Are native bees being pushed aside by honeybees?

Beekeeping is becoming more popular thanks to movements, such as Save the Bees, which are raising awareness about these helpful insects. But one local researcher is looking into how beekeeping, which involves non-native bees, could negatively impact Calgary’s native bee population.

Hobby beekeeper Liz Goldie has always been interested in nature and how different species interact with each other. This interaction drew her to beekeeping, though that wasn’t her original plan.

“I actually wanted to get chickens because I grew up on a farm and chickens were something that I knew and I thought that would be wonderful. But the City of Calgary didn’t think it was such a great idea,” says Goldie, a member of the Calgary and District Beekeepers Association.

Her second choice was to keep bees. While she didn’t like the taste of honey before, 10 years from when she first started beekeeping, she now loves to include it in her recipes.

While Goldie’s tastes have changed, it seems like the popularity of local beekeeping has too. “When I joined Calgary beekeepers, there were about 30 people maybe and we met in the basement of Co-op because it was free and now there are about 450 members,” says Goldie.

She’s not the only one noticing this trend. Ron Miska, a researcher doing his master’s in bee ecology at the University of Calgary, agrees the honeybee population has grown due to the increase in beekeepers.

“In the city of Calgary there are about 1,400 honeybee colonies that are kept by people and that’s a lot. That’s quite a number of bees. Just 10 years ago there were only about 120 and now there are 1,400. So it’s increased over 10 times in 10 years,” Miksha says.

In fact, this trend has spread throughout Alberta, with over a thousand more beekeepers in 2018 than in 2008.

Close up of bees edi webt
Alberta is home to only 300 of the around 20, 000 different species of bees in the world. Despite this, the sticky and dirty job of beekeeping continues to grow in popularity. Photo: Hailey Payne

Art Andrews, owner of the Chinook Honey Company, has also seen that popularity.
“The fact that people are more aware of what’s going on around them, I think that’s important,” says Andrews. “So, they can say, ‘Oh maybe we should take care of the bees a little more.’”

But, with new beekeepers, there’s always a learning period where they figure out how to best nurture the insects. Goldie remembers preparing for her honeybees by planting flowers in her yard for them to feed on. But she later realized those flowers were more suited to native bees such as bumblebees, as well as solitary bees such as leafcutter bees, mason bees and miner bees.

“I attracted a lot of native bees just because I was trying to feed my honeybees and doing a poor job of picking the species [of native plants] that honeybees preferred. So, I ended up with the native bees as well,” Goldie says.

Planting these flowers has helped turn Goldie’s yard into a haven for insects of all kinds, including the many kinds of bees.
In this way, beekeeping can provide flowers and natural spaces that benefit all types of bees, as well as other insects that contribute to pollinating and nourishing the surrounding plants.

But honeybees, which are not native to Alberta, enjoy flowers that are imported or brought over to Canada from Europe — which is where the insects came from 130 years ago. Those flowers include dandelions, clovers and alfalfa.

As a result, when beekeeping, each kind of bee and their preferences needs to be considered. This is what Miksha is doing through his research — determining how native bees are reproducing and living compared to honeybee colonies.

Miksha has always been curious about bees ever since being put in charge of the beehives on his farm when he was young. His love for bees continued into the commercial field when he started his own beekeeping business in his early 20s.

That background left him curious about what effects honeybees have had on native bees already in the area.

“It’s not natural for us to have a bunch of [not native] bees or to be keeping bees, it’s really not quite natural,” says Miksha.

This belief led Miksha to his current job working under Lawrence Harder, a biological sciences professor at the University of Calgary. There, Miksha is trying to determine what impact, if any, the honeybees are having on the native bee population.

Miksha started by surveying locations around Calgary to determine the honeybee population and how it varied from place to place.  A hundred empty nest boxes were also placed around Calgary and monitored to see if bees made homes in them and how well they did.

To support Miksha’s research, Goldie had both a bumblebee and leafcutter bee box in her yard. Additionally, Miksha analyzed pollen from both bumblebee and honeybee hives to see which flowers they were collecting from and if they were competing with each other. While still conducting his research, Miksha believes that honeybees might make it harder for native bees to survive.

“The native bees probably are in trouble because nobody is really looking after them,” Miksha says. Many of them are “smaller, they’re darker, you don’t see them as often, some of them have gone extinct. So those are the ones that I’m concerned about.”

As a result, he believes those who are keeping honeybees to help the ecosystem might be somewhat misguided.

“It would be like ‘you know I’m going to put a bunch of sheep in my backyard because I hear the deer are in trouble.’ You know they kinda eat the same thing, but are you really helping the ecology by bringing sheep into your backyard?” says Miksha.

For his part, though, Andrews hasn’t seen honeybees as a problem for native bees since becoming a beekeeper in 1995, starting with just two hives to help pollinate plants in his backyard.

“Bumblebees are just going to do their thing anyways and honeybees are going to do their thing and wasps will try to steal honey from beehives,” says Andrews, who at one point had 300 hives.

“I don’t think there’s much competition there at all and I don’t think honeybees have a lot of influence on bumblebees as far as I know,” Andrews says.
Indeed, both Andrews and Goldie see the recent increase in beekeeping and awareness as good for all bees in general.

“I think that it has spilled over into the native bee population and now we’re looking at how do we help native bees,” says Goldie. “Because of how the honeybees were being impacted it made us acutely aware that the native bee population may be in decline as well.”

Edited by Hadeel Abdel-Nabi |

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