Bee-Friendly Companies Are Getting the Science of the Crisis Completely Wrong

By troy farah

troy farah
Credit: picture alliance/Getty

EEarlier this year, Pornhub put out a press release and launched Beesexual, a website featuring an entirely new genre of “porn”: honeybees pollinating flowers. The site includes over a dozen streaming videos of bees boinking in blossoms, dubbed with the voices of adult-content performers. For each view — so far, more than 1.9 million — Pornhub has promised to donate to bee-preserving charities.

You’ve probably seen other corporate efforts to “save the bees.” From McDonald’s installing “bee hotels” on restaurant signs in Sweden to General Mills’ making the Cheerios’ bee mascot disappear for its Bring Back the Bees campaign, brands proclaiming to be dedicated to the protection of honeybees are on the rise.

They raise the concern that some modern crops heavily rely on pollination in order to bear fruit or vegetables and that if pollinators go, so will many foods like broccoli, watermelon, cucumbers, and avocados. As catastrophic biodiversity loss and devastating pollinator decline threaten the planet, these campaigns promote the idea that we must do everything to save the most recognizable agent of pollination: the honeybee.

While likely well-intentioned, however, not all of the advertising around bee friendliness is necessarily well-informed.

Trying to save honeybees in lieu of native pollinators, entomologists say, is like trying to conserve chickens because you’ve heard North American birds are vanishing.

The black-and-yellow bug on cereal boxes, bear-shaped honey containers, and websites like Beesexual is not the bee that needs saving. Called Apis mellifera, it’s a domesticated bee — think of it as a tiny flying cow or pig — introduced to the Americas from Europe only a few centuries ago.

Native Americans pollinated their crops for generations without depending on this insect. Instead, they relied on over 4,500 bee species native to North America — California alone has 1,600 of them. The real problem is that populations of these native bees are declining due to pesticide overuse, climate change, and rampant development that destroy insect habitats. The rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) was recently listed as critically endangered, and environmentalists say the American bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus) is also likely in the same boat. Campaigns to save honeybees do nothing to solve the most serious problems with pollination. Trying to save honeybees in lieu of native pollinators, entomologists say, is like trying to conserve chickens because you’ve heard North American birds are vanishing.

Overemphasizing honeybee protection could actually make things worse. While it’s true that honeybees can be important pollinators, they can also act as an invasive species. In some settings, their large numbers out-compete native pollinators like butterflies, wasps, bumblebees, solitary bees, and other flower-loving arthropods, not to mention birds and bats. They can spread diseases to other insects, and — thanks to their hygienic habit of clumping pollen with nectar on their hind legs rather than sloppily spreading plant sex DNA everywhere like some bugs — they aren’t even that great at fertilizing plants. Compared with fuzzier bugs like bumblebees, certain flies, and even mosquitoes, honeybees just aren’t ideal, although they do make up for it with numbers. Plus, they provide honey.

So, no, your “porn addiction” — even if it involves boinking bees — probably won’t do much to help pollinators overall. But it does build brand awareness by cashing in on fears about bee extinction.

It’s what scientists like Charlotte de Keyzer, a pollination ecologist and doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, are starting to call “bee-washing.” It’s a take on the phrase “greenwashing,” a deceptive marketing technique advertising environmentally friendly products or services that really aren’t so friendly. Bee-washing, as de Keyzer defines it, is when “a product, service, or organization is advertised as being more ‘bee-friendly’ than it actually is.”

In September, de Keyzer launched a website simply called Bee-washing to point out bee-washing campaigns and combat false stereotypes about bees and pollinators. (It also includes GIFs of bees actually washing themselves that are adorable.)

“I wanted to target this issue directly,” de Keyzer says. “By branding the problem as ‘bee-washing’ and compiling the arguments against it in one place, I hoped that my site would provide an easy link and term for people to use.”

One campaign the site discusses was by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which installed rooftop beehives in 2015 as part of a “biodiversity” campaign. But partnering with beekeepers to preserve a single domesticated organism isn’t really biodiversity in any sense. The campaign also didn’t account for its urban setting, where bee food (flowers) is often scarce. “Honeybee colonies need acres of habitat for each colony,” says Elaine Evans, a bee conservation researcher at the University of Minnesota. “So if you’re putting that in the middle of the city, you know, you can plant stuff in your garden, but you yourself are not going to be able to provide for your colony. There’s not enough space to really make sure there’s enough [food] for your bees and all of these other bees that are out there.”

While data on urban beekeeping is underfunded and scarce, recent research in Paris suggests wild pollinators struggle to keep up with honeybees, questioning “the fast development of urban beekeeping and the enthusiasm of citizens and mass media for the installation of hives in cities.”

A recent McDonald’s campaign aimed to incorporate pollinators beyond honeybees when it posted “bee hotels” on the backs of billboards in Sweden. The hotels targeted bees that build solo nests in old wood or bamboo rather than honeybees that thrive in hives. But even this campaign fell short of sound science because the benefits of bee hotels have yet to be proven. Research published in Plos One by scientists at York University in Toronto suggests bee hotels can concentrate and spread diseases and parasites and often tend to benefit non-native species over local insects.

The authors studied 600 bee hotels for two years across different types of urban green spaces, including rooftops, local gardens, and city parks. They concluded that there isn’t enough data on bee hotels to support or reject them, writing, “To ensure ‘bee-washing’ is minimized, it is imperative that more research be performed on the design and effectiveness of bee hotels.”

General Mills may have made the most visible bee-washing mistake. For its 2016 Bring Back the Bees campaign, the company “disappeared” Buzz, the mascot of honey-flavored Cheerios, to represent vanishing honeybees and stuffed millions of wildflower seed packets into boxes so people could grow their own bee habitats.

Biologists later discovered that some of these seeds were invasive plants that can dominate native ecosystems and wipe out competitors. General Mills responded to the rising backlash by replacing the seeds with slightly more innocuous sunflowers. Partnering with the USDA, the company has also invested $4 million and set aside 55,000 acres of pollinator habitat through the Xerces Society, a reputable invertebrate conservation group.

But that doesn’t change the underlying goal of their campaign, which Emma Eriksson, General Mills Canada’s vice president of marketing, put succinctly: “The iconic Buzz being taken off the box contributed to increased sales.”

“Bee-washing has the added harm of conflating all bees together, which is misleading, as they don’t all face the same risks.”

In an emailed statement, Mollie Wulff, corporate communications manager at General Mills, told OneZero, “Although, BuzzBee and his honey bee friends may not be in danger of extinction like some other pollinators, in the interest of protecting our food supply, General Mills is committed to helping all pollinators thrive through the planting of these habitats.”

Pornhub, McDonald’s, and CBC did not respond to a request for comment on this article.

“Corporations have a vested interest in selling the idea that we can all buy our way to a healthier planet — that’s greenwashing overall,” Kaitlin Whitney, an insect ecologist and assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, tells OneZero. “But we can’t buy our way out of colony collapse [a recent syndrome affecting honeybees] or the conservation crisis impacting wild, native bees. Bee-washing has the added harm of conflating all bees together, which is misleading as they don’t all face the same risks.”

“This is definitely not splitting hairs,” she adds. “The evidence that scientists have to date just doesn’t support the idea that keeping honeybees, a domesticated species, or buying products that use honeybee products will lead to increased or healthier populations of wild bees and other pollinators.”

On the surface, bee-washing is well-intentioned. People hear that bees are dying and want to help. But movements that aren’t based on evidence often do more for a product or brand than for the cause itself. It’s an empty gesture. The website not only wants to expose these efforts, but it also provides ways you can help.

To really help bees, experts agree that less is more. Mow your lawn less or not at all, allow more native weeds and flowers to sprout, and leave wood and leaf litter around for insects to hide in. “In general, being lazier in your gardening practices is a good thing,” de Keyzer says. If you really must have a lawn, Evans suggests looking into “bee lawns” that feature short, flowering plants.

You can also take photos of pollinating insects, like fat, fuzzy bumblebees, and submit them to websites like iNaturalist or Bumble Bee Watch. Scientists like Evans and de Keyzer regularly use this crowdsourced data to track rare insects and get a general idea of pollinator populations. This kind of up-close observation will also help you appreciate bees more.

Or at least, it did for me. Last spring in California’s High Desert, I witnessed a half-dozen native solitary bees curl up in a desert daisy as the sun was setting and the petals closed, tucking them in. It was possibly the most soothing, meditative thing I’ve ever witnessed.

“If we can connect more people to nature and lived experiences like that as opposed to them feeling the only way to connect to nature is by buying some product, I think it’d be a lot better,” de Keyzer says.