Can 'Darwinian beekeeping' help protect the honey bees?

·6-min read
Bees the world over are threatened by pesticides, parasites and the hazards of climate change.

As bees are in the spotlight this week with World Bee Day being celebrated May 20, it's a good occasion to look at how we can better protect these precious insects from the threats of pesticides and parasites and the ravages of climate change. In a recently published book, American biologist Thomas Seeley suggests turning to Darwinian beekeeping, based on the natural ability of bees to adapt to their environment. Far, therefore, from human intervention.

Bees are under threat. In France, nearly 30% of bee colonies disappear every year, while in the United States honey bee hives have gone from numbering some 6 million in 1947 to 2.4 million in 2008, 60 percent less, as Greenpeace points out. In recent years, the general public has become increasingly aware of the disappearance of these insects, which are essential to food production and the survival of our ecosystems.

While many initiatives have been launched in recent years to preserve honey-producing bee colonies, the species that live in the wild have also been getting attention, as they are equally under threat and no less valuable to the environment. However, these bees manage to resist parasites better and to reproduce better. What if we were to draw more inspiration from their natural way of life to preserve all species?

This is the premise of American researcher Thomas Seeley, author of the book "The Lives of Bees, the Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild," published by Princeton University Press .

This book, which lists some 15 proposals to help bees, is inspired by a concept that has been known for a long time, but which has seldom been explored: Darwinian apiculture. Yves Le Conte, research director at INRAE, who wrote the preface to the French edition of Tom Seeley's book ( L'Abeille à miel, la vie secrète des colonies sauvage ") published in France by Biotope in March 2021 tells us more.

What dangers are honey bees exposed to? How are they different from wild bees?

All bees are, by definition, wild. In France, there are between 900 and 1000 species of bees. Among them, some are sociable, others quite solitary. The so-called "domestic" bee belongs to the first category. But the domestic bee essentially lives in the wild. Colonies of honey bees can still be found, most often in tree holes or the chimney roofs of a house, because they need a cavity to protect themselves. They have a strong capacity to produce a lot of honey, which is why they have been domesticated.

Solitary bees are the most endangered, because the females form their nest alone. If they die as a result of pesticide being sprayed, the nest doesn't survive. It's different for honey bees, because even if the forager is killed, the rest of the colony can eventually survive and take over.

There used to be no talk about the disappearance of solitary bees. But beekeepers sounded the alarm a few years ago on the fact that their colonies were disappearing because of pesticides. Being aware of the disappearance of domestic bees also made us realize that this had consequences on wild bees, which are unfortunately not spared by the phenomenon.

What is Darwinian beekeeping?

First and foremost, it is about making people understand and remember that bees are part of nature and that they are as affected by Darwin's laws as other species are. The majority of colonies in the hands of beekeepers have been subject to pressure: with varroa [a parasite that destroys hives], neonicotinoids and climate change. As a result, there are not many colonies left that are adapted to their environment and capable of defending themselves against these various threats.

Despite this, in many parts of the world, there are bee colonies that are able to resist all these threats. At INRAE, we have been monitoring two species since the 1990s in France, but we believe that there are more. They are also found in England, Sweden and the United States.

Tom Seeley has studied them for 40 years, particularly those found in tree trunks. His work is mainly based on observations of bee colonies. In particular, he has sought to understand how bees survive, far from the hands of humans.

How does spacing the hives further apart help to protect these bees, as Seeley suggests in his book?

When hives are placed next to each other, some bees that go out to forage get into the wrong colony: instead of joining the one they came from, they land in the one next to it. However, if they arrive with "forage," the keepers let them enter the hive. If they carry a virus, they may parasitize other colonies.

In the fall, when there is nothing left to forage, the bees tend to plunder one another, i.e., steal their honey reserves, which also contributes to parasitizing the colonies. In his book, researcher Tom Seeley explains that when the distance between wild colonies is greater, the bees are more resistant to pathogens, precisely because they stay away from each other.

Scraping the inner surface of the hive walls may also work according to Seeley... why is that?

It's a link between the bees' ability to collect propolis and their ability to resist disease. In particular, it has long been known that propolis [a resinous substance harvested by bees] acts to inhibit a number of microorganisms in the hive. This is also why it is used on humans: it helps fight bacteria and viruses.

During his observations, Tom Seeley noticed that wild colonies deposit propolis on all the walls of their nests, which is not necessarily the case for bees housed in beekeepers' hives. The researcher therefore suggests scraping the inside of the hive, so that the bees can spontaneously deposit propolis, in order to protect them against pathogens. Tom Seeley has thus developed a theory for what was already suspected, but which deserved a demonstration.

What are the best actions to take as citizens? (Should we stop eating honey, grow melliferous flowers in your garden, sponsor a hive?)

I would say that all initiatives are good to take, because they represent important means of raising awareness among the general public for the protection of bees. The situation of these insects has opened our eyes to what is happening in our ecosystems, especially for urban people who live far from nature.

Before, we were limited to describing a bee as an insect that makes honey and "stings." Today, the general public knows how crucial bees are to our survival and that of our ecosystems. But above all, people have understood that they are endangered and are therefore aware of the utter necessity to preserve them.

This global awareness, especially concerning pesticides, is not only essential for bees, but will also help preserve other pollinators such as butterflies and other non-pest insects, whose lives are also threatened by the use of pesticides.

This interview was translated from French.

Léa Drouelle