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There is widespread concern about the global decline in pollinators and the associated loss of pollination services. This concern is understandable given the importance of pollinators for global food security; ∼75% of all globally important crops depend to some degree on pollination, and the additional yield due to pollination adds ∼9% to the global crop production (1). These services are delivered by a plethora of species, including more than 20,000 species of bees as well as butterflies, flies, and many species of vertebrates (1). Yet, concern has focused on one species above all: the western honey bee (Apis mellifera). This is unfortunate because research shows that managed honey bees can harm wild pollinator species, providing an urgent incentive to change honey bee management practices.
The western honey bee is the most important single species for crop pollination, with a rapid global growth in managed colony numbers over the past decades, particularly in much of its introduced range. Honey production can also be an important source of income, particularly in many rural communities. Lack of pollination of commercial crops associated with the current honey bee die-off in some countries—most notably, the United States—is, however, an issue of agricultural rather than environmental importance.
Despite this, news stories often view honey bee losses through the lens of environmental concern (2). This has led to initiatives, masked as conservation, that promote honey bees in cities and even in protected areas far from agriculture (see the photo) (3). Nongovernmental organizations have even responded to the pollinator crisis with a call to action that includes suggestions to buy local honey and support honey bee conservation (4, 5).
Across organizations and strategies, there is a recognition that there are pollinators other than the western honey bees. Nevertheless, the general belief that addressing the decline in managed honey bees would be an environmental feat persists in the media (2) and among the public (6). This lack of distinction between the declines of wild pollinators and the plight of a heavily managed, agricultural species may even reduce efforts to conserve wild pollinator species, many of which are nationally or even globally threatened (1).
Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that unnaturally high densities of honey bees, associated with beekeeping, can exacerbate declines in wild pollinators (7). This problem is particularly evident in areas where western honey bees have been introduced (7); but even in their native range in Europe, managed honey bees have been shown to depress the densities of wild pollinators around apiaries both in natural habitats (8) and in crop fields (9). Furthermore, they move toward surrounding natural habitats in unnaturally high densities after the blooming period of mass-flowering crops (10), potentially outcompeting wild pollinators (11)
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