The market for bees


By Meghan Barrett

Around non-scientist friends and family, I am known quite affectionately as ‘The Bee Girl’, a title that comes with the following major responsibilities:

  1. Consulting on the bees in everyone’s homes and yards (hint: they’re wasps)
  2. Receiving endless shares of the Flow™ Hive video
  3. Discussing colony collapse disorder each time a new (honey)bee article from the New York Times comes online

There is a fascinating communication conundrum in effect for bee lovers. On the one hand, people are reaching out to you to discuss bees and science! This is a rare luxury in the science communication world. On the other hand, loving bees means loving the other 20,000 bee species too – and the public’s exclusive fascination with honeybees isn’t helping those other bees out.

NPR posted an article in January, “Honeybees Help Farmers, But They Don’t Help The Environment” that garnered a lot of attention outside my scientist circles. It laments the focus on saving honeybees, which often outcompete other pollinators by taking precious resources from the ecosystem. Dr. Geldmann, responsible for the Science commentary that inspired the NPR piece (along with Dr. González-Varo), says: “The way we’re managing honeybees, in these hives, has nothing to do with nature conservation”. This bold statement is true, but not always well received.

Within a week of the article’s posting, friends had tweeted, texted, and emailed me this article, all with the same message: “Is this true? *sad emoji*”. When I confirmed, not one asked for more information about the wild bees in decline. Instead, many defended their own lack of knowledge or the necessity of honeybees.

Rather than fostering a deep interest in wild bees that do need help, this article often received dismissal or backlash. Why? I believe it is because the honeybee has been well marketed to the public, if not to ecologists. “Save the bee” enthusiasts are not interested in anti-honeybee messages that harm their self-as-savior narrative. In fact, this research suggests they don’t even know what, or how many, other bees there are to be saved.

The honeybee is The Bee. It is on our emoji keyboard, its honey flavors our cereals, it played a meme-worthy role in several movies – it’s acting career is so successful it even starred in a wildly inaccurate movie called ‘The Bee Movie’, with no mention of other bees at all. The honeybee is causing other bees to vanish both literally from our ecosystems, and metaphorically, from our awareness. By being branded The Bee, it effectively steals all the good work of ‘Save the Bees’ campaigns for itself.

Like Dr. Geldmann in the NPR article, I too am tired of the public (and corporate) devotion to the honeybee that masquerades as conservation but leaves wild bees behind. However, in the words of Rose from The Last Jedi, we are going to win “not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.”

Bee lovers everywhere: it is time to #TakeBackTheBee.

Undoubtedly this initiative has already been started, but I think the bulk of us have taken an ‘education-forward’ instead of ‘branding-forward’ perspective to promoting our wild bees. Fighting the fast power of the honeybee brand with slower-moving, albeit richer, educational experiences isn’t going to cut it. Branding wild bees has the capacity to bring much-needed awareness to them and quickly. So what could this branding look like?

  1. No more ‘Unlike honeybees’ openers – so much of our wild bee messaging revolves around NOT being honeybees. But the basis for a good brand positioning statement isn’t ‘this is what we are not’ – Nike doesn’t sell shoes by advertising that they aren’t Sketchers. By including the honeybee, the familiar and established brand, in our messaging, they overshadow our wild bees. The “wild bees” brand offers a diverse group of beautiful bees that provide unique services to our local ecosystems – for free! – and ultimately facilitate some of our most evocative cultural moments.
  2. Cute-ify – Nothing garners shares like gross things. But wild bees aren’t gross, so we’ll have to rely on the next best click-bait tactic: cuteness. This can form the foundation of our brand personality and set the tone to get people excited about, remembering, and sharing our ‘ads’ and ‘logos’.
  3. Emphasize cultural impact – Many of our most iconic experiences only take place with significant work by wild bees. Ever made a daisy chain or enjoyed a blueberry muffin? How about carved a pumpkin for Halloween, gone apple-picking, or decorated the house with holly around the holidays? Some of these are made possible by commercialized bees, as orchard bees and bumblebees have agricultural applications. But in all of the aforementioned cases, wild bees that are not honeybees played a huge role. This can be our brand promise: wild bees bring us together and make possible our most cherished moments. Tug on the heart strings – what do these culturally significant events look like if our wild bees aren’t there?
  4. Buy Local – In recent years, craft breweries have exploded onto the economic landscape and successfully competed with massive, macro-breweries for space in the market. This shows us that “small, unique, and locally oriented” (wild bees) can be a highly competitive brand against “large and well-established” (honeybees). Our biggest brand differentiator is that wild bees are local, community bees that influence the areas where they live in ways that make that community distinct from others. Unlike honeybees that represent commercialization and hive-mind behavior, wild bees represent the rugged individualism of American towns and cities – hardworking, unique, and, yes, wild. Work with your local landscaping companies, nature centers, museums, agriculture and agricultural adjacent businesses (farm distilleries and breweries), festival organizers, and other local-forward businesses to get your area’s wild bees featured in a targeted way – as something intimately and uniquely connected to your community. Once the public has a local bee mascot to love, many will take the next, focus-on-wild-bees-not-honeybees step, with far less resistance.
  5. Ad’ it all up – The last piece of a brand is generally used internally and is called the brand story – the ways in which, so far, the brand has impacted its target audience. Wild bees have a long history with people and enriching our lives. We must make visible all these moments throughout history that wild bees have facilitated. And I would argue we should do so diversely, to echo the diversity of the wild bees themselves and the roles they play in our lives. Games, art, plays, poetry, children’s books, clothing, coloring pages, infographics, videos, songs, memes, blogs posts – all of these ‘ads’ and more that emphasize the true and omnipresent role of wild bees. That is our brand story: wild bees, the unsung heroes of every human age.

If anything, the public’s overwhelming adoration for the honeybee shows us that the market is hot for bees right now – so let’s supply a brand to meet this demand, and #TakeBacktheBee.

Author Biography: Meghan Barrett is a graduate student earning her PhD in Biology and her MS in STEM Education. She studies insect neuroanatomy and thermoregulation and enjoys a brief spot of science communication on Twitter, @Bee_Bytes, and on her website. She is a member of the editorial board for Rapid Ecology and a member of the Philadelphia chapter of Neuwrite.

Image credit: Photo by Meghan Barrett, first published by Bombus Press in 2016.