Honey bees — who really needs saving? (Part 1)

Adrienne Domingus
7 min readMar 3

Nature is complex and we operate from a position of never having as much information as we would like.

- United States Department of the Interior

Bright yellow shirts and hats and earrings declaring “save the bees” abound on the internet. I can’t remember ever seeing anyone wearing one. Perhaps it’s aspirational of the online retailers, or a virtue signal they’re putting out to declare that they care about the environment, without needing to take any action (this is called “greenwashing” — when an organization spends more time and money on marketing itself as environmentally friendly than on actually minimizing its environmental impact). But most people are at least peripherally aware that pollinators are at risk, and think that bees need saving. They’ve likely heard stories of colony collapse disorder and pesticides and the villages in China where people are pollinating trees by hand because all of the bees have been killed.

My family keeps bees: depending on the time of year and how hard the season was, we have anywhere from two to five hives at a time. I say this partially to admit my bias early, but also to explain why I end up talking to people about bees a lot. When people learn that I’m a beekeeper, their reactions are usually either excitement that I am personally saving the bees or incredulity that I voluntarily spend time with thousands of stinging insects. “I don’t mean to sound rude, but what is the appeal,” someone asked us once, standing under the shade of a cottonwood tree at a mutual friend’s barbeque.

If you ask someone who purports to want to save the bees to describe the bees, they’ll probably describe a honey bee: the kind that lives in colonies with a queen, stores up honey for the winter, and might sting you if you misstep on a spring day. It’s fairly hard to get a sting from a honey bee though: in my first season of beekeeping, opening up multiple beehives at least once a week and disturbing them mightily, I was only stung twice. A honey bee dies when she stings you, so it needs to be serious. And it’s definitely she: the males, or drones, don’t have stingers. They also rarely leave the hive except to mate, and mating kills them.

Most bees native to the Pacific Northwest don’t have stingers either, male or female. If a…