until recently, and of course if I had stopped to think about it, I would have known it to be true, but I didn’t, so here we are: the honey bee, which is the bee most of us are thinking of when we think of a bee, is not actually a wild animal. It’s not like a whale.

“European honey bees are like cows,” says Professor Saul Cunningham, an ecologist at the Australian National University. “They’re domesticated animals, bred over the centuries to do the things we want them to do.”

Honey bees are livestock. They were introduced to Australia 200 years ago for exactly this purpose. We farm them in hives to make honey and beeswax and royal jelly, and we use them to pollinate crops. When you see a honey bee in your garden, it has either popped over from a nearby managed hive or it has escaped from one. If you live in an urban area, it’s more likely the latter, meaning the bee buzzing around your potted colour is probably a feral honey bee.

This is what we call rogue domesticated animals, Cunningham tells me. If a wolf escapes a zoo, then it’s wild; if a dog goes bush, it’s feral.

“Australia is just a bloody great place for feral honey bees to be,” Cunningham says. When I asked him if he had time to answer some questions for me, he replied, “I am always happy to talk about bees” and I believe this to be 100 per cent true.

Honey bees, he says, thrive in Australia because they don’t like the cold and they do like nectar-rich eucalypts and tree hollows – which our native bees, birds and other small animals love, too.

“You know nest boxes?” Cunningham asks. “We spend all this money and time on nest box programs for gliders and parrots, and mostly we’re just providing new homes for feral honey bees. I mean that literally. The feral honey bee is the most common occupant of nesting boxes.”

He has written a paper with data showing that Australia has the highest density of European honey bees anywhere in the world. In New South Wales, feral honey bees have been listed as a “key threatening process” to species that rely on hollows, such as the squirrel glider and the glossy black cockatoo, and also to native bees and honeyeaters, which have to compete with the honey bees for floral resources.

It doesn’t sound like we’re lacking bees. In fact, I say to Cunningham, you’re making it sound as though the bee is bad. Which is unfortunate, since I bought the bee onesie on precisely the premise that bees are good.

No, the bee itself isn’t the problem, he says. “But you can have a bee in a bad place, and from a conservation point of view, of course European honey bees are bad. There’s nothing good about an introduced species and, specifically, an effective invader that competes with certain vulnerable species.”

The right place for a honey bee, as a domesticated species, is an agricultural landscape. Here, bees are not only good, they’re necessary. Crops such as apples, avocados, cherries and blueberries are dependent on honey bees for pollination. In Australia, there are half a million commercially managed beehives used for exactly this purpose.

The almond industry is the largest user, leasing 200,000 hives for pollination every year. Almonds are now our largest horticultural export, with almond trees occupying almost 60,000 hectares of land across four states. In some places, there’s nothing but almond trees as far as the eye can see.

“You’ve got a landscape with no habitat diversity, and you’ve planted something which flowers en masse,” Cunningham says of the almond orchards. “So they have to truck in honey bees from all over eastern Australia, taking them to the resources, because no natural system can support pollination at that scale.”

These honey bees, which get trucked around like livestock, have been affected by the varroa mite. It has made beekeeping and crop pollination harder and more costly. But varroa poses no actual threat to the European honey bee species, because it can be treated in managed beehives using chemicals. It’s a terrible thing, but the impact is primarily an economic one, affecting agricultural production.

Feral honey bees will also inevitably be affected by varroa, and to an even greater extent than managed bees because feral bees don’t have beekeepers coming in with chemical intervention. But do we even want to save those bees?

A decline in our enormous feral honey bee population would be good news for nest boxes, and for possums and gliders, and for the 15 per cent of Australian birds that rely on tree hollows for shelter and breeding. And it would be good news for native bees, which don’t function as hosts to the varroa parasite. Varroa might actually help to save these bees.

There are more than 2000 species of Australian native bee. Many of them specialise in visiting native plants, but some visit European crops, too. They don’t need to be shipped around in hives to perform this service; as wild pollinators they do it freely. This is actually how most crops in Australia that need pollination are pollinated: through a mixture of native bees, feral honey bees and non-bee pollinators such as flies, as they come and go.

“These are crops which aren’t super highly dependent on pollination, and which aren’t grown at massive scales,” Cunningham says. “But if you go down the path we have with the almond industry in Australia, wild pollinators could never pollinate a crop like that, given the system we’ve created.”

The system we’ve created needs honey bees, but honey bees don’t need the system. It’s hard to know what we’re saving.

“What’s interesting and confusing about the phrase ‘save the bees’ is it’s referring to a vaguely defined set of issues that actually pull in quite different directions,” Cunningham says. It’s great to want to protect these creatures, he says, because we need diverse communities of animals that aren’t just the obvious charismatic ones like koalas; but it’s a question of what we really care about.

Do you care about the honey bee because of the economy? Or the native bee because of ecology? Maybe you’re interested in how we’re going to feed the world’s growing population or you’re passionate about the impact of pesticides. Maybe you just like almonds.

It feels as if we’re always being told everything’s more complicated than we first thought. I didn’t really save the whales, of course; many species are still listed as threatened or vulnerable. But sometimes we just want to buy the stickers and the onesies and be told who is good and who is bad.

“Maybe I’m a bit wishy-washy in my reluctance to have a single this-is-what-we-should-do kind of message,” Cunningham says. “I tend to be more about trying to get people to understand the complexity of these things and think about the broader landscape.

“I’m probably not helping you write a good story though, am I?”

Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes it’s better just to be left wanting to know more. Maybe that’s how it feels to be on the right track.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "Hive minded".

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