No.It’s not for nothing that honey bees have a reputation for being industrious. They leave the hives early in the morning and look for food for themselves and their offspring. They fly from flower to flower, drinking nectar and collecting pollen. The collection area of a single bee colony extends up to 50 square kilometers.
More and more people in Germany love the care and breeding of honey bees. According to the German Beekeeping Association (DIB), around 170,000 beekeepers raised 1.14 million bee colonies in 2021. In cities in particular, the number of honey bee colonies has been increasing for years. “Urban beekeeping” – that is, raising bees in backyards, gardens, schoolyards or balconies – is a trend among old and young hipsters over the course of growing environmental awareness. But is that a good thing?
According to some experts, honey beekeeping is far from a sustainable contribution to nature conservation – quite the opposite. The runaway boom is contributing to the decline of wild bees, which depend on the same food sources as their nearly domesticated relatives. Because while in healthy natural landscapes, with lots of greenery and a wide range of plants, the food supply is large enough for everyone, in small parks or green spaces in cities there can be a brawl at the plant buffet.
Scientists in Switzerland recently found evidence of an impending competition between wild and honey bees. In one model, they related the availability of flowers in a total of 14 Swiss cities to the number of bee colonies. “The core message of our findings is that green areas cannot keep pace with existing density,” sums up Joan Casanelles Abella of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL). In Switzerland, the number of bee colonies almost tripled between 2012 and 2018, from 3,139 to 9,370 colonies.
More bee colonies mean more pathogens
According to the German Beekeepers Association, the number of beekeepers in Germany has also been steadily increasing since 2007. It is now roughly at the level of the 1960s, although individual beekeepers now keep fewer colonies on average than they did then: a average of just under seven instead of eleven. Also in the year Corona 2020, the number of members increased by more than four percent, according to the beekeepers association, in big cities there have been increases of up to 25 percent in recent years.
A trend that even beekeepers find problematic. “An increase of about 20% meant an overload of training skills and a high density of bees, which led to the transmission of disease between bee colonies and can mean competition for food among insects visiting the flowers.” , says president Torsten Ellmann.
Unfortunately, the feeding and living conditions of insects visiting the flowers have worsened over the past 60 years. “If there were to be more bee colonies again, which we would very much welcome, we must first create the conditions for this.”
A fundamental problem: wild bees often lose in competition with honey bees. “Honey bees have been raised enormously by humans,” says Christian Schmid-Egger of the German Wildlife Foundation. “They are even bigger than many wild bees and fly away early in the morning and gather everything before the wild bees are even there.” But he is particularly bothered by the message, which is often spread in connection with beekeeping and beekeeping. “It is often said, ‘bees save the world’. It makes no sense, nature is not at all dependent on honey bees and their pollinating power.”
Wild bees often shed
Wild bees, on the other hand, are essential for maintaining healthy and species-rich ecosystems, and preferably in great diversity, as a study by US researchers recently demonstrated. Although two percent of all bee species pollinate about 80 percent of all crops, even rare species are valuable in natural ecosystems, the team writes in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Scientists studied which bees visit which plants in eleven natural areas and how many species are needed to pollinate all plants in an area. In total, they observed more than 180 species of wild bees, which visited one of the 130 plant species about 22,000 times. They found that rare bee species also play a significant role in the pollination of ecosystems. “Our work shows that generally rare things, such as rare visitors to a lawn, can still perform very important functions, such as pollinating plants that no one else pollinates,” said Michael Roswell of the University of Maryland.
In Berlin alone, there are 300 species of wild bees
About 590 species of wild bees live in Germany, and not only in rural areas: in a big city like Berlin there are about 300 different species of wild bees. Most of them live solitary, that is, not in a social status like honey bees. “Many wild bee species have survived for a long time, especially in cities, after finding fewer and fewer resources in intensively managed agricultural landscapes,” says wild bee expert Schmid-Egger. “But with the increasing densification of cities, they are also losing their living space here.”
About half of the wild bee species are now endangered and the honey bee is not responsible for this. “Anyone who says this doesn’t realize the problem is somewhere else,” says Melanie von Orlow of the Nature Conservation Union (NABU). She also cites development, land loss and loss of plant biodiversity as the main reasons for the decline of wild bee species.
Beekeeping can certainly make a contribution to nature conservation because it gives people in cities, especially children, unique access to the world of insects, says the conservationist, who runs a small apiary in Berlin herself. “If you’re dealing with honey bees, once the queen is looking for bees, you learn how honey is made – it appeals to all the senses.” In the area of environmental education, working with the beekeeper sharpens the eye for ecological connections – even beyond bees.
“Unlike other threats, beekeeping is actually a small problem,” says Schmid-Egger. However, the situation in the cities hasn’t gotten any easier with the beekeeping trend. Beekeepers have a strong lobby, a lot of money for nature conservation goes into appropriate projects. So it happens that when creating flower strips, for example, the interests of honey bees are given priority, and wild bees lose. “Fight for every square meter in the city.”
Schmid-Egger and the German Wildlife Foundation are therefore in favor of better regulation of beekeeping in cities and more environmentally friendly beekeeping. For example, beekeepers should not be allowed to set up hives near nature reserves.
So can stricter rules help? Should the number of bee colonies be related to the available area, for example? The German Beekeepers Association is skeptical. Traditional costumes in Germany are too different for that. “In a concrete desert there is much less for bees than in a vegetable garden. A strict upper limit does not do the matter justice,” says August-Wilhelm Schinkel, member of the board of directors of the beekeepers’ association.
Even Orlow’s Nabu expert doesn’t believe that stricter regulation is the solution. He thinks the beekeeping boom will soon settle for itself. Beekeeping is expensive, you need to be well informed and take care of your people. Since the beginning of the year, new EU laws have also required the keeping of an inventory book and full proof of drug intake. “If you don’t do this correctly, sooner or later you will fail.”
He also has a stomach ache when “beekeepers at any price”. She is critical of placing bee boxes on balconies and, of course, no bee colony should be kept near wild bee biotopes, such as nature reserves. With respect and consideration, however, beekeepers are also possible in the urban environment – and desirable: “I think it’s inappropriate to take away a piece of nature from people in cities.”