Ecological Impacts of Commercial Honey Bees on Wild Bees and Plants in Israel

wild bee. Photo: Ariela Gotlib

The following is the summary of a new and extensive report on Israel's declining wild bee population, which was led by SPNI's Nature Protection Department in collaboration with scientists of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Haifa.

By Achik Dorchin, PhD

Israel has an outstanding wild bee diversity of about 1100 bee species. Urban and agricultural intensification and the development of peri-urban infrastructures have resulted in substantial loss and degradation of natural habitats, which has already lead to severe population decline of many wild bees and plants, highlighting their need for conservation.

The small nature reserves along the central coastal plain of Israel that today constitute essential refuge for the rich bee fauna and plant flora of this region, including many rare and endemic species, are prime examples of the ongoing destruction of this ecosystem. Except for the well-known environmental threats to biodiversity, particularly the natural pollinator diversity, this document highlights the risk from intensive commercial honeybee keeping for both crop pollination and honey production.

Open spaces, including some protected areas, nature reserves and national parks, are exposed to a heavy load of commercial honeybee foragers from hives residing at nearby agricultural fields, where an excessive number of hives is sometime used (for example in Avocado plantations) to compensate for the fleeing of foragers to more rewarding nearby flowers.

Installation of commercial hives in natural areas for the production of wild flower honey places additional pressure on the native bee populations. Such hives often exploit unique flora, possibly putting at risk endangered wild flower species and rare wild bee species that occur mainly in natural habitats.

Deliberate introduction of the Western honeybee Apis mellifera by humans to most regions of the world has resulted in its current occurrence there as a managed or feral exotic species. In Israel, the local honeybee subspecies has already become extinct and only imported honeybee strains are currently maintained as managed colonies within hives.

The honeybee is perceived in the general public as a primary pollinator of agricultural and wild plants, providing apicultural products, and thus as a beneficial species for humans and the environment. Except for the contribution of apiculture to crop pollination and honey production, only a few are aware of the deleterious effects it has on wild bees and on the wild plants they interact with.

Studies from Israel and other countries have demonstrated a negative effect of commercial honeybees, leading to a decline in local wild bee populations and a skewing of native pollinator communities, through competition over floral resources (mainly pollen and nectar). In addition, there is accumulating evidence indicating that a decline in the fitness of native plants, an exclusive food resource of wild bees, is due to extensive pollen exploitation and limited pollination contribution by commercial honeybee foragers.

While the honeybee contributes important pollination services to many intensively managed crops, its per visit pollination efficiency is lower compared to that of various wild bee species (i.e., a single visit to a flower leads to fewer fruits or seeds). The exploitation of vast floral resources by intensively managed honeybee colonies, frequently with only limited contribution to pollination, may lead to a negative effect on the wild plants and thus more broadly to entire plant-pollinator systems.

 wild bee. Photo Alon RothschildThe installation of honeybee hives is already generally prohibited within nature reserves in Israel, but considering the long foraging ranges of commercial honeybee workers (reaching up to 10 km or more), hives which are put near the border of nature reserves are a source of heavy honeybee load inside these reserves. Contrary to grazing by cattle or goats, which are managed using fences, it is not possible to direct the foraging activity of commercial honeybees, and their occurrence and density in nature reserves and in other natural areas remain uncontrolled. Thus, simply removing honeybee hives from nature reserves will not necessarily provide effective protection from excessive honeybee forage.

Mismanagement and lack of ecologically based considerations in the regulation of apicultural activities is currently leading to a high density of honeybees in many open spaces in Israel, particularly in nature reserves. This in turn results in overexploitation of wild floral resources 

that may lead to decrease in fitness and reproduction success of wild bee populations, and consequently to their decline.

In addition to acknowledging the importance of commercial honeybees for agricultural pollination and the local production of honey, Israel must take action to safeguard its natural resources and unique biodiversity, including its diverse wild bee fauna and plant flora.

We recommend focusing on the protection of areas statutorily designated for nature protection, including nature reserves and national parks, especially in regions and seasons wherein a high diversity and abundance of wild bees has been identified, and in particular where unique wild bee species have been found.

We recommend adopting the following practices in the management of open spaces and the management of apiculture in Israel, and their enforcement by law:

1. The removal of hives from all protected natural areas, and the reduction of honeybee forage loads using a buffer zone of at least 2 km, where possible, around the borders of nature reserves and national parks designated to nature protection. Within the buffer zone, honeybee hive density will be limited to four hives per 1 km2 during the four months of the main flowering season in spring (Mt. Hermon, Mt. Meron, and Northern Golan heights: March – June; The Mediterranean region: February – May; The desert: January – April).

  • In nature reserves smaller than 100 dunam, this law will not apply. Reducing the number of hives is however recommended in regions comprising a mosaic of small reserves embedded within agricultural and residential matrix, such as the Poleg and Shiqma regions.

 

  • In nature reserves 100 – 300 dunam in size, the buffer zone will be only 1 km wide. (Although a greater pressure from commercial honeybee hives is expected on wild bees in smaller reserves, implementing full limitation is difficult in smaller areas).

 

2. The inclusion of a Nature Protection Authorities (NPA) representative, or academia representative, with background in pollination ecology, as member of the committee considering permits for apiary activities in open spaces. The addition of ecological considerations in permits for the introduction of apiaries, including the following considerations, to prevent ecological damage:

  • The quality of the affected ecosystem (with emphasis on the Hermon, patches of Kurkar and Hamra along the central coastal plane, the Jordan valley, and the Arava Valley).

 

  • The size of the affected ecosystem.

 

  • The occurrence of rare and endemic pollinator and plant species.

 

Alongside the above mentioned restrictions on honeybee forage in natural protected areas, planting nectariferous plants is recommended in non-natural areas such as settlements, public parks, along field margins, and in planted KKL forests to supplement existing forage resources for honeybees. In addition, an increase in monitoring and research is suggested: preparing species inventories and distributions based on field surveys to evaluate the state of natural pollinators, and performing year-round monitoring of honeybee occurrence and density in natural area.

SPNI is now hard at work in advancing implementation of the report's recommendations:  the enacting and enforcement of laws and regulations involving commercial beekeeping, including the planning and approval processes of apiary activities, to mitigate damage to Israel's wild bee population.

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