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?
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|
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