SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We've heard a lot in recent years about the struggles of honeybees, how their numbers are down. So environmentalists have rallied to their aid - even helping people to set up their own beehives. But this bothers a lot of ecologists who say that honeybee hives aren't natural and they don't help the environment. In fact, they may harm it. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Honeybees are amazing and adorable. And they suffer when people spray pesticides or mow down wildflowers. Biologist Jonas Geldmann at the University of Cambridge started to notice that among environmentalists, the honeybee has become a cause.
JONAS GELDMANN: Lots of conservation organizations are promoting buying local honey and even promoting sponsorships of honeybees and that kind of stuff. So that increasingly annoyed me.
CHARLES: It annoyed him because honeybees are not exactly part of nature. They were originally imported from Europe. Beekeepers keep them by the millions to make honey and pollinate crops like almonds. They're agricultural animals, like sheep or cattle. But there are thousands of other bee species living in the wild, hiding away in the ground or in hollow plant stems. Researcher Nigel Raine has a whole array of them in his laboratory at the University of Guelph, in Canada. Each one's impaled on a pin. Many are tiny. Rein says gardeners often assume they're flies.
NIGEL RAINE: If you sit down and say, no, that's a small solitary bee, you know, that's a metallic green one - when you show them metallic green bees in their yard, they're kind of like - wow, that's amazing.
CHARLES: A lot of wild bees are in real peril. Some species have disappeared. And when flowers are scarce, like when an orchard stops blooming, farmed honeybees and these wild bees end up competing with each other for food - for pollen - making it harder for the wild ones to survive. Basically, Jonas Geldmann says a healthy environment needs bees but not honeybees. This week, he published a commentary in the journal Science trying to spread the word.
GELDMANN: The way we're managing honeybees in these human-kept hives has nothing to do with nature conservation.
CHARLES: Scientists who study bees actually know this already, but they struggle with how to talk to the public about it.
MARLA SPIVAK: We're on a learning curve, all of us.
CHARLES: This is Marla Spivak, a bee researcher at the University of Minnesota.
SPIVAK: It's like honeybees were our portal in - the door in to much larger issues - just conservation issues in general.
CHARLES: Honeybees helped people understand why it's important to have more land covered with wildflowers and trees and free of pesticides. This helps honeybees and wild bees.
SPIVAK: My preference is to not pit one bee against another. I would prefer to live on a planet where there are bountiful flowers to support all of our bees.
CHARLES: But the bee that needs our help most may be that tiny green bee in your garden and not the honeybee.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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