backlash towards TikTok’s bee girl not justified, say bee consultants

Beekeeping has grown in popularity tremendously in recent years, and a new world of beekeeping influencers has recently sprung up on TikTok. But it’s not without drama.

Texas Bee Works’ lady bee – Erika Thompson has gained a 6.4 million following on TikTok by posting videos of rescuing colonies of bees from strange places including trucks, toilets and umbrellas. Thompson feels comfortable with the colonies in the videos, often does not wear protective clothing, has loose hair and attacks the bees with his bare hands.

But lately her videos are getting backlash from other beekeepers and being fueled by the media. They say she uses dangerous beekeeping practices and doesn’t actually “save the bees” as she claims in every video.

We research bee behavior at the University of Sydney. For us, this backlash is an exaggeration.

Thompson is clearly a skilled beekeeper, her own way of educating the public about honeybees on social media. It shows TikTok’s potential to bring interesting biology to the public – all without getting hurt.

Beekeepers often wear thick bee suits, veils, gloves and closed shoes when working with their colonies. Lots of colorful options are available.
Eliza Middleton @smiley_lize

Double standards

Thompson has been accused of “bee washing” – when someone claims actions are more bee-friendly than they are, usually by inflating honeybees’ conservation message over other more threatened bee species.

It might well be, but Thompson wouldn’t be the first or last person to piggyback a popular message to help boost their business.

Read more: “Bees washing” harms bees and misleads consumers

Bee hotels are a great example of bee washing. You can buy these nesting boxes from many large stores, including Bunnings and Aldi, but most native bees nest on the ground and bee hotels can even increase disease transmission if left untreated between seasons.

Yes, Erika Thompson’s videos don’t reveal much of the glitches that sometimes happen in beekeeping. But if she’s looking to send a positive message about bees and increase her following and business opportunities, she’s unlikely to show videos of stings.

As researcher and beekeeper Lewis Bartlett pointed out on Twitter, attacks on Thompson seem to be based on misogyny, and some are even read as downright envy.

In fact, research from 2018 confirmed that women were more likely to receive negative comments on YouTube, so it’s unfortunately not surprising that a woman is behind the “controversial” videos.

But why isn’t she stung?

Honey bees are the leading cause of hospitalization by a poisonous animal in Australia. So it is shocking and impressive to see someone shoveling bees with their bare hands.

She’s not the only example of someone undertaking a method that some consider unsafe as other TikTok users show similar practices without gloves.

Read more: It’s bee season. To avoid getting stung, just stay calm and don’t hit!

Although we don’t recommend trying this for people who are not beekeepers, bees can be beautiful, docile creatures. And it’s clear that Thompson knows how to handle bees and how to avoid stings.

To prevent stings, Thompson is gentle with bees and likely carefully chooses which bees to film based on how aggressive the colony is.

Colons can be selectively bred to be less aggressive, and beekeepers will seek out certain subspecies of the bees, such as the Italian subspecies Apis mellifera liguistica, popular for its inherent gentleness.

If a colony is naturally agitated or aggressive, it may be more likely to sting. If you can smell bananas around bees, you may smell their alarm pheromone. Even the weather influences the mood of the bees – nicer weather brings nicer bees.

Beekeepers often use smokers to calm bees down before interacting with them. If you scroll through Thompson’s TikTok feed, you can see her wearing protective gear for beekeeping and the presence of smokers in some videos.

This beekeeper is certain that there is no risk of honeybee sting and has therefore taken off his hood and gloves.
Sebastian Croker, CC BY-NC

Chances are the bees might actually sting Thompson, but she doesn’t mind.

Everyone reacts differently to honey bee stings. Some people have a severe reaction, an anaphylactic reaction, that can lead to death, while others have little reaction.

“Save the bees”

Thompson has demonstrated her skills as a dedicated honey bee health and biology educator by filling her videos with fun facts about honey bees and explaining their behavior.

Their videos often end with “save the bees” messages, but their focus on honeybees can detract from the importance of native bees.

Behavioral researchers work with honey bees, but they don’t need as much protective equipment as beekeepers because we don’t usually disturb the bees directly. They are generally more interested in looking for food than finding someone to sting.
Eliza Middleton @smiley_lize

In North America, many native bees, like the rusty patchwork bumblebee, face significant threats.

Honey bees, on the other hand, are said to have their origin in Africa or Asia and are considered to be native to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Yet the number of honeybee colonies in North America has increased.

Conservation is not as easy as saving or focusing on a single species.

By saving a non-native species from a native species, you may unwittingly increase competition for resources and the native species cannot compete.

How can you help save the bees?

Beekeeping has increased dramatically in Australia. In Queensland, for example, the number of amateur beekeepers has doubled in the past five years.

A teddy bear bee, Amegilla bombiformis, a native Australian bee.
Eliza Middleton @smiley_lize

While Thompson makes it seem pretty easy to move swarms of bees, you shouldn’t try to move bees yourself without proper training.

Bees are unlikely to sting in swarms and usually move on within a few hours. However, if you are concerned, give a professional beekeeper a call to have them removed.

But you don’t have to be a beekeeper to save the bees. Simply planting flowers in your garden and cutting down on pesticide use can make a world of difference.

Get outside and learn about your native bees, and maybe even get involved in citizen science.

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