More honeybees won’t save wild ones, say Calgary beekeepers

Honeybees don’t need saving, say Calgary beekeepers, and more hives can actually harm declining native bee populations.

Ron Miksha, a bee ecologist and former commercial beekeeper, is doing research at the University of Calgary about competition between native bees and honeybees. He’s found that too many honeybees can have a negative effect on native bees.

“The concentration is typically in the range of eight or 10 honeybee colonies per square kilometre,” said Miksha, “and in parts of our city, we are close to that number right now.”

By next year, changes to the City of Calgary’s bylaws will require people to have a licence in order to keep beehives. That regulation, said Miksha, is a good thing: there will be more information about which areas could support more hives before damage is done ecologically. 

During the spring and fall, native bee species have to compete with honeybees — which aren’t native to North America — to pollinate flowers. In the summer, honeybees tend to pollinate flowers that are not native to North America, increasing the number of flowers in the city that don’t really belong here.

Miksha said honeybees can also spread diseases to other species. A virus that causes a wing deformity has appeared in 10-15 per cent of bumblebees in Alberta in the past few years.

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist studying the competition between native bees and honeybees. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

“I’m certainly not against people keeping a few hives of bees in their backyard if their purpose is to learn more about nature, to enjoy beekeeping, to participate with their family, to produce a bit of honey for themselves and for their neighbours,” said Miksha.

The problem is when people think that they’re saving declining wild bee populations.

“It’s a lot like getting chickens in order to save the birds,” said Miksha. “We don’t put up a chicken coop thinking we’re going to save the sparrows. We don’t put up a [honeybee] hive thinking that we’re going to save the bumblebees.”

Better ways to save the bees

Sean Higgins is the beekeeping team manager in Calgary and Edmonton for Alvéole, a company that puts hives on buildings in cities and offers educational workshops for tenants about the importance of pollinators in food systems.

Part of Sean Higgins’s work is encouraging people to become educated about and invested in the health of all pollinators, not just honeybees. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

“It’s not just about honeybees, it’s about all pollinators and, you know, encouraging clients to provide habitat on or around their buildings where possible, and encouraging people within those buildings to really become educated and become invested in the health of pollinators,” said Higgins.

“Our goal is kind of to shift that mindset towards, you know, actually being invested in the health of pollinators.”

Other things people can do to help wild bees include planting native flowers to create as much habitat in their yard as possible. People can leave rough patches in their yard, as well. That’s where wild bees will nest in the ground undisturbed and make it through the winter.

“If people are, on an individual level, interested in helping the bees, those are really the best things you could do, you know, rather than getting into beekeeping,” said Higgins.

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