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Rewilding Bees

by Caitlin Bishop

Photo by Kyle Poling

A few months ago, Kristina Lefever, our Director, sat down for a conversation with Jeanine Moy, Program Director for Vesper Meadow, to learn more about this ‘Restorative Preserve’ located east 30 miles east of Ashland--a “rare upland meadow site that prioritizes native food plant cultivation and ecological values”. Jeanine shared some of their long-term projects and upcoming activities at the Meadow, including “low-tech process-based restoration” of the creek (or, beaver-based restoration - how exciting!), bee, butterfly, and bird monitoring projects, tending and protecting native plants and first foods, and, of course, pollinators! In particular, Kristina wanted to find out more about the recent decision to remove honey bee hives from the land.

Jeanine explained that one of the initial motivations for keeping bees on site was to comply with the zoning requirements when it was purchased and to avoid retroactive taxes on the property, which was originally zoned as an “exclusive farm use” property. Once a conservation easement was instated on the property and zoning was no longer a concern, it allowed for a broader conversation about whether keeping honeybees - a nonnative species - aligned with the vision of Vesper Meadow. Ultimately, it was decided to remove all 12 hives. Here is what Jeanine had to share about this decision:

“The reason we are choosing not to have hives anymore- even though the honey is so lovely- is because of the increasing amount of research coming out showing the detrimental effects of nonnative honeybees on native bees and other pollinators.” She continued, “And not just pollinators. There has been research on camas seed populations, which showed that it’s not as effectively pollinated by honeybees … so the genetic diversity of the seeds is being degraded.” Camas (cammasia quamash) grew in great abundance in Vesper Meadow prior to settlers running cows on the land, and was an important first food for indigenous people in addition to native pollinators.

For so many of us, the iconic image of a honeybee is what first comes to mind when we hear the word “pollinate”. And, understandably. Humans have spent thousands of years in direct relationship with Apis mellifera, tending to their hives and harvesting cherished goods and medicines such honey, beeswax, and propolis, as well as benefiting from their athleticism and versatility as “super generalist pollinators''. Honeybees were introduced to this land by Europeans in the 17th century because of these precise commercial benefits; and the U.S. apiculture industry has grown into a $700 million dollar industry, with hobby beekeeping (or backyard beekeeping) becoming increasingly popular.

The decline of honeybee populations receives widespread awareness and represents a genuine ecological and economic concern, and yet often missing from this picture are the incredibly vulnerable and equally important wild and native pollinators. It is estimated that there are over 500 native bee species in the state of Oregon, and 3,600 species native to the United States (SOU Oregon Bee Atlas). Native bees pollinate 80% of the flowering plants around the world, and have evolved in direct relationship with native plant species. “Little is known about the population status of most of the more than 3600 species of bees in the United States … However, what little information we do have suggests that many native species are experiencing population declines. A recent global analysis found that 40% of pollinator species may be at risk of extinction in the coming years”(Xerces Society).

The idea that the European honeybee could be negatively impacting the viability of indigenous plants and insects deeply challenges the current dominant narrative of honeybees as intrinsic and imperiled. And yet, in addition to the obvious offenders - habitat loss, climate change, and use of neonicotinoid pesticides - research continues to reveal the surprising scope of Apis mellifera’s disproportionate impact on the struggle of native bees. Humboldt State Professor Brian Dykstra presented some of this research in his very informative “Decolonizing Bees” presentation to the Insect Sciences Museum of California, which included the stunning estimation that “Every hundred hives removes pollen and nectar enough to produce 10 million native bees” (Jim Cane, Research Entomologist USDA-ARS). This occurs through the honeybees’ ability to outcompete native bees for the pollen and nectar critical to their survival, and may be especially significant for specialist pollinators who are unable to shift to other sources of food.

In addition to interfering in the relationship between native plants and the wild bees that have evolved to pollinate them, European honeybees may also be responsible for disease transmission to native bees, and represent risks to native plant communities through affecting plant reproduction and preferentially foraging on invasive plants (Xerces society). This is the research Jeanine referred to when discussing the need to mitigate the potential harm to camas by removing the honeybee colonies from Vesper Meadow.

I am a volunteer with PPRV, and have written much of this article from a lawn chair in my backyard, perched closely enough to my own beehive to feel the hum of their organized communication and the little taps of their bodies on my bare skin. I have a tattoo of a honeybee on my arm, jars of honey in my kitchen, and medicinal salves made from my own beeswax lining my medicine cabinet. I have loved Apis mellifera for as long as I can remember, and it has been eye-opening and painful to encounter the perspective of pollination as an issue of colonization. While the European honeybee will always have a piece of my heart, I can no longer pretend that stewarding them is the act of ecological conservation I once believed it was, and I know that this will be the last colony to grace my yard and my life. Rather than experience this solely as a loss, I see it as an invitation to complicate, decolonize, and rewild my understanding of the landscape I currently call home, and a wonderful opportunity to center the hundreds of species of wild and native bees and their botanical dance partners within my attention and actions. I want to make room for the wild, the solitary, the underground, the fluffy, the mysterious, and the barely-visible-to-the-naked-eye indigenous pollinators who have been tending this earth for tens of thousands of years, under the soil, in the skies, and among the blossoms. Their preservation is of utmost importance. I want to learn their names. I want to hear their stories.

“The topic of colonization covers some traumatic truths, so please be aware. Ignoring or minimizing the impacts of European colonization and European honeybees as part of that process, is a real problem on many levels (ecological, cultural, psychological, etc), and in part can be countered by acknowledging and listening to the voices and stories of Indigenous peoples and native bees.” -Brian Dykstra


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