Could Texas Ag Code adversely affect Native Bees?

Texas House Representative Tracy O. King of Uvalde County has introduced a bill in the current legislative session that affects changes to the portion of the Texas Agriculture Code that regulates beekeeping.  The proposed changes were filed on January 25 of this year in the form of House Bill 1293.

I believe that H.B. 1293 has the potential to have a significant negative impact on Texas native bee species.

You wouldn’t expect a revision to the state agricultural code on beekeeping to have an adverse impact on pollinators. In fact, most beekeepers are quick to tell you that what’s good for honey bees is good for native bees, and vice versa. They’re right… and yet this bill seems to imply otherwise.

Section 131.001, subdivision 17, defines “Unwanted species of bees” as “a species of bees, including a non-Apis species of bees, that is considered deleterious by the chief apiary inspector and that must be reported under Section 131.025.”

First off, unwanted bees? I’m sure that surprises most of us. We probably know that many US bee species are facing major difficulties. Seven Hawaiian species made the endangered list last year. The protected status of the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee has already made headlines repeatedly in 2017. Nesting site loss, limited forage availability, monoculture farming, agricultural insecticide usage, mosquito spraying, climate change… all of this is hitting our native pollinators, and hitting them hard. We need to preserve our native bees.

Well, before we go any further, let’s just talk for a minute about the implications of “non-Apis” in this bill. The genus Apis includes all species and subspecies of the honey bees, and is placed under Texas Apiary Inspection Service jurisdiction by the definition of “bee” (Section 131.001 subdivision 4). So between these two definitions every single bee in Texas is under the jurisdiction of a department responsible for regulating and safeguarding the keeping of honey bees. All of our native bees are “non-Apis species of bees”. Bumble bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, digger bees, cactus bees, squash bees, longhorned bees, cuckoo bees, sunflower bees… all under Texas Apiary (root: Apis) Inspection Service control. How odd.

So what did the bill intend to address with the “unwanted species of bees” definition? I’ve spoken with members of the committee who worked on this bill before it went to Mr. King’s office. They say this is intended to address the Cape Bee, a honey bee from South Africa with a tendency to be parasitic on other honey bee hives. Not only is the Cape Bee an Apis species, but it’s actually a subspecies of the Western Honey Bee… as such, it could not be listed as an unwanted species without disallowing all of the honey bees in Texas. I’ve spoken with a TAIS official who confirmed this. The only conceivable positive use of this definition would be to attempt to prevent the influx of some invasive non-Apis bee species into Texas… my understanding is that there is no cause to think any such situation is likely. Even if it were, why would we expect invasive species issues to be regulated by the agency that is responsible for the agricultural keeping of honey bees? There is no reason to think an invasive species of non-Apis bee would have any more impact on beekeeping than our native species do.

Are Texas native bee species “deleterious” to the keeping of honey bees? Common sense would say no. Every beekeeper you ask will say no. But regulatory measures should be written to be able to address the worst case scenario. In conservation situations we frequently refer to this less-than-optimistic mindset as the precautionary principle. So the question is, if someone wanted to use the wording in this bill and make the legal argument that our native bees are deleterious to apiculture, could they? Unfortunately, I’m concerned the answer may be yes. On a most obvious level, bees do compete for floral resources; there is a limited amount of pollen and nectar to gather. What is picked up by one bee is not there for the next. I commonly hear people with an interest in preserving our native bees mention this argument as a downside to the presence of the non-native honey bee. It’s not crazy to think someone might attempt to apply this reasoning in reverse.

Also, pest and disease problems in bee populations are known to spread from their primary hosts to other species kept in close proximity. Traditionally American beekeepers battled many pests and diseases in their hives that had long been problems for Apis mellifera, the Western honey bee. In recent years we’ve battled more virulent opponents as pests and diseases have jumped species boundaries in search of new hosts. Varroa mites have plagued the beekeeping industry since they crossed to our bees from their primary host in Asia. If you ask the TAIS what they fear will be the next big pest issue in American beekeeping, they’ll probably tell you Tropilaelaps parasites… also jumping from another primary bee host to Apis mellifera hives in other parts of the world as we speak. Nosema diseases have crossed species lines as well. Our natives may be less likely than some to share diseases with honey bees, but deformed wing virus does exist in both honey bee and bumble bee populations. Bumble bees are the primary host for Nosema bombi, which is transmitted via shared floral resources but has not yet shown any ability to spread to honey bees. Hopefully the transmission of diseases and pests between these species will never be a concern, but as more American beekeepers get into management of mason bees, leafcutter bees, and bumble bees, it’s not ridiculous to be concerned that crossover issues may occur in both directions. I would hope that the preservation of our native species would always be a top priority as we move forward, and it’s scary to imagine a future where there’s even the slightest hint of a possibility that native species would be destroyed or eradicated (Section 131.022) due to some negative impact or perceived threat to the keeping of honey bees.

Even if you are willing to assume that these bees actually being listed as deleterious is simply a scenario beyond reason and beyond possibility I’m concerned that there’s a negative impact from the wording in this bill. It could be read by uninformed new beekeepers who will see the implication that non-Apis species are unwanted, even if they haven’t been listed as such. This wording solves no known problem; it accomplishes nothing other than sitting there looking bad in print. It’s a black eye to Texas beekeeping to have “unwanted bees” in our ag code, especially with “non-Apis” in the definition. The beekeepers around me care intensely about native pollinator preservation, and this makes us all look like we don’t.

5 thoughts on “Could Texas Ag Code adversely affect Native Bees?”

  1. Thank you for your advocacy for native bee species. This information is very helpful.

    Is it too late to request the bill’s wording be brought into alignment with original intent by spelling out the cape bee variety specifically?

    I’m concerned that because there’s some evidence in the literature suggesting A. mellifera utilizes floral resources enough to negatively impact native bee populations, some beekeepers may come to perceive conservationists as anti Apis. While I’ve heard this tension voiced in conservation circles, I’ve seen more the spirit of collaborating to maximize pollinator habitat for the good of all species. Most recognize that every species has something very beneficial to offer.

    We definitely need more native flowering species and habitat.

    Has honey bee transport for pollination services been closely studied for disease risk? The social systems of honey bees, stress of prolonged transit, and cohorting of transported honey bees from so many far-flung corners of the country would seem to pose a far greater contagion hazard than native bees.

    1. Michael,
      The committee that originally worked on this bill before it went to Mr. King’s office says it is too late to change it. We have not yet been able to open a dialogue with Mr. King; to the best of my understanding that is the path that would potentially allow for amendments at this point.

      We share somewhat parallel concerns in regards to perceptions… as a beekeeper I try hard to emphasize that my community cares about native pollinators. I work primarily with honey bees, but have also done relocation work with bumble bees when it was the only alternative to extermination, and I make a point to provide nesting tubes and sites for native bees. My local association does a joint event with our local Master Naturalists group each year, and I do sometimes hear concerns about Apis mellifera competing with natives for food sources. I really only believe this is a concern in areas faced with heavy overcrowding of honey bees from large commercial operations, not a likely issue in what I see as sustainable beekeeping. The perspective I explored in writing this is certainly not meant to imply that I think any sane beekeeper should ever object to sharing floral resources with natives. I do not see native bees as deleterious to beekeeping. I do think we’re all on the same side trying to help our pollinators. I’m simply trying to highlight what I see as the potential longterm risks of the wording in this bill; unlikely though they are, to me even the very small possibility of this ever being applied that way is a huge concern.
      The consolidation of honey bees into California for agricultural pollination each Spring does come with risks in terms of pest and disease spread. What can be done to protect against this is for the most part being done, short of the long-term ideal scenario of converting monocultures into sustainable pollinator habitat.

  2. While I do oppose the bill, this is one particular objection I just cannot agree with. I can see EXACTLY what types of bees this bill is aimed at preventing – things like “stingless bees”. I teach new beekeeper classes fairly frequently, and I get asked “how can I get stingless bees” at virtually every single class. As newbees, they don’t know what they don’t know. Without some kind of legal block on bringing in whatever kind of new fad might be the hot topic of the day, I believe it is not only possible – it is PROBABLE that other bee species would be imported.

    1. I think it’s highly unlikely that a beginner beekeeper is going to import stingless bees internationally, and of course there are federal regulations in place for this kind of thing; I’m not sure why the idea that this needs to be addressed in terms of possession on a state level is so prevalent. Also, they couldn’t survive winters in the vast majority of the state.

      Even if it was an issue, what perceived downside do you see to the importation of stingless bees? They are not a pest of A mellifera, to my knowledge they do not share pests and diseases with A mellifera… even if there were any chance of them as a new fad, what’s the concern?

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