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Should you keep bees?

Helping the birds and the bees

In Michigan, we have a lovely rare bird called the Kirtland Warbler.  It used to be endangered, but with decades of habitat restoration programs and breeding efforts the population is now in better health. If you wanted to help the Kirtland Warbler, you would help put in habitat (Jack pine forests), or you would donate to a conservation fund.

Kirtland Warbler - Photo USFWS Midwest CC BY 2.0
Kirtland Warbler - Photo USFWSmidwest CC BY 2.0
Backyard Chickens- Photo Public Domain

You wouldn’t get backyard chickens to help with warbler conservation, right? Because backyard chickens are non-native livestock, and a totally different species.  In the best case scenario, your chickens would have no effect on the Kirtland Warbler and other native songbirds. In the worst case scenario, too many poorly managed livestock can spread disease that can overflow into wild populations.

Getting honey bees to help save the bees is like getting chickens to save the warbler. Honey bees are semi-domesticated animals from Europe. They have been in the US for over one hundred years, but they aren't native. In Michigan, we have over 460 species of native bees. They are lovely and diverse, and are key to our ecosystems. If you want to become a beekeeper, the best thing that you can do is to minimize the effects your honey bees can have on native bee populations. 

Honey bees are not endangered, nor are they currently at risk of extinction. Some populations of native bees are in real trouble. The Rusty Patch bumble bee (Bombus affinis) was added to the endangered species list in 2017.  This species was once commonly found in Michigan, but it has not been found in our state for over a decade.  Some other species of native bees have experienced dramatic and worrying declines in their populations.

RustyPatch USFWS MidwestRegion
Rusty Patched bumble Bee. Photo by USFWS Midwest Region CC BY 2.0

Honey bees do face threats to their health, including parasites, pathogens, loss of habitat, and pesticides, and are dying at alarming rates.  Each year, many honey bee colonies die. Honey bees are unique because they grow in large colonies that can be split to make more. Beekeepers are losing high numbers of colonies, and are constantly splitting their remaining colonies to cover these losses.  

Years ago, you could put out a hive of honey bees, and it would survive. You could almost guarantee that it would have enough food, and would not likely die from disease. Now, the landscape has changed so dramatically that we can no longer count on the environment to be safe for a honey bee colony. The place that you live likely won't have consistent food throughout the entire season, the bees will be exposed to toxins, and they will suffer from the epidemic of parasitic mites that has plagued us for years.  

It requires a lot of effort to keep bees fed and to keep diseases under control in this new landscape. If you get honey bees, and don't actively manage the parasite loads (which is a lot of work), your bees will likely die. Not only will your bees die, but if pests aren't managed, your sick bees become a risk to other colonies, and may be a risk to some of our native bees.  New research shows that honey bee diseases spread to other bee species and insects on flowers.  People who keep bees to “help bees” may, in fact, put other pollinators at risk.

Beekeeping is a wonderful craft, and honey bees are fascinating creatures. You don't have to become a beekeeper to help the bees.  

Habitat restoration was the main step in bringing back the Kirtland warbler, and it is the main step for protecting our bees (and providing food for honey bees if you do become a beekeeper).  The most important thing you can do to help the bees is to plant flowers and flowering trees.  Bees need flowers that are good sources of nectar and pollen from the spring through the fall.

Visit MSU's Pollinator planting resources to learn how to put in a Pollinator Garden, install large scale pollinator habitat, or convert your lawn.  

Another way to help bees is to manage your home and garden without using pesticides. While some growers depend on pesticides to protect their crops, many homeowners and gardeners can stop using pesticides, which are often used for cosmetic purposes. Download and print our "Bee Aware" brochure on home pesticide use and bees

One way you can help pollinators is by learning about them and sharing what you learn.  Michigan State University has a free, online, self-paced course called Pollinator Champions for people to learn about pollinator diversity, health issues, and how people can support pollinators.  

To learn more about the Pollinator Champions program, visit pollinators.msu.edu/programs/pollinator-champions