Let’s stop using the generic term ‘bees’

Save the bees. Bees are in danger. Bees are dying. Bees are an endangered species.

It’s great that popular media are turning attention toward pollinators, albeit with slightly exaggerated style.

But how damaging are sloppy grammatical errors and misleading ‘facts’?

Tobias Smith & I recently published a paper in Insect Conservation & Diversity showing that Australian mainstream media over-emphasise the role of European honey bees as pollinators. Many of the stories we found in major Australian newspapers claimed (incorrectly) that the introduced honey bee is the ‘best’ or ‘only’ pollinator available to pollinate crops and native plants in Australian systems.

However, we know from recent scientific studies, that honey bees are not the most efficient pollinator for all crops; a variety of wild, unmanaged pollinators, including non-bee insects, are essential for our food production.

We also found that 33% of stories just used the generic term ‘bees’, without naming a species, or specifying if the story was talking about native, introduced, managed, solitary, bumble etc.

Our study focused on Australian media, but this type of sloppy journalism is happening daily in global media.

This story from Huffington Post caught my eye on Twitter recently, when it was reposted by the UN Environment Twitter account. With this kind of endorsement, who would suspect the validity of the information?

Bee Expert Dr. Reese Halter Explains Why They Are So Important To Humans And What We Can Do To Save This Endangered Species.

The story focused almost entirely on commercial honey bees, accompanied by an image that also connoted honey bees. But despite the headline, which clearly refers to a single species of bee, the European honey bee is not listed as endangered anywhere in the world.

And there are about 20,000 species of bees in the world. (Also, many of the quotes attributed to ‘bee expert’ Dr Halter are factually incorrect.)

Does this matter? Yes!

Very few non-specialists actually read scientific literature. So media portrayal of scientific issues has huge influence over how people perceive and understand an issue. Journalists have a responsibility to their audience to get their facts straight.

Yet much of the mainstream popular media coverage of bees sends a strong message that there is only one species of bee we need to save. And because the images and descriptions associated with the stories almost always suggest honey bees (i.e. beehives, beeswax cells, beekeepers, honey, actual honey bees), many people make the obvious link between the generic term ‘bees’ and The Honey Bee.

The problem with this assumption is that Apis mellifera, the European honey bee, is just one out of 20,000 species. Each of those 20,000 species has different biology, habitats, and nest sites. Some live in social colonies, most are solitary. Most bee species don’t make honey. A few species are listed as endangered in various parts of the world, but not the honey bee. (But most pollinators, including non-bee pollinators, are being affected by vegetation clearing, pesticide overuse and intensive agriculture.)

The European honey bee is the most widespread bee species that has been domesticated and can be managed in hives, so it gets the most attention. But there are only about 7 species of honey bee (Apis species) in the world.

That’s 7 species out of 20,000…

So referring to all bees as one generic species is like referring to all plants, from oak trees to orchids, as a single species.

Here’s a handy table showing how the generic collective nouns we apply to most animals or plants doesn’t actually equate to the number of biological species:

Generic term Actual number of species globally
Humans 1
Dogs (domestic) 1
Horses 1
Sheep ~5
Dandelions ~34
Pine trees ~125
Sharks ~500
Oak trees ~600
Birds ~10,000
Bees ~20,000
Orchids ~28,000
Flies ~100,000

So Journalists, please, stop using the generic term ‘bees’. Is your story about a specific species (e.g. Euro honey bees), or a biological group of bee species (e.g. bumblebees)? Then please call them by name. If you are referring to ALL BEES, use the term ‘bee species’…it’s only one extra word.


© Manu Saunders 2016

26 thoughts on “Let’s stop using the generic term ‘bees’

  1. melaniekb July 23, 2016 / 3:53 AM

    Great points. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. charleshamilton78732732 July 23, 2016 / 8:28 AM

    Another Manu classic! Thanks for that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Emily Scott July 24, 2016 / 1:11 AM

    Great post, there is so much sloppy journalism about adding to people’s confusion. You might be interested in this London Beekeeping Association position paper on the facts about honey bee declines : http://www.lbka.org.uk/downloads/lbka_bee-declines.pdf – they point out that:

    “concern about the decline of the honey bee is misplaced, or even bogus. However,
    many species of bumble and solitary bees are under threat.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Manu Saunders July 24, 2016 / 10:11 AM

      oh dear! Thanks for that link, there are quite a few misleading statements in there. I wonder where they sourced their info?!


      • Pollinator July 24, 2016 / 10:59 AM

        Useful link,indeed. I have been passing it along, too.


      • Emily Scott July 24, 2016 / 3:38 PM

        Which are the misleading statements in the link, I hadn’t spotted them? Maybe “More than a third of all the food we eat and most of the highly nutritional foodstuffs in our diets are reliant on bees”?


        • Manu Saunders July 24, 2016 / 4:03 PM

          Much of the text about pesticides not being of concern & that ‘most leading scientists’ agree that pesticides are not the main cause for bee declines… From my experience, I don’t think that academics are divided, I think most ecologists working with pollinators pretty much agree that pesticides are an issue. While it is true there are other important threats also affecting bees, these types of statements can be misleading.


          • Pollinator July 25, 2016 / 4:43 AM

            This point is not misleading. There are other factors that are as much or more serious than pesticides. We shouldn’t ignore them. A list of causes here: Pesticides and Bees: It’s Complex http://www.wired.com/2015/03/pesticides-bees-complex/
            The London beekeepers article mentioned above is very significant: “Factors which likely contribute to colony collapse in the US but may explain why the phenomena is absent in Europe are the differences in commercial apiculture in the US including the moving of colonies over vast distances to meet demands for pollination services.” We need to focus on “declines of other pollinators including solitary bees and bumble bees.” http://www.lbka.org.uk/downloads/lbka_bee-decines.pdf


          • Emily Scott July 25, 2016 / 2:46 PM

            ‘Not the only cause’ might be better phrasing than ‘Not the main cause’. I have attended a few talks by bee researchers and they usually name a number of issues, including habitat loss and climate change as well as pesticides. For honey bees, better husbandry methods and a wider range of forage would probably often help prevent losses.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. PK Read July 25, 2016 / 4:57 PM

    You bring up so many good points in this post!

    I think some of the issue is more than just that journalists do a poor job of conveying certain subtleties when it comes to science–I think many of those tasked with generating content really don’t understand what they are writing, and don’t have the time to delve deeper. How many genuine ‘science’ journalists are there in these days of aggregated news sources and regurgitated information?

    Also, the non-differentiation between bees, and the primacy of the slogan ‘save the bees’ over the broader and more accurate ‘save the pollinators’ could also be down to the ‘survival of the cutest’ element. Bees are the fuzzy endangered panda of the insect world. After all, it’s easy to love what makes honey, right? And that makes for more appetizing click headlines than Save the Delhi Sands Flower-loving Fly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pollinator July 25, 2016 / 10:29 PM

      “Bees are the fuzzy endangered panda of the insect world.” Honey bees are in no danger of extinction. There are more beehives worldwide now than ever before (more than 60 million hives). Even US colonies have been slightly in the rise in the last couple of years.
      The real issue is the public’s ignorance of the natural world. Most people don’t realize that there are 20,000 species of bees. The media doesn’t help either. This is why we need articles like this one to enlighten the public.
      We must keep talking about the importance of a diversity of pollinators (Will We all Die if Honey Bees Disappear?). http://beautifulnativeplants.blogspot.com/2016/07/will-we-all-die-if-honey-bees-disappear.html


      • Manu Saunders July 26, 2016 / 9:14 AM

        Agree that honey bees are not endangered, as I say above. I think PK was making the point that honey bees are the charismatic species (like pandas) that a lot of people identify with, but they don’t actually represent all species that need conservation attention.


    • Manu Saunders July 26, 2016 / 9:05 AM

      Thanks so much PK! Completely agree with your points. Unfortunately many people do get most of their information from mainstream popular media, so it’s worrying when these media can’t get the facts straight.


    • onebendintheriver August 24, 2016 / 9:50 PM

      I agree that most insects seem to send people racing for the spray bottle to kill them. That basically goes for anything that isn’t furry or big-eyed. But bees have had a pass for being useful. Maybe it’s better if non scientists never find out the truth…just joking. Thank you Manu for throwing some facts into the blizzard if misinformation that is the internet.


  5. Brian Goodwin July 25, 2016 / 7:45 PM

    Wot’ s in a name? You indicate the value of bees for pollination and our lack of recognition/appreciation of individual species. Pollination produces food, food production requires organisation and management. APIs Melifera are managed and provide effective pollination because of sheer numbers. Most Solitary bees and other species are generally not managed ( with the exception of some areas in the USA). We know little about their foraging habits / range or activity periods. Most are solitary and their name indicates their pollination potential– lack of workforce numbers, but I love em!! This is a vital area of research,
    perhaps for Harper Uni @ entomasters.?


  6. H July 26, 2016 / 7:55 PM

    But they’re all still bees, right?


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