By Erin Blakemore
March 14, 2020 at 8:00 a.m. EDT
Bee hotels — boxes promoted as good nesting places. “Bee-friendly” farming techniques behind favorite foods.
Are the claims true — or just honey-drenched hype? Lila Westreich, a bee researcher at the University of Washington, says companies take advantage of well-intentioned consumers by “bee-washing.”
The term, first coined by researchers in 2015, refers to greenwashing, in this case a marketing strategy that makes a product or practice seem beneficial to threatened bees. (Greenwashing evolved from the term whitewashing and means an environmental spin.) In The Conversation, Westreich writes that the practice can actually hurt bees.
Bee hotels are advertised as safe nests for bees, for example, but some may be dangerous. The welfare of honeybees may be overemphasized, misleading the public about environmental priorities.
Wild native bees are at particular risk. Of the 20,000 or so bee species in the world, only about 4,000 are native to North America — the bumblebee among them. These bees don’t produce honey, and they’re less sociable and well-known than their so-sweet counterparts.
The majority of American bees don’t produce honey. Honey bees came to the United States from Europe. Kelsey K. Graham, another bee researcher, calls them the “chickens of the bee world” because they are so domesticated.
Unlike hive-dwelling honeybees, which are carefully bred, imported to the country for use in crop pollination and managed, the majority of native bees are solitary and nest underground. They reportedly pollinate up to 80 percent of plants, including many crops.
They’re also at risk: In a 2017 study, the Center for Biological Diversity found that more than 50 percent of North American native bee species are declining; 24 percent are threatened with extinction.
Native bees are threatened by climate change, habitat depletion and pesticide use — but honey bees get most of the publicity.
“While many people are worried about honey bees, it’s also important to understand the jeopardy that native bees face,” Westreich writes. “Companies and organizations use bee-washing to boost their image, taking advantage of the public’s lack of knowledge of native bees.”
By bragging about how they help honey bees, notes Westreich, they play down the importance of native species that, unlike honey bees, are actually endangered. They also play up their solutions, such as bee hotels, that can hurt bees by spreading disease.
Ready to inoculate yourself against misleading claims about bees? Read Westreich’s article at bit.ly/beewashing
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