Are Bee Hotels the WORST Thing We've Done to Bees Ever?

Photo by  George Hiles  on  Unsplash

When it comes to human treatment of bees, bee hotels are the worst thing we’ve ever done, right? In the past month or so, I’ve seen several articles and other social media posts that might have you believe it. These critiques take an ‘all solutions are terrible’ approach to bee advocacy along the same line as other such catastrophic, dismissive, and pessimistic thinking clouding over real attempts at changing course in response to ecological emergencies. If these critics are correct, it would seem that our efforts at providing shelter for native bees are more effectively speeding up their demise, exposing them to mites and disease, and leaving them at the mercy of devastating forces like rain and cold weather, than helping boost their population numbers or bringing pretty insects into our backyard. Conclusion: give up. There’s nothing we can do about anything.

To be fair, some of the critiques I’ve read are valid. For instance, I’ve seen many bee hotel models which don’t include an adequate roof to protect the bees from rain. In those cases, affixing the model beneath a porch roof or other shelter would be necessary, but those directions may not be included or even read by the consumer if they are. It seems to me though that these design challenges (and others like them) are more failures of education than fundamental flaws to the whole concept of constructing wild bee habitats.

To Clean or Not to Clean

Another common critique I’ve read involves the idea of routinely cleaning bee hotels in order to prevent the spread of mites and disease, or infestation by other undesired insects. Both this point and issues of hotel design push up against a fundamental conceptual difference between wild bee advocacy and conventional honeybee-keeping, that is that wild bees have significantly greater agency in determining how and where they nest than their farmed cousins who we almost universally hold captive in hives of our own design.

Apart from restrictions of territory which we absolutely play a role in defining, wild bees have choice in where they nest. Unlike honeybee hives where beekeepers clip the wings of the queen to prevent the swarm from ever leaving, we don’t force wild bees into the hotels we design for them. If they choose our hotels, they choose them over (or in addition to) the sites their species has nested in for generations. Without better understanding the economics of this choice, it seems a stretch to blame the demise of some bees via mites on humans alone. While it’s true that some bee hotel keeping practices may expose bees to mites or become sites of infestation for other, less aesthetically pleasing insects, just as with the roof design flaws of some models, this hardly seems like severe enough criticism to condemn bee hotels as a whole.

The issue of cleaning hotels raises another interesting question too. What precisely in nature is this action on our part supposed to replicate? To my knowledge there isn’t a wild species of bee nest cleaners tidying up all the bee nests in the wild. So why exactly do we need to provide this service for them? I think the answer betrays a potentially unacknowledged dynamic of how we approach our work with wild bees. To a mindset that views animals as producers of goods (like honey) or as pieces to an aesthetic landscape, cleaning hotels and designing them in such a way to restrict what species nest in them makes sense. But to a mindset of inter-species cooperation, where bee hotels are simply a gift to the bees or other wildlife, controlling for these variables is largely irrelevant.

Who Are The Real Victims in modern apiculture?

How we approach our interaction with wild bees re-centers this discussion on the bigger issue at hand, and that’s the interrelationship between insect population collapse, honeybee farming, and contemporary pollination practices.

All of the issues I have read raised in regards to how bee hotels potentially fail wild bees are issues which are very real and very common in the lives of honeybees. Even our modern hives (which pride themselves on not needing to be destroyed in order to harvest honey) are designed to limit escape and entry. Traps are even engaged on some hives in order to strip the pollen off the bodies of bees returning home. These hives are placed on the ground in close proximity to other hives. In nature, wild honeybees seem to prefer nesting in trees, on cliff faces, or otherwise spaced apart from one another and significantly elevated from the ground where they may be harassed by predators, presumably including the humans who now keep them domesticated.

And while rain poses a challenge to all bees, farmed honeybees are subjected to the additional condition of living in constant fear of humans burning their hives to the ground. They return each time to discover instead that humans have picked apart their hives, stolen the honey they produce, and disrupted the entire seasonal cycle of life preparations those bees have been engaged in for almost their full lives up until that moment.

Mites and diseases are also two problems honeybees are far more susceptible to than other bee species. They are exposed to both in the commercial honeybee industry when rented out as pollinators and frequently moved across different regions. These environmental stressors as well as exposure to agricultural pesticides and herbicides (like neonicotinoids), and labor conditions which disable them from becoming familiar with a single territory not threatened by the presence of other hives all contribute to colony collapse disorder. Additionally, even the temporary introduction of honeybees to new territories for the purpose of pollination may be interfering with the capacity of other bee species to feel comfortable enough to nest in these areas. When combined with habitat loss to human development, this spells out population decline for wild bees and both greater dependence on farmed honeybees for pollination as well as greater susceptibility to pollination network collapse should these bees prove unable to keep up with the demands we place on them.

A Matter of Scale

While some critiques of the human-made structures wild bees may choose to inhabit are valid, aren’t the larger, more existential problems here related to our domestication and use of honeybees without the option for them to choose another way of life? The design and conditions of some bee hotels may indeed be adding to the environmental stresses or potential fatalities of wild bees, but the bigger picture seems to me to be the way our farming of honeybees is definitely causing population decline in both honeybees and wild bees.

In this sense, I’m reminded a bit of the people who want to talk about wild animal deaths caused by crop agriculture when the larger issue of animal agriculture remains unresolved. We can absolutely walk and chew gum at the same time. Working on one of these issues does not deny us the opportunity to also work on the other. But it’s really an issue of paramount importance to human and bee survival that we frame our concerns about wild bees within their broader context.

How we relate to wild bees is absolutely a relationship we must critique and nourish. Two of the largest factors in that relationship are the habitat devastation we cause for these bees through human development and the introduction of invasive honeybees to their territories. The complexity of this issue transcends veganism or abstinence from supporting the honey industry. It is greater too than simply assembling bee hotels for our gardens. It is intimately connected to our food system, who pollinates that system, and how much land we protect for wildlife. But if our desire to ‘save the bees’ is indeed greater than our desire to ‘save honey,’ these are complexities we must strive to address.

One day poorly designed or maintained bee hotels may indeed be the worst thing we do to bees. By my reckoning, we still have a long way to go before then.

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Pat Mosley (LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage therapist and life coach in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His work is especially focused on creating permaculture in his community, which sometimes looks like providing bodywork, and other times looks like writing or designing gardens for people and bees.

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ApiculturePat Mosley