To bee or not to bee

I’ve not been writing lately because life has been busy – we moved into our new home in Truro (Cornwall’s only city, which the tourist board describes as ‘Our Great Little City’, presumably to lower expectations). I’m very lucky to now have my own little quiet back garden. It even has a pond – a water source for bees!

And yet I find myself in two minds about whether to bring hives here.

To bee:

  • The intoxicating sight, smell and sound of 40,000+ bees on a summer’s day
  • Physical and mental health benefits of spending time with the bees
  • Tommy can learn beekeeping too when a little older
  • Honey!

Not to bee:

  • Extra work and extra worry – potentially swarms may bother neighbours
  • Tommy might want to poke his hands in the hives
  • Could spend time gardening and building solitary bee homes instead
  • Honey bees may impact wild pollinators. Twitter users @Kath_Baldock and Patrick A.Jansen recently tweeted about Lise Ropars’ presentation at the Ecology Across Borders (EAB) 2017 conference, reporting that wild pollinator visits in urban areas decreased when honey bee hive numbers increased. I really don’t want my beekeeping to be something I do at the cost of wild pollinators.

A poster summarising Lise Ropars’ & her colleagues research is available at ‘Impact of domesticated honeybee introductions on the wild pollinating fauna in a dense urban habitat: the case of Paris

Should I carry on? Or take a break and focus on making the garden wildlife-friendly? I feel so conflicted.

Starting a new life with the help of bees

It’s certainly heart-affirming to read this story – a Syrian refugee who has found his feet in the UK through starting up a beekeeping project for fellow refugees and jobseekers here: Syrian beekeeper tastes sweet success with British honey bees. “Bees mean to me peace, mean to me safety” says Dr Ryad Alsous.

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
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44 Responses to To bee or not to bee

  1. Maybe do a little reconnaissance. Start watching for honey bees. If found perhaps find a local keeper. There’s time to explore your new surroundings. Cheers!

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Thanks – I have been looking out for hives in allotments round here, but haven’t spotted any yet! I have joined the local association, but unfortunately they meet on an evening when I don’t have a babysitter.

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  2. Ron Miksha says:

    To bee or not to bee. That’s a profound decision. I wish that new beekeepers gave it more thought – but they usually don’t know what they are getting into until they are deep into it. If they realized that even experienced beekeepers like you ponder the issue, maybe they might, too.
    You have several really important concerns – safety for little people and for neighbours; the sacrifice of time and energy; and, you have mentioned the potential disruption of native bees. Where you live, of course, honey bees are also native bees and much of the competition over flowers was sorted out a few millennia ago. (Except in the highly unnatural situation of many dozen hives on the same plot.)
    There still have not been enough studies on intraspecies competition. The question is still open. I would like to see several more studies before we can be convinced that this is an issue. I still encourage beekeeping, even here in Canada where honey bees are not native. Each new beekeeper is a keen advocate for more green spaces and fewer municipal sprays. (You would be an advocate with or without a hive of honey bees, so you are a special case.) Ultimately, I think, it becomes a lifestyle choice. Your choice. (But you know, of course, that I’ll quit following your blog if you give up the bees… just kidding.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Emily Scott says:

      Honey bees are also native in Paris, where Lise Ropars did her study. It’s hard to know just how many hives are here – I should check BeeBase (a U.K. Government site which beekeepers are encouraged to register their hives on), that might give an indication. One way or another, I will bring bees into this garden, just maybe not honey bees 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ron Miksha says:

        Yes, honey bees are native to Paris and were there thousands of years before people came along.
        I took a look at the poster. It does not have much raw data, but seemed to focus on the density of honey bees (which would be appropriate). In high concentrations, honey bees may interfere with other native bees. In theory, that must be true, but there is not enough solid evidence to know what that density might be – it’s a density which would vary from place to place and from season to season. One study in one small geographic setting over a single year won’t give the answer – but it is a step towards knowing.
        In some areas, honey bees concentrate on flowers which are adapted to honey bees and not other bees so there would be no intraspecies competition at all. Hopefully, there will be more such studies so we will have a clear answer.

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        • Ron Miksha says:

          I just realized that the study was a three-year study, not a single season as I stated! I was wrong about that. I will see if the authors will make their raw data available.
          Here is part of their abstract:

          “The density of domesticated bees hives significantly negatively impacts on the visitation frequency and density of wild pollinators. Honey bees were more attracted to ornamental plants and foraged on a wide range of corolla morphologies, whereas wild pollinators preferred native plants and tubular corollas. Results should help determine the optimal densities of domesticated and wild pollinators to preserve both the pollination ecosystem service and the beekeeping activities.”

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  3. Pingback: To bee or not to bee | Beginner Beekeeper

  4. Erik says:

    Well… that is the question!

    I’ve been wondering about this issue as well, lately. Perhaps more of an issue as Ron says here in the U.S. where honey bees are not even native. Not planning to give up my bees, just wondering about honey bee density in areas where there are a lot of beekeepers. Hoping to turn some of our rather large grassy areas into more bee-friendly forage to assuage some of my guilt this spring.

    Watching what grows and what visits your yard the first year is good advice. I doubt a single hive of native bees will make a significant impact, though you never know. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. So if you look at the poster you linked, the real impact is on the bumblebees. Solitary bees do not respond significantly to changes in honeybee density. The impact on bumblebees is interesting for a number of reasons, but even so the effect size (ie the number of bumblebees reduced per five minute observation) is small. I still haven’t seen really convincing evidence that honeybees outcompete other bee species, although it seems logical that they would. So far in my own research, I have no convincing data to that effect, though I have indirectly looked for the competition many times. I’m not drawing any conclusions yet.

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  6. Pingback: To bee or not to bee | Raising Honey Bees

  7. Lizzie Susans says:

    Read Alsous’ story… Utterly compelling. To build something from nothing like that with everything going against him… And bees too! What an inspiration… Thanks for sharing Emily xxx

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  8. I was aware of this issue and I believe that the density of honey bee hives is bound to effect the availability of nectar and intensive apiculture could be just as damaging to nature as intensive agriculture. I have seen some suggestions of the number of hives that a square area of land could support (considering too the quality of land.) I am constantly improving the quality of plants I grow in my garden for all pollinators and encouraging everyone to do the same.
    I think having one hive or two hives in a garden is a different proposition to having 300 or more in one area (be that area countryside or no).
    Children are all different, you will know if yours is likely to stick his fingers in a bee hive. Mine never had the chance but I would not have had any concerns for their safety.
    You would have to consider your neighbours and any fears they might have (you might even find a new hive partner!) I do not know the risks of urban bee keeping.
    As you say, the joys of having the wild bees in the garden are immense. Amelia

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  9. theresagreen says:

    Firstly, I wish you all much happiness in your new home in a beautiful part of our country. Is Truro truly an urban environment and how close to the edge of town are you? Perhaps you need to take time to settle in and get to know your garden and local environment through all of the seasons and always trust your instincts! Whatever you decide I’m sure the local wildlife will be happy you’ve moved in. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Good question – Truro is not urban in the way Tokyo is urban! We are mainly in an area of suburban homes and gardens. On the outskirts there are fields with hedgerows which would also give some forage. I love being able to watch the birds in our garden. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you too!

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  10. In your ‘not to bee’ column, I would immediately discount the study. As mentioned by other bloggers, there is just not enough, in this study and research in general, to determine your decision-making. The problem with these studies is that often they do not admit to the complexity of causation in a natural environment, as they are so much about ascribing singular causation. According to my singular experience, it was not until I introduced honeybees to my yard that I saw an increase in other pollinators. My fatsia is an illustration of that. And speaking of gardening, I consider honeybees as instrumental to any blooms I have, even those not frequented by honeybees (the encouragement of those pollinators again). The only items I would consider in your minus column are the neighbours and Tommy. Any scope for situating a hive somewhere else, or doing some sharing as you did with Emma?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Emily Scott says:

      Thanks for your thoughts on this. How would introducing honey bees increase other pollinators, was that perhaps because you became more focused on having bee-friendly flowers? I don’t know many people here and unfortunately the local beekeeping group meets on Tuesday evenings when Drew isn’t here to babysit. In time perhaps I will make some beekeeping buddies. In about fourteen years I can start leaving Tommy here alone!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. As I have said and written many times: apart from the beekeeper, the worst enemy of a colony of bees is another one! That’s why I have lots of scattered apiaries with one or two hives in each and I suggest you follow suit. Start with one in your garden (maybe in the little shed to be out of sight of neighbours/children, but, possibly via the local BKA identify other possible sites. I suggest you place baited hives around the area so as to get locally adapted bees, maybe even Amm as they are popular in Kernow.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Finnroweth says:

    Hi Emily,
    I spent a year on a farm where the only blooming flowers in July were 50 yards of lavender. They were teeming with bumblebees while my honey bees had to survive on syrup. Plant Lavender for a garden full of wild buzzy creatures that fascinate toddlers and never seem to sting them.

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  13. Emma Maund says:

    Go for it Emily! I think your garden in Truro would be the perfect place for a hive and for planting a wildlife garden with homes for solitary bees. I noticed in our garden the different types of bees seemed to prefer to gather on different flowers (the honeybees love snowberry, the carders love toadflax and other bumbles adore the salvia) – so give it a go! xx

    Liked by 1 person

  14. P&B says:

    It’s a hard decision to make. I grew attached to my bees, but I also care about the native bees as well. I found that by growing more pollinator friendly plants for the bees I keep, that it draws more native bees in to our garden. I’ve seen a wider variety of bees, flies and wasps as a result in the last few years. But again I limit the yard to only a few hives. I can’t speak for heavily urban environments, but I think balancing space and quantity of hives and creating a garden for wildlife will help nature more than hurt it. We may not be able to control nature, but we certainly can influence it by controlling our management of it. Take a break & build your garden. Then consider a hive or two.

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  15. We are first year beekeepers and oh boy! Our hives kept us so busy this year. It’s nice to see others interested in bees!

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  16. beatingthebounds says:

    The only thing I’m sure of here, is that I’m not qualified to pontificate on this one! Wait till you have to start choosing schools!
    One of my students, now 17 or 18, who I have known for many years, was asking me this week why you would become a parent (she had apparently been discussing this with her mum). “Surely, once you’ve got kids you can’t do anything?”. Her friend replied: “Yeah, that’s what you do when you’re bored with your life.” Teenagers!
    I thought much the same thing when I was their age, so I knew that, when I told them that they would just do different things, my opinion would be falling on deaf ears!
    I’m sure you’ll make the right choice, and introduce Tommy to bees when he’s ready.
    I’m told that I was fascinated by insects when I was a toddler, but unfortunately would squash them if I could. Apparently I was stung numerous times, but I have no recollection and it hasn’t put me off!
    Hmmm…I’m not sure if any of this waffling is helpful or germane! Sorry. Good luck!

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    • Emily Scott says:

      After a long day with Tommy, I can sympathise with the view of your student! I do miss being able to go out at night to see a band or some comedy. You definitely do different things – a lot more reading books about tractors, for instance.

      It sounds like you were a insect and nature fan from the very beginning. Tommy thinks all mini beasts are bees at the moment and will even shout out ‘bee’ at a piece of fluff! Will be nice if I get a beekeeper helper.

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      • beatingthebounds says:

        Oh yes, books – I think I still remember some of them by heart. Actually, I miss some of them – some of the Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler ones for example, particularly ‘The Whale with a Snail on its Tail’. And you get a whole new social life which revolves around the PTA and such like. I can do bands again now. Sometimes the kids even come with me (although they tend to have forthright opinions about my musical taste). Have you discovered audiobooks for car journeys? Fantastic – I have a host of recommendations if you ever need any.

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  17. Ali says:

    I’ve been tempted, but have the same worries as you.

    Like

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