Beekeeper working with hives / Source
Bees as Commodities
It’s unfortunate but true; beekeeping often tends to be overlooked as an exploitative practice. One reason for this may be that people have little idea that bees are part of the animal husbandry industry, much like cows are.
Beekeepers hate when I say that, but it’s well-documented.
Whether in a commercial setting or an idyllic backyard environment, raising bees for honey requires many of the same practices.
Standard Beekeeping Practices
The following practices regularly occur in managed bee colonies, both commercial and hobbyist setups. Not every beekeeper may use every method, but every technique listed is conventional within the industry.
Beekeepers regularly administer antibiotics to their bees. (10)
Using antibiotics contributes to immune system deficiencies and promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant super-pests and diseases. (11) Hives are treated in winter when they are already stressed to prevent toxins from entering the honey supply. (12)
Artificial or Instrumental Insemination
Using specialized equipment, beekeepers inseminate Queen Bees. They use this process for breeding bees with qualities that are advantageous to humans. Things like to be more docile, change the queen’s color, or increase honey production, for example. (13) (14)
The instrumental insemination method is not only violating for the queen; it’s a death sentence for the drones involved, too. Beekeepers crush the drones and invert their bodies to make it easier to obtain the sperm. Once it’s collected, the beekeeper will discard the drone. (15)
Manipulation & Interference
Over a hundred years ago, beekeepers increased the cell size of the wax foundation installed in beehives by nearly half a millimeter. The increase was from the natural brood cell size (of the European honey bee) of 4.9mm to the manipulated cell size of 5.4mm. The thought was, the bigger cell size would produce bigger bees. It did, and those bigger bees are still around today. (16)
Bees make and store honey during the active months. This cache of food stored inside the honeycomb is what bees survive when the hive cannot forage flower blossoms, like in the winter months.
Some beekeepers take the honey once the worker bees finish capping it, leaving the hive without the winter store it needs. Instead, it’s common practice for beekeepers to feed their bees nectar replacements such as dry sugar, sugar water, pollen patties, and high fructose corn syrup, which isn’t the best for bees, maybe.
A team of entomologists from the University of Illinois found a possible link between feeding high fructose corn syrup and the collapse of the honeybee colonies worldwide.
“The widespread apicultural use of honey substitutes, including high-fructose corn syrup, may thus compromise the ability of honey bees to cope with pesticides and pathogens and contribute to colony losses.”
Their findings indicate that eating replacement food instead of honey prevents the bees from being exposed to other chemicals that help the bees fight off toxins, like those found in pesticides. (17)
Loss of Harvest
There are five products most commonly harvested from bees: Honey, pollen, beeswax, propolis, and royal jelly.
Honey is their primary food source. There is no benefit to the bees when we take it, primarily if replaced with inferior human-made sugar mixtures. Pollen is another source of food taken that has no advantage to the bees when we remove it.
Together with taking their food, beekeepers will take beeswax when harvesting honey. The process begins by collecting the entire comb structure and melting it down, then straining the wax out. Beekeepers might also take the propolis.
And then there’s royal jelly:
- First, the queen bee is removed from a group of young bees. This removal stimulates the young bees into making new queens.
- Each new queen larvae dines on a small amount of royal jelly.
- The beekeeper kills the queen larvae and harvests the royal jelly.
In each of these cases, bees worked tirelessly to create these products and need them to survive.
By contrast, we don’t.
Loss of Life
Beekeepers typically kill queen bees every one to three years and replace them with new ones. In unmanaged hives, bees would decide if and when to remove the queen themselves.
In addition to these deliberate deaths, even the kindest and most gentle beekeepers will unintentionally injure, crush, or kill some bees during honey harvesting and collection. It’s unavoidable.
While there are several different methods for harvesting honey, extraction is the most common. Smaller bee operations with only a few colonies can use more gentle methods, like gently sweeping bees off honeycombs with a bee brush.
Larger, commercial-scale beekeepers manage thousands of colonies simultaneously, making it challenging to spend the time and necessary care for bee removal. Methods used with these colonies include using a leaf blower to blow bees off of the honeycomb or using a noxious combination of essential oils to drive the bees out of the nest. (18)
In either situation, bees can (and do) die.
False Advertising & Fraud
Finally, you may not be eating what you think you’re eating: mislabeling is rampant in the worldwide honey industry. (19) One study found that 3/4 of the 60 jars of honey tested were found to be counterfeit and contained no bee pollen. (20) In another study, foreign sugars were found 1.4 times in every ten honey samples tested. (21)
Commercial Beehives / Source
Pollinators for Hire
Did you know that honey and bee products account for only a tiny percentage of the entire bee economy in the United States?
The most significant portion comes from the rental of managed colonies to farmers to pollinate fruit and vegetable crops.
Commercial hives for hire pollinate roughly 100 different flowering plants. These plants include almonds, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cherries, berries, cucumbers, lettuce, peaches, pears, and plums. Even the clover and alfalfa crops fed to cows on factory farms get pollinated by commercial hives, to name a few. (22)
Pollinators Before Honeybees
The first thing to know about honeybees is that they aren’t native to North America. Honeybees come from an ancient lineage of cavity-nesting bees from Asia around 300,000 years ago that rapidly spread across Europe and Africa. They arrived in North American sometime in the 1600s. (1)
So, how did food crops get pollinated before the arrival of honeybees? The answer is native, or keystone, pollinators.
Keystone pollinators are native pollinators that are vital to the survival of an ecosystem. The wide variety of native pollinators includes more than 3,500 species of bees (many of which are solitary), moths and beetles, and other animals such as bats and birds. (23) There is an adverse impact on keystone and native pollinator populations from honeybees through crowding and stealing of pollen and nectar that would otherwise be available to them.
Managed Honeybees Pose Risks to Wild Bees
Wild pollinators are in decline in many parts of the world. Because of the downturn, managed honeybees and bumblebees are frequently shipped to the United States to provide pollination services. But doing this poses dangerous risks to the wild bee population.
An entomologist at the University of California led a research team that has examined the evidence by analyzing the large body of research done in this area. They discovered that managed bees are spreading diseases to wild bees.
“Even in cases when the managed bees do not have a disease, they still stress local wild bees, making them more susceptible to disease,” says Peter Graystock, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology and the lead author of the study. (2)
Globalization Can Bring Infections
One problem is that many countries have inadequate or no laws for bee movements. The globalized trade in bees has enabled almost free movement of diseases around the world. (24)
Sadly, even if infections in managed colonies disappear, other problems arise. Resistant organisms, mites (varroa mites specifically) quickly develop a resistance to the pesticides used to control them. It’s widely thought that the varroa mite is a significant contributor to colony collapse, as are insecticides and monoculture crops.
The Additional Environmental Costs of Honey
Another important environmental factor to consider: most countries import honey. According to estimates, 42% comes from Argentina, China, Mexico, Canada, and India. About 85% in the UK comes from Vietnam, China, Mexico, Australia, and Argentina. While Germany, the world’s largest importer of honey, gets theirs from Argentina, China, and Mexico. (25)
Not only that, there’s the impact on the environment from transporting managed colonies back and forth across the United States alone pollinating crops.
Pollinators-for-Hire Raises Ethical Questions For Us All
Today’s industrial pollinators spend much of their lives in the back of 18-wheelers, subsisting on high-fructose corn syrup while being shlepped back and forth across the country to pollinate acres upon acres of monoculture crops. (26)
This practice raises ethical questions for both vegans and non-vegans alike. Seeing, all animals rely on plants for survival, directly or indirectly, and our food supply is dependent upon the pollination of crops.
Changing our world to benefit wild pollinators is part of the solution. Eliminating the demand for honey and bee products is the first step to take. Doing so would prevent millions of bees from being bred and managed to produce honey and by-products, which would reduce the transmission of disease and allow native pollinators to return to areas where managed populations have taken control.
Science & Research
The science and research about pollinators are always growing. Here are a few to note for further exploration:
- 2018 – Experts at the Department of Zoology at Cambridge University found that the rise in amateur beekeepers is contributing to the decline of wild bees, “Keeping honeybees is an extractive activity. It removes pollen and nectar from the environment, which are natural resources needed by many wild species of bee and other pollinators…Honeybees are artificially-bred agricultural animals similar to livestock such as pigs and cows. But this livestock can roam beyond any enclosures to disrupt local ecosystems through competition and disease.” Continue to full article >> Think of Honeybees as ‘Livestock’ Not Wildlife, Says Experts