The topic of pollinator conservation has generated a lot of buzz in recent years. Concerns have risen about the possible impacts of global declines in pollinator species on crop production, 75 per cent of which requires some form of pollination.

Ecologists — including those affiliated with the United Nations — have also warned of the disruptive effects that the declines of these vital species may have on ecosystems and biodiversity.

‘Bee-washing’ refers to a form of greenwashing in which bee-related marketing is used to promote certain products and services, or improve companies’ public images.

Companies participating in bee-washing can spread misinformation about ways on how to save pollinators. In a response to these claims, Charlotte de Keyzer, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, maintains a blog to educate readers about this topic.

What are pollinators?

Pollinators constitute over 20,000 bee species and numerous animal and insect species. Of these, the Western honey bee is perhaps the most widely recognized, and as such, has become a poster child for companies to promote ‘bee-friendly’ products and campaigns.

Despite their popularity, honey bees from farms can cause damage to native bees, as they can outcompete them for resources, such as pollen and nectar, and introduce diseases.

The stressors that wild bees face also differ from those experienced by honey bees. For example, habitat-wise, about 75 per cent of wild and solitary bees in Canada live on the ground, and the remaining 25 per cent make their nests in cavities. Common bee-washing initiatives that install honey bee hives on rooftops, in parks, or urban areas do not help wild bees, and may even be harmful.

Disease transmission and competition between honey bees and wild bees can be particularly problematic in urban areas with limited flowering resources.

As honey bees crop up on cereal boxes and social media campaigns, the issues affecting many species of wild bees are neglected, and may even be exacerbated by these marketing tactics and the misinformation that they spread.

The impact of bee-washing

Bee-washing is a term coined by researchers at York University that appeals to consumers’ desire to help bees. However, it is rife with misinformation about the threats that bees face and the solutions that will actually benefit bees.

De Keyzer’s blog aims to educate readers about bee-washing and provide resources on the topic for educators doing bee outreach.

In an interview with The Varsity, de Keyzer remarked that public misconceptions about bees often stem from a lack of awareness about their diversity. For instance, Toronto alone is home to over 350 species of bees — approximately one species for each day of the year.

Bee-washing companies that focus their campaigns on honey bees often overlook this diversity of species. While these companies only focus on honey bees, there is in fact a plethora of bee species in the wild that have many different traits and behaviours, as showcased by de Keyzer on her website.

The scale of bee-washing is still unknown. To combat this, de Keyzer has been discussing ways to quantify bee-washing with Dr. Olivier Boiral, a professor at Laval University. A systematic method to evaluate the prevalence of this practice in various industries is yet to be developed, but from what de Keyzer has seen, examples of bee-washing can be found across many industries.

Examples of bee-washing

Cheerios is a well-known company that practices bee-washing. For several years, the cereal’s bee mascot, Buzz, was removed from the product’s packaging as a nod to the disappearance of bees, and as part of their #BringBacktheBees campaign. Beth Skwarecki, Senior Health Editor at Life Hacker, wrote an article which criticized the campaign for giving out wildflower seed packets that could contain species invasive to North America.

In response, Cheerios maintained that the seeds did not contain invasive species, which a horticulturist confirmed to CBC News. Skwarecki issued a correction, but wrote a follow-up piece where Dr. Kathryn Turner, an ecologist, confirmed that the seed packets still contained non-native species, which could harm native plant species by out-competing them for resources.

Bee-washing is not limited to agricultural and food-related industries. Shopping centres in the GTA, such as Hillcrest Mall and Yorkdale, have installed honey bee hives on rooftops.

Rooftop beehives may provide educational value, according to Blake Retter, Toronto Director of bee-keeping supplier Alvéole, in an interview with TVO. Nevertheless, as research has shown, the honey bees from rooftops could harm the wild bee population, in the same ways as honey bees from farms.

How to help wild bees

Given the problematic practices of common bee-washing campaigns, what are some better ways for corporations to help save wild bees?

Some companies’ industries involve land use and wild bee habitat destruction for development, resource extraction, agriculture, or other purposes. In these cases de Keyzer contended that the idea that bee-washing campaigns, such as taking care of honey bees, can compensate for other environmentally damaging actions of a company is flawed.

Instead, de Keyzer suggested scaling back on the amount of habitat destruction, or helping to restore habitats in other areas.

For companies not directly involved with land use or habitats, money used on honey bee centred campaigns would be put to better use if donated to conservation groups for local wild bee habitats.

However, the solution to bee decline does not necessarily lie with corporations. With the bee-washing blog, de Keyzer aims to raise awareness about bee-washing and to prevent well-meaning consumers from being misled by such campaigns.

There are many ways for people to help bees, with no purchases required.

For instance, adopting less disruptive gardening practices — such as mulching less — helps restore wild bee habitats, especially for bees living underground.

If planting new plants, choose native species that can act as hosts for wild bees. Many wild bees have evolved to be specialized for specific native plants as hosts, so growing species targeted toward the wild bee species in your area can be particularly beneficial.

The citizen science project Bumble Bee Watch is another way to get involved by reporting bee sightings to help with efforts in bee tracking and conservation.

The City of Toronto also provides an annual grant, PollinateTO, which awards community pollinator gardens with up to $5,000.

“By connecting people to the diversity of bees surrounding them,” explained de Keyzer, “I’m hoping that they get those positive feelings of those good intentions without having to buy something or potentially do something negative to the environment, like introduce more honey bees, where they are not needed.”