Bees and meat consumption: a spurious correlation

I’ve seen and heard a few claims circulating that removing meat from your diet is essential to ‘save the bees’. This is misleading and draws a long bow between lots of random correlations to promote a particular agenda.

Sure, intensive meat production contributes to some big environmental problems and there are plenty of reasons to reduce your meat consumption. But there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support claims that eating meat is bad for bees.

Meat comes in many forms. From wild game to highly-processed ‘meat products’, from large-scale intensive feedlots to diversified low-intensity grazing systems, from locally-produced to high food miles. It is generally impossible to make blanket statements about all meat.

Many of the scientific analyses about meat’s environmental impacts that have made the news have been based on intensive beef production systems, usually from the United States – these systems are not representative of all meat production systems elsewhere in the world.

We know that beef production contributes to emissions and is estimated to be the largest emissions producer of the main livestock groups. But cows are not causing climate change. Also, emissions from livestock can be reduced significantly in many simple ways, including the choice of feed and different management practices. That’s a whole other story.

But what about the bees? This meta-analysis testing multiple human effects on native bees found that habitat loss and fragmentation were the main drivers of bee declines – the effect of grazing alone was positive, but not statistically significant. (This means there was high variation in the effect of grazing on bees, depending on the system, which makes it hard to pinpoint a generalised effect.)

Most ecological studies of pastured grazing systems have found neutral or positive effects of grazing on bees. However, the intensity of grazing appears to be key. Most studies find that intermediate levels of grazing support the highest bee abundance and richness. This makes sense, because most bee species depend on relatively open, heterogeneous, semi-disturbed habitats where they can find lots of different food and nesting resources across time and space.

But these responses also vary between taxa (some generalist bee species increase under high intensity grazing, while others decline) and regional habitat types also influence results. I’m not aware of any studies that have tested the direct effect of grazing on bees in Australia.

Bees and livestock can physically co-exist, there is no doubt about that. The interaction is more indirect – grazing affects available floral resources and nesting habitat, which in turn influences the ability of the habitat to support bees. The implications of these effects need to be considered within the context of different systems.

Not all livestock productions are pastured. Intensively produced feedlot livestock rarely impact bees directly (although they contribute to other problems). But because many intensive feedlot systems are driven by imported feed crops, the demand for these feed crops causes habitat loss in many parts of the world.

We know habitat loss affects all animals, including bees….and this is where the long bow is drawn. Habitat loss and degradation, or land use change, is the main driver of biodiversity loss and extinction risk globally. But this change and degradation is caused by many drivers, including conversion to crops, urban development, pollution, unsustainable forest management, invasive species etc. Unnecessary clearing of trees to graze livestock or grow livestock feed, in response to demand for meat, is certainly part of the problem; but it is not the only problem.

Bundling the complex environmental impacts of unsustainable and unethical meat consumption together and repackaging in a simplistic ‘save the bees’ narrative, without any evidence to support this claim, is disingenuous.

There are many other evidence-based ways you can help the 20,000 species of bee in the world, including reducing your use of pesticides, planting more flowering plants (native or exotic, it doesn’t matter as long as they’re not invasive), and not clearing or degrading natural grasslands and woodlands.

And there are many better reasons to reduce your unsustainable/unethical meat consumption than ‘saving the bees’. The bees couldn’t care less whether you eat meat or not. Some of them are meat-eaters themselves.

© Manu Saunders 2019


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