Enough with the honeybees

Trusnovec inspecting a hive on the roof of the B&B Hotel in Ljubljana, Slovenia. (Inset) Bees hovering on the roof of the Johnson & Johnson building in Ljubljana. — ©2023 The New York Times Company

WHEN the B&B Hotel in Ljubljana, Slovenia, decided to reinvent itself as an eco-friendly destination in 2015, it had to meet more than 150 criteria to earn a coveted Travelife certificate of sustainability. But then it went step further: it hired a beekeeper to install four honeybee hives on the roof.

“Keeping wild animals is a great way to show that we have a connection to nature,” said general manager Adrijana Hauptman Vidergar. “And we’ve had great feedback from guests who go up there and take a look.”

The hives are managed by Gorazd Trusnovec, a 50-year-old with a greying goatee who is the founder and sole employee of an enterprise called Najemi Panj, which translates to “Rent a Hive”.

For a yearly fee, he will install a honeybee colony on the roof of an office, or in a backyard, and ensure that its bees are healthy and productive. Customers get the honey and the pleasure of doing something that benefits bees and nourishes the environment.

That, at any rate, was Trusnovec’s original sales pitch. In recent years, he and other beekeepers, as well as a broad variety of leading conservationists, have come to a very different conclusion: the craze for honeybees now presents a genuine ecological challenge. Not just in Slovenia, but around the world.

“If you overcrowd any space with honeybees, there is a competition for natural resources, and since bees have the largest numbers, they push out other pollinators, which actually harms biodiversity,” he said after a recent visit to the B&B bees. “I would say that the best thing you could do for honeybees right now is not take up beekeeping.”

It’s like Johnny Appleseed announcing, “Enough with the apples”. That’s a jarring message, and not just because honeybees play a crucial role in the food chain, pollinating about one-third of the food consumed by Americans, according to the US Food and Drug Administration. It’s also because there is a widespread and now deeply rooted belief that the global population of honeybees has been running dangerously low for more than a decade.

The notion has spurred a boom in beekeeping, notably among corporations eager to demonstrate their green bona fides.

But the urge to acquire a hive comes from the simplification of some complicated facts, says Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon.

A malady originally dubbed disappearing disease had been afflicting honeybees for decades. In the fall of 2006, an American beekeeper named Dave Hackenberg checked on his 400 hives and found that in many, most of the worker bees had disappeared.

Other beekeepers started to report that they were losing upward of 90% of their colonies.

The phenomenon was renamed colony collapse disorder. The cause remains unclear, but experts tend to blame pesticides, an invasive parasite, a reduction in forageable habitat and climate change. An alarm was sounded, and “Save the bees” became a rallying cry.

“It was the first time that a large number of people started talking about pollinators, which was great,” Black said. “The downside was that there was no nuance. All anyone heard was that bees were declining, and so I should get a hive.”

Honeybees, it turns out, are a commercially managed animal – essentially livestock, like cows – and large beekeeping operations are remarkably adept at replacing colonies that die.

In the United States, about a million hives are trucked each year to places such as California, where honeybees pollinate almonds and other crops, Black said. It’s a major industry.

Although techniques for nurturing hives have improved, honeybees remain vulnerable animals. As of a few years ago, nearly 30% of commercial honeybees still did not survive the winter months, says the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s a large number – and one that puts a financial strain on commercial beekeepers.

“But that’s an agriculture story, not a conservation story,” Black said. “There are now more honeybees on the planet than there have ever been in human history.”

Figures from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations underscore the point. The number of beehives around the world has risen by nearly 26% in the past decade, to 102 million from 81 million.

Still, the save-the-bees narrative persists. Its longevity stems from confusion about what kind of bees actually need to be rescued. There are more than 20,000 species of wild bees in the world, and many people don’t realise they exist. That’s because they don’t produce honey and live all but invisibly, in ground nests and cavities such as hollow tree trunks. But they are indispensable pollinators of plants, flowers and crops.

Researchers have found that many species of wild bees are, in fact, declining. So, trying to save them makes eminent sense. But hobbyists and corporations, not to mention luminaries such as Beyonce and Queen Camilla, are drawn only to the seven or so species of honeybees – the one group supported by a multibillion-dollar agribusiness and that doesn’t need the help.

Hives are now getting installed at what beekeeping association leaders say is a record pace. As with the B&B Hotel, they are typically motivated by an impulse to do something positive for the environment that is also highly visible – an apiary form of greenwashing. (Hivewashing?)

Recently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City posted an image of four hives on its Instagram account, along with text that read, “We recognise the essential part bees play in our ecosystem and that’s why we are proud to provide a home to all these bees here at the Museum.”

In London, the sheer quantity of hives poses a threat to other species of bees, says a report issued in 2020 by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. The city’s financial district is now overrun with what Richard Glassborow, chair of the London Beekeepers’ Association, calls “trophy bees”.

“We’ve had companies from outside London come with plans to put 20 hives a year on roofs,” he said, “and persuade businesses that this will tick some kind of corporate responsibility box.” — ©2023 The New York Times Company

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