Conservation Efforts to Save the Common Honey Bee

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The common honey bee (Apis mellifera) is used as a mascot for the general bee population, it has been the bee humanity has relied on for millennia. Due to its usefulness in agricultural, humans have spread the common honey bee far past its native home of Eurasia and into new ecosystems. This has led to society introducing an invasive species that puts thousands of other pollinators at risk. The slow decline in native pollinators will result in the agricultural industry relying on one bee to do the majority of the pollination. This lack of biodiversity makes humankind susceptible to crop failure if the honey bee fails to meet the task. Recent reports of diminishing bee populations have lead to conservation efforts that increase the honey bee population. While these efforts are in good faith, they are leading to dwindling native bee populations and are exacerbating the problem. The current conservation efforts to save the common honey bee is resulting in the decline of native bees and increasing the risk for commercial crop production failure.

The honey bee is undeniably important to crop production and civilizations have been cultivating this bee for thousands of years (Rubinoff). This bee can adapt and feed in most ecosystems, resulting in humans bring the animal around the world. Due to its adaptability, the honey bee easily survives in humankind’s changing landscape. Native bees, on the other hand, struggle to survive off the mass production farms that exist today. Today, the animal is considered livestock by the U.S. Department of Agricultural and is estimated to take part in 70% of crop production across the world (Rubinoff). The decline in the honeybee population is an important agricultural issue but, like most livestock, their population levels can be increased through beekeeping techniques.

Native bee populations do not have the aid of humans to increase their population. Instead, current conservation methods have the chance of harming them rather than protecting them from population decline. An estimate of native bee species is hard to do because most do not have hives but current estimates for the native species of the United States are 4,000 species (United States Geological Survey (USGS)). Since native bees have been coexisting and evolving with their native flora, they are often better at pollination for these plants compared to non-native bees. The contributions of wild bees are not easily calculated, but it is estimated that they could be responsible for 80% of worldwide pollution of flowering plants (USGS). Studies have shown that native bees can pollinate better alone than honey bees (91% and 78% of farms, respectively) and that most farms can be successfully pollinated by one group of native bees (ex. bumble bees) (Winfree et al. 1109). Honey bees and native bees play a critical role in food production, to ensure food security, the two must be maintained in balance with each other.

The honey bees’ effect on native bees can be classified into two different types of competition: interference and exploitative (Henry & Rodet 1). Interference competition is the result of physical aggression while exploitative competition is the result of a competitor (the honeybee) depleting available resources or negatively impacting the health of the other competitors (Henry & Rodet 1). Interference competition is the most common effect and it happens in multiple ways: disease transmission, decrease in local resources, and an increase in invasive plant species (Rubinoff). While managed bees can cause these problems, the biggest culprit is feral bees. Feral bees are domesticated (or managed) bees that have escaped the hive and built one in the local environment (Rubinoff). Feral bees pose a greater threat than domesticated bees because they are not regularly treated for diseases or parasites (Rubinoff). These diseases are then passed to the native bees through shared flowers and since these diseases only thrive in highly condense bee populations, they are not common in the solitary native bees (Rubinoff).

Through the introduction of them into the native bee population, there is a risk of epidemics in populations with little resistance to the disease. As plant biodiversity decreases and honeybee populations increase, competition between native bees and honey bee for resources becomes a bigger problem. Native bees have evolved to survive mostly on the flora native to their ecosystem, while honey bees are highly adaptable (Rubinoff). As resources from the native flora dwindle, honey bee can survive off the invasive weeds that also threaten the native flora (Rubinoff). Due to the combined effects of the invasive weeds and competition of resources, native bees are left with few resources. It is important to note that other factors are increasing the decline of both the maintained honey bees and native bees, such as neonicotinoids, parasites, and diseases (Geldmann & González-Varo 1). Despite their advantages in human agriculture, honey bees threaten the existence of native bees who have biological and ecological advantages to their non-native counterparts.

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Native bees evolved shortly after the first flowering plants, as a result, they are often the best pollinator for their partner plants (USGS). Honey bee arrived with the English colonists and have had only a few hundred years to adapt to the flora of the United States (USGS). Not only are native bees better at pollinating certain flowering plants, they are more resistant to some of the problems that affect honey bee (Winfree et al 1106). Their solitary lifestyles make them a poor host for parasites and diseases that need to infect masses of bees and their lack of colonies means they do not suffer from colony collapse disorder (Winfree et al 1106). While the honey bee has been fluctuating in population size due to these problems, the current level of honey bee loss is easily managed through current beekeeping practices (Entine).

However, should these problems worsen beyond the tipping point, humans may lose one of their most important assets in the food industry. If the biodiversity of native bees decreases and honey bees become the most prominent insect pollinator, there is a risk of agricultural failure should anything happen to the honey bee population. On the other hand, diverse communities of native bees (at least 46 species) can compensate for any decline in honey bee pollination successfulness (Winfree et al. 1110). This evidence suggests that human resilience to losing a pollinator is dependent on how diverse our pollinating animal population is.

Humans’ well-meant but wrong conservation efforts have lead to a tragedy of the commons. The fear of losing bees has resulted in more colonies of honey bees being reared across the country and honey bee populations are becoming abnormally dense (Geldmann & González-Varo 1). If conservation efforts continue in this direction, native bees will be overwhelmed by honey bee populations and unable to compete for resources. The death of native bees will leave the global crop production reliant on the honey bee. If conservation efforts were focused on both the honey bee and native bee, both species of bees and global crop production could thrive. Honey bees are an important tool in the pollination of monoculture farms while native bees are necessary to keep native flora thriving. The two groups can coexist if humans determine the densities honey bee hives should be kept at ( Geldmann & González-Varo 2).

Management practices such as moving honey bee hives to follow bloom patterns, decreasing or increasing hive density based on the landscape and native bee population, and keeping honey bees out of natural ecosystems all need to be implemented to solve the bee issues (Geldmann & González-Varo 2). By rotating honey bee hive locations, honey bees can be moved during times of low bloom so native bees have enough resources (Geldmann & González-Varo 2). Hive density is dependent on the plant life that needs pollinating and the population density of other pollinators. The implementation of these practices must be closely researched to determine if they are working and that both the bees and agriculture is thriving. When conserving the bee species, it is important to ensure that multiple species are protected. To maintain both biodiversity and effective pollination of global crops, research must be done on the decline in both managed honey bees and native bees. However, for the past decade, government initiatives have been focused on reversing the loss of honey bees (Geldmann & González-Varo 2). The only way to keep producing food on the current scale and protect the bees is to maintain healthy populations and ecosystems for both native and non-native species.

For millennia, honey bees have been an important agricultural asset across the world, however, our misuse of them has lead to a decline in native bee populations. To find a balance between agricultural success and a thriving bee population, humans must determine when, where, and at what levels we should keep honey bees. A decrease in honey bees is not only beneficial for the native bee but the agriculture business as well. Any lost pollination from the honey bee can easily be picked up by other native pollinators. By diversifying which pollinators are used in crop production, the industry will be more resilient to changes in different population changes within pollinating animals. Humans would be unable to live at today’s current standards without pollinators, especially bees. Through carefully maintained domesticated beehives, we can build a new environment that only aids and thrives in the preexisting one rather than dominate it. In terms of conservation, it is important to not focus on one species but rather find a symbiotic relationship between all living things within the ecosystem.

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