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Honey bees are not endangered

Since the United States Fish and Wildlife Service placed seven species of bees on the endangered species list, I have been inundated with mail from jubilant citizens. Many of the letters say something like, “It’s about time honey bees are protected.” Or “The government finally realized how important honey bees really are!” Oh dear.

If you are one of the jubilant ones, listen up. Honey bees are not endangered, and I seriously doubt they will ever be listed as such. The decision to protect seven species of native Hawaiian bees has absolutely nothing to do with honey bees.

“Bee” does not equal “honey bee”

We bee lovers battle confusion every day. To most people the word “bee” is synonymous with “honey bee.” So headlines like “Bees placed on the Endangered Species List” are completely misunderstood.

In truth, about 20,000 species of bees roam the Earth. Some estimates put the actual count much higher—maybe double—because new species are constantly being discovered. In many places, species are going extinct before we even know they exist, which is sad beyond words.

Roughly 4000 of the known species live in North America. Most of those 4000 are native to this continent, but we also have a fair number of imported bees. Examples include the European honey bee, the alfalfa leafcutting bee, the European wool carder bee, and the hornfaced mason bee among many others.

The bees that were recently listed are seven species of Hylaeus (high-LEE-us), all of which are native to Hawaii. The newly listed species are Hylaeus anthracinus, Hylaeus longiceps, Hylaeus assimulans, Hylaeus facilis, Hylaeus hilaris, Hylaeus kuakea, and Hylaeus mana. These bees occupy a number of different habitats, all of which are currently threatened by development and invasive species. Without intervention, they will most likely go extinct.

The purpose of the Endangered Species Act (ESA)

Like most government documents, the various provisions of the act can be difficult to read. But according to the Fish and Wildlife website, The Endangered Species Act of 1973 provides for the conservation of species that are endangered or threatened throughout all or a significant portion of their range, and the conservation of the ecosystems on which they depend.

Other parts of the act seem to imply that “range” means “natural range,” although I can’t find it clearly defined. Honey bees have no natural range in North America. Instead, it is native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. Furthermore, it does not appear to be endangered or threatened throughout a significant portion of that range.

It is interesting to note that the Endangered Species Act does list foreign species if those species are endangered or threatened in their natural ranges. The U.S. cannot control how the plants or animals are treated in their native lands, of course, but the act assists the species by prohibiting their import and sale within our boundaries. So, for example, you cannot import a tiger into this country as a pet.

The ESA does not protect livestock

If honey bees were listed under the ESA you wouldn’t be able to capture them, sell them, harvest their honey, or use them in commercial agriculture.  Here are some of the current restrictions (emphasis added):

The ESA makes it unlawful to import or export; deliver, receive, carry, transport, or ship in interstate or foreign commerce in the course of a commercial activity; sell or offer for sale in interstate or foreign commerce; take (includes harm, harass, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect any wildlife within the United States); take on the high seas; possess, ship, deliver, carry, transport, sell, or receive unlawfully taken wildlife…These prohibitions apply to live or dead animals or plants, their progeny (seeds in the case of plants), and parts or products derived from them.

As you can see, protecting the honey bee under the Endangered Species Act would do little to protect our food supply because the honey bee could no longer be used for agriculture or honey production. Simply put, it’s not the right law to apply to honey bees.

Separating honey bees from all the rest

I often wonder how we can separate the concept of “bee” from “honey bee,” but I don’t have an answer. When I write, I try to use “honey bee” as much as possible, but invariably the “honey” part drops off. What can we do to let people know that the honey bee is just one of 20,000+ species, each one unique and precious?

Truth be told, I think beekeepers are the worst offenders. We love our honey bees and refer to them as ”bees” all the time, much to the confusion of the rest of the world. I don’t know how we can fix it. But for now we can explain that although honey bees are still hanging in there, some of their kin are in serious trouble.

The rusty-patched bumble bee could also land a spot on the endangered species list. Photo by MJ Hatfield.

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Madia elegans: a crazy pollinator plant

Madia elegans, also known as common madia or tarweed, is not your typical pollinator plant. In early morning light, the bright yellow flowers look like typical daisy-style composites. But during a hot summer afternoon, it is so nondescript as to go unnoticed, taking it’s skinny place among other quiet dryland species in the western United States.

Why this plant is different

I promised you crazy, so here here are some oddities about this pollinator plant that set it apart from others.

  • The flowers of this plant close in the morning, re-open in late afternoon, and remain open until mid morning the next day. According to an article in SFGate, the petals of this plant are prone to water loss. So to conserve water in the heat of the day, the flower just balls up and hangs tight.
  • The petals don’t close in the normal way, but roll up like used carpets. The tips roll in first and wind up until they reach the central disk.
  • Sometimes the petals have a red splotch on one end, making a dark ring around the central disk.
  • Most plants that close during the day and open late are pollinated by creatures of the night, such as moths and bats. But this plant, from all appearances, seems to be pollinated by bees and butterflies.
  • The plant is great for native bees because it begins to flower in June (or even earlier in some locations) and persists into the fall. Many native bees, especially those that forage in early morning and late afternoon, can make good use of this plant. But the fact that is is closed at midday makes it a poor choice for honey bees.
  • Gardeners report that judicious watering keeps the flowers from rolling up during the day. So if you would like to use this plant in an all-purpose pollinator garden, water it occasionally but not too much. (Remember, it’s native to dry areas.)
  • Some people report that the foliage smells like pineapple.
  • Like sunflower seeds, the fruits are edible and have been used by native tribes, especially ground into flour or baked.

A native plant for native pollinators

Obviously, the phenology of this plant is poorly suited for mid-day foragers such as honey bees. Some beekeepers have reported sampling by honey bees, but not sustained foraging. One beekeeper in southern Oregon suspected she had a small fall flow from it, but she described the honey as bitter. “Spitable” was her exact word.

One final note. The name “tarweed” is also given to plants in the the genus Hemizonia and Deinandra. It is possible that some reports of surplus tarweed honey actually belong to plants in one of these other genera.

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Madia elegans by Calibas. Public Domain,

A bee hotel like you’ve never seen before

Although I usually don’t run press releases, this cute story from our bee-loving friends across the pond is right in line with the mission of Honey Bee Suite. If I ever get reincarnated as a bee, I’ll be sure to make a reservation.

British bees migrate to cities as rural habitats decline

  • 75% of Brits believe bees are found in the countryside, but University of Bristol research shows more British bee species are actually found in cities
  • Under half of Brits surveyed are unaware that bees contribute towards production of certain fruit and vegetables
  • Taylors of Harrogate is pledging to support urban wild bee projects, with world’s first luxury bee hotel, created to raise awareness of the importance bees play in adding flavour to our food

A new poll4 commissioned by Taylors of Harrogate to measure public perceptions of bee populations in the UK, has found that 75 per cent of Brits would expect to see more bees in rural areas. But according to experts, it is now more common to find a wider variety of bees thriving in UK cities.

Research led by the University of Bristol2 has found that when comparing the number of bee species living in urban and rural areas, there were on average 9.3 species (per km2) in urban areas, compared to only 7.3 species (per km2) in farmlands.

Dr Katherine Baldock from the University of Bristol, comments: “Bees need two things; food and a suitable nesting site. Both of these can be found in UK cities, although our research shows that urban areas can host high numbers of bees, as well as many different species, there are still many ways we can improve our towns and cities for bees, other pollinators and wildlife in general. Bee-friendly flowers in gardens and public places provide crucial pollen and nectar sources and bee hotels provide important nesting sites.”

Yorkshire based Taylors of Harrogate understands the importance of bees in delivering the flavours found in fruit and herbal teas, so commissioned research to look into Brits’ awareness of the effect the declining bee population will have on our favourite fruit and vegetables.

The research4 found that under half of Brits surveyed are unaware of the important roles bees play in the production of fruit and vegetables, therefore Taylors of Harrogate has launched a campaign to inspire action to save the flavor, by creating the world’s first luxury bee hotel.

The Taylors of Harrogate bee hotel is an intricately designed miniature hotel, with luxury interior features such as plates filled with pollen to feast on in the Rose Lemonade restaurant, and a sugar water bath in the Sweet Rhubarb suite.

The hotel itself is made from balsawood and includes traditional hollow tubes in the bedrooms, which is a popular nesting choice for solitary bees. Other key features, such as sugar water baths and ultraviolet patterns, have been included based on scientific research that suggests that bees are attracted to these, and will therefore be enticed to enter the bee hotel to get some much needed rest and relaxation.

Kate Halloran from Taylors of Harrogate, adds:

“Bees are so important in helping to provide great flavor, but less attention has been paid to show how urban areas can be made more pollinator-friendly. The aim of the bee hotel is to not only educate and entertain, but to also inspire action. From the Peppermint Leaf Gym for a complete wing work out, through to the luxury Sweet Rhubarb Suite with its decadent rhubarb sugar water bath and UV disco, their every need will be taken care of.

“Many people may be unaware that some of our favorite fruits, including apple and cherries all depend on insect pollinators, including bees. We want to raise awareness of this issue and encourage everyone to get more deeply involved and help create a network of real bee hotels, starting in their own back gardens.”

Tim Barsby from BeeBristol agrees:

“Bees pollinate one third of every mouthful we eat and they contribute around £651 million per year to the UK economy. We are all in agreement that we need our hard working friends but also, right now, that they need us. We’re delighted to see Taylors of Harrogate launching this fun and captivating campaign to help draw attention to the plight of pollinators in such a unique way.”

The dramatic decline in bee populations, coupled with the extinction of two species in the UK, means that the future flavor of our food is at risk. With the news that bees are thriving in city regions, Taylors of Harrogate is continuing its support for the bees and has moved its luxury bee hotel to its headquarters in Harrogate.

Taylors of Harrogate Bee Hotel facilities

Peppermint Leaf Swimming Pool: Fresh water fills the bee-olympic sized swimming pool and decorative flowers and mint leaves help to provide the perfect sanctuary to relax in, after a hard day’s work.

Peppermint Leaf Gym: This high-tech gym comes complete with weights for a full wing work out to help keep fitness levels buzzing.

Lemongrass Ginger Bar: After a hard day’s work the Lemongrass Ginger bar will help to shake your troubles away. Enjoy a drink from the nectar bar before throwing some shapes on the Waggle Dance floor.

Rose Lemonade Restaurant: Enjoy a quintessential feast at the Rose Lemonade Restaurant. Tables come complete with roses and lemonade glasses, with enough pollen for all guests to feast upon.

Spiced Apple Reception: The welcoming Spiced Apple Reception features luxury cinnamon bark banisters. Staff will use top-of-the-range Apple macs to ensure your check-in is a smooth process.

Sour Cherry Bedrooms: The cherry inspired bed covers, coupled with a daily supply of fresh cherries, is a favorite with solitary bees looking to catch up on some ZZZs.

Sweet Rhubarb Suite: The Sweet Rhubarb Suite is the show-stopper in the Bee Hotel, with Beeyonce regularly requesting to stay. Whether you’re looking to unwind in the luxurious rhubarb sugar water bath, or party-on into the night in the UV disco room and DJ booth, this decadent suite will blow you away.

Facts that you may not know about bees

(provided by The Bumblebee Conservation Trust)

  • There are over 250 types of bee in the UK – one of them is the honey bee, 25 of them are bumble bees, and the rest are solitary bees.
  • Only honey bees die when they sting – this is because their stings are barbed, bumble bees and solitary bees have smooth stings.
  • A queen bumble bee lives for one year, whereas queen honey bees can live for three or four years.
  • A bumble bee can travel up to 6km daily to visit flowers – this is the equivalent of a person walking around the globe 10 times to get to the shops!
  • Bumble bees see in the ultra-violet range of the color spectrum.
  • Different bees specialize on different types of flower and have different tongue lengths because of this – the garden bumble bee’s tongue is a whopping 12mm long, allowing it to probe into deep flowers to access nectar, while the honey bee’s tongue length is much shorter at 6.6mm meaning they forage on more open flowers.
  • Only female bees can sting, males can’t as they don’t have to protect the nest.
  • Bees have smelly feet! They leave a temporary scent behind on the flower they have just visited as a sign to other bees that the nectar in that flower has already been taken, so the next bee visitor to that flower can simply avoid that flower until more nectar is produced, and doesn’t have to waste precious foraging time.
  • The colorful bands on a bumble bee are only on the hair. If you were to shave a bumble bee, it would be shiny black all over (important note – we do not recommend shaving any bees to check this fact, just take it from us…).

Top ways for people to help save the bees at home

  • Open your own luxury Bee Hotel – visit Taylors of Harrogate.
  • Visit Bumblebee Conservation to score how bee friendly your garden is and receive plant recommendations.
  • Plant bee-friendly flowers in your garden or even in a window box, making sure that you provide flowers from March through October, as different species emerge at different times of the year. Most of our rarer species emerge later in the season (May onwards), which means that they need a pollen and nectar source into the autumn time.
  • Become a member of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
  • Learn how to identify bees and help monitor them at BeeWalk Survey.
Taylors of Harrogate Bee Hotel

  1. Sirohi, M., Jackson, J., Edwards, M. and Ollerton, J. (2015): Diversity and abundance of solitary and primitively eusocial bees in an urban centre: a case study from Northampton (England). Journal of Insect Conservation. 19(3), pp. 487­500. 1366­638X.
  2. Baldock KCR et al. (2015): Where is the UK’s pollinator biodiversity? The importance of urban areas for flower-visiting insects. Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20142849.
  3. Garratt MPD, Breeze TD, Boreux V, Fountain MT, McKerchar M, Webber SM, et al. (2016):
    Apple Pollination: Demand Depends on Variety and Supply Depends on Pollinator Identity. PLoS ONE 11 (5): e0153889. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0153889
  4. Research conducted by Taylors of Harrogate, June 2016, with One Pulse. Figures are based on 1000 respondents.

About Taylors of Harrogate Tea

Taylors of Harrogate is a Yorkshire-based family business devoted to the craft of outstanding tea and coffee since 1886. Tea experts at Taylors of Harrogate have decades of experience in seeking out the very best teas from the top gardens in the world and skillfully blending flavor-packed fruits and herbs to create beautifully balanced infusions.

Using premium ingredients carefully sourced by Taylors and certified by the botanic experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Taylors of Harrogate Fruit and Herbal Infusions range and Green Tea range are both blended to deliver pure and natural flavor.

Taylors is proud to be a founding member of the Ethical Tea Partnership, which helps producers meet internationally recognized standards.

About BeeBristol

BeeBristol is a not-for-profit project that works tirelessly to help make Bristol the most welcoming city for pollinators. They do this by working in partnership with local organizations, volunteers and community groups, and by planting wildflower meadows, which create habitat and forage. They also manage beehives across Bristol, whilst supporting all pollinators by engaging with the public at events, festivals, school visits and through art installations.

The long path back to nature

One day in August I was sitting in an Adirondack chair midway between a busy bee hive and a large stand of lemon balm. I had a notebook and was trying to outline my next post. “You are so noisy, I can’t think!” I complained aloud. But I wasn’t addressing the hive, I was speaking to the lemon balm.

The lemon balm was drooping under the weight of yellow and black bumble bees. From each bee I heard Buzzzzz. Pause. Buzzzzz. Pause. Over and over multiplied by about 300. These were mostly males, not collecting pollen but drinking nectar and chasing women. “Carousing” comes to mind.

Every year I plant a few more pollinator-friendly plants and I have been richly rewarded by an explosion of bees and butterflies. Each summer I identify more bees—species I have never seen before. And the influx of butterflies, moths, dragonflies, and beetles leaves me speechless. Their variety is astounding.

Spending twenty years in one place without the use of pesticides has been a once-in-a-lifetime journey. Of course, my lawn wouldn’t meet the standards of a homeowners’ association, the fruit on my trees is shared with the local fauna, and all those fat spiders think they’re in paradise. You could think of these as the bad things, but the pluses are countless.

The many insects that live here attract a large diversity of birds. I’m not a bird person, but I can tell you there are big ones and small ones, red and yellow and blue and orange, some quiet and some loud. Birds that eat from the ground, out of trees, and in the air. The number of species has multiplied in the twenty years, and I think it’s because of all the food. The insects aren’t poisoned, nor the plants, nor the water, so it’s a fine place to live if you’re a bird.

In turn, the vast population of birds keeps down the insects. They eat the caterpillars, mosquitoes, ants, beetles, and thrips that might otherwise destroy my garden. Oh sure, they eat a few bees as well, but nature seems to be in balance. When everything is allowed to live naturally, no one species takes over, and each has its place. Each is a part of the whole.

Clean water—that is, non-poisoned water—also attracts frogs, garden snakes, salamanders, and fish—many of which also eat mosquitoes and other pests. I see maybe a half-dozen mosquitoes during the entire summer, and all those spiders? They eat zillions of insects, too. In fact, a home inspector once told me that a crawlspace with webs and spiders was a good thing because the spiders scarf up the carpenter ants, boring beetles, and termites that can destroy a home. Kill the spiders and the bad guys can thrive; let the spiders live and you don’t need insecticides.

Having grown up in a pesticide culture and having been educated as an agronomist, I was skeptical of going pesticide-free. But when I moved into my present home, I knew there were fish in the stream and frogs in the woodland, and I didn’t want to mess with that. And honestly, the first time some fast-munching, feces-dropping, six-legged egg factory took out my vegetables, it was difficult to maintain my resolve.

It takes time. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and that is the hardest part. If you can get through the transition years, the land, the plants, and the animals will take care of themselves and reward you many times over. Even now, I remain in awe of the world I helped nurture, not by doing good, but­­­­­­ by not doing bad.

Honey Bee Suite

Bumble bee 1846
Bumble bee © Rusty Burlew.

Nine facts about bee stingers

I am fascinated by the amount of ouch that comes along with a bee sting. After getting stung by honey bees so often, I was amazed at how differently stings from other bees can feel. For example, the sting of an alkali bee is sharp like a pin prick, but the pain recedes immediately and the sting leaves no mark. The sting from an alfalfa leafcutting bee barely registers, but it leaves a small red welt that itches like a mosquito bite for days.

The worst sting I ever got was from a wasp of some sort. I didn’t see it on the handle of the garage door, and I wrapped my palm right around that sucker. I was in agony for an hour or more. Second in line for ouch was a bumble bee sting—although cute and fuzzy, they can pack a wallop.

For me, honey bee stings hurt, then itch, then disappear a few minutes later—unless I get stung on the face. The face ones swell up for days, which I don’t understand.

Anyway, confusion about who stings and how often is common, so here are a few facts about stings in general.

  1. Only female bees can sting. Stingers evolved from ovipositors, and since males were never designed to lay eggs, they don’t have ovipositors. In wasps, you will often see long, slender ovipositors that are used to lay eggs inside the bodies of other invertebrates. In some cases, the ovipositor also carries a poison which anesthetizes its prey. When vegetarian bees evolved from wasps, they didn’t need to weaken their prey (pollen isn’t inclined to run away) so the stinger evolved into a defense mechanism.
  2. Not all female bees can sting. According to Laurence Packer in Keeping the Bees, only about 75% of bee species have females that can sting humans.
  3. Honey bees are the only bees with barbed stingers. A few species of wasps have barbed stingers, but among the bees, honey bees are unique. A barb securely embedded in the skin of the enemy gives the venom gland more time to pump its contents.
  4. Honey bees die after they sting. The bee dies because a portion of its internal organs are ripped from its abdomen as it flies away. But the worker may not die immediately; some live hours or even days after the event.
  5. Honey bee stingers don’t always embed. Sometimes, when honey bees sting thin-skinned creatures such as other bees, the stinger does not embed and they can sting again.
  6. Bees without barbs can sting many times. Except for honey bees, bees that can sting, can sting many times because the stingers slide out easily without damaging the bee.
  7. The stinger of a queen honey bee is not barbed. The lack of barbs means she can sting more than once. Honey bee queens use their stingers to fend off competition from other queens within the hive, including virgins.
  8. Stingless honey bees are a dream come true. Not really. Although they don’t sting, they bite and spit caustic venom.­
  9. Sting venoms are unique. According to Sammataro and Avitabile in The Beekeeper’s Handbook, the venom produced by each species has a unique chemical profile. For this reason, some hurt more than others, and a person allergic to the sting of one species may not be allergic to the sting of another.

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