Although there were 3,500 native species of bees pollinating the flowers and food crops of North America when European settlers landed on its shores in the 17th century, the colonists were interested only in their Old World honeybees’ wax and honey. They imported the insects, and by the mid-1800s, both feral and domesticated colonies of honeybees were scattered all over the United States.(1) As a result of disease, pesticides, and climate changes, the honeybee population has been nearly decimated, but since the demand for their honey and other products remains high, these tiny animals are factory-farmed, much like chickens, pigs, and cows are.
The Complex Lives of Bees
A honeybee hive consists of tens of thousands of bees, each with his or her own mission that is determined by the bee’s sex and age as well as by the time of year. Each hive usually has one queen, hundreds of drones, and thousands of workers. Queens can live for as long as seven years, while other bees have lifespans ranging from a few weeks to six months.(2)
Worker bees are responsible for feeding the brood, caring for the queen, building comb, foraging for nectar and pollen, and cleaning, ventilating, and guarding the hive. The drones serve the queen, who is responsible for reproduction. She lays about 250,000 eggs each year—and as many as 1 million over the course of her lifetime.(3)
A single worker bee may visit up to 10,000 flowers in one day and, in his or her lifetime, produce a teaspoon of honey.
When a new queen is about to be born, the old queen and half the hive leave their old home and set up in a new place that scouting worker bees have found.(4) As the temperature drops in the winter, the bees cluster around the queen and the young, using their body heat to keep the temperature inside the hive steady at around 93°F.(5)
A Language All Their Own
Bees have a unique and complex form of communication based on sight, motion, and scent that scientists and scholars still don’t fully understand.(6) Bees alert other members of their hive to food, new hive locations, and conditions within their hive (such as nectar supply) through intricate “dance” movements.(7)
Studies have shown that bees are capable of abstract thinking as well as distinguishing their family members from other bees in the hive, using visual cues to map their travels, and finding a previously used food supply, even when their home has been moved.(8,9,10) And much like smells can invoke powerful memories for humans, bees use their sense of smell to trigger memories of where the best food can be found.(11)
Why Bees Need Their Honey
Plants produce nectar to attract pollinators (bees, butterflies, bats, and other mammals), who are necessary for successful plant reproduction. Bees collect and use nectar to make honey, which provides vital nourishment for them, especially during the winter. Since nectar contains a lot of water, bees have to work to dry it out, and they add enzymes from their own bodies to convert it into food and prevent it from going bad.(12) A single worker bee may visit up to 10,000 flowers in one day and, in his or her lifetime, produce a teaspoon of honey.(13)
Honeybees Do Not Pollinate as Well as Native Bees
Approximately one out of every three mouthfuls of food or drink that humans consume is made possible by pollinators—insects, birds, and mammals pollinate about 75 percent of all food crops.(14) Industrial beekeepers want consumers to believe that honey is just a byproduct of the necessary pollination provided by honeybees, but honeybees are not as good at pollinating as many truly wild bees, such as bumblebees and carpenter and digger bees.
Native bees are active earlier in the spring, both male and females pollinate, and they are unaffected by mites and Africanized bees, which can harm honeybees.(15) But because most species of native bees hibernate for as many as 11 months out of the year and do not live in large colonies, they do not produce massive amounts of honey, and the little that they do produce is not worth the effort required to steal it from them.(16,17) So although native bees are more effective pollinators, farmers continue to rely on factory-farmed honeybees for pollination so that the honey industry can take in excess of 174 million pounds of honey every year, at a value of more than $157 million.(18)
Profiting from honey requires the manipulation and exploitation of the insects’ desire to live and protect their hive. Like other factory-farmed animals, honeybees are victims of unnatural living conditions, genetic manipulation, and stressful transportation. The familiar white box that serves as a beehive has been around since the mid-1850s and was created so that beekeepers could move the hives from place to place. The New York Times reported that bees have been “moved from shapes that accommodated their own geometry to flat-topped tenements, sentenced to life in file cabinets.”(19)
Since “swarming” (the division of the hive upon the birth of a new queen) can cause a decline in honey production, beekeepers do what they can to prevent it, including clipping the wings of a new queen, killing and replacing an older queen after just one or two years, and confining a queen who is trying to begin a swarm.(20,21) Queens are artificially inseminated using drones, who are killed in the process.(22) Commercial beekeepers also “trick” queens into laying more eggs by adding wax cells to the hive that are larger than those that worker bees would normally build.(23)
Honeybee populations have declined by as much as 50 percent since the 1980s, in part because of parasitic mites, but more recently, millions of honeybees in farmed colonies have succumbed to a disease called Colony Collapse Disorder, for which scientists have yet to find a cause.(24,25) BeeCulture magazine reports that beekeepers are notorious for contributing to the spread of disease: “Beekeepers move infected combs from diseased colonies to healthy colonies, fail to recognize or treat disease, purchase old infected equipment, keep colonies too close together, [and] leave dead colonies in apiaries.”(26) Artificial diets, provided because farmers take the honey that bees would normally eat, leave bees susceptible to sickness and attack from other insects.(27) When diseases are detected, beekeepers are advised to “destroy the colony and burn the equipment,” which can mean burning or gassing the bees to death.(28)
Since it’s increasingly difficult to find healthy honeybees, farmers have resorted to trucking hives across the country. When asked to examine 2,000 beehives rented by a New Jersey cranberry farmer, retired apiary inspectors found “about 500 colonies with equipment in such bad shape that [it] would not even qualify as junk … mice nests, old feeders full of comb, rotten hive with bees coming out from all over.” The hives were also made of wood that was labeled as having been treated with arsenic and was, therefore, unsuitable for beehives.(29)
What You Can Do
Avoid honey, beeswax, propolis, royal jelly, and other products that come from bees. Vegan lip balms and candles are readily available. Visit CaringConsumer.com for a list of companies that don’t use animal products. Rice syrup, molasses, sorghum, barley malt, maple syrup, and dried fruit or fruit concentrates can be used to replace honey in recipes. Visit GoVeg.com to order a free vegetarian starter kit that contains information about compassionate eating choices.
References: 1) Sue Hubbell, “Trouble With Honeybees,” Natural History 106 (1997): 32-42. 2) Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium, “The Colony and Its Organization,” Fundamentals of Beekeeping. 3) Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium. 4) Norbert M. Kauffeld, “Seasonal Cycles of Activities in Honey Bee Colonies,” Beekeeping in the United States, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural HandBook Number 335, 1980. 5) Kauffeld. 6) Fred C. Dyer, “When It Pays to Waggle,” Nature 31 Oct. 2002. 7) Carl Anderson and Francis L.W. Ratnieks, “Worker Allocation in Insect Societies: Coordination of Nectar Foragers and Nectar Receivers in Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) Colonies,” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology (1999): 73-81. 8) Martin Glurfa, “The Concepts of ‘Sameness’ and ‘Difference’ in an Insect,” Nature 19 Apr. 2001. 9) Fred C. Dyer, “Spatial Memory and Navigation by Honeybees on the Scale of the Foraging Range,” The Journal of Experimental Biology 199 (1996): 147-54. 10) Gerard Arnold et al., “Kin Recognition in Honeybees,” Nature 8 Feb. 1996. 11) Judith Reinhard et al., “Scent-Triggered Navigation in Honeybees,” Nature 29 Jan. 2004. 12) Maryann Frazier, “Honey—Here’s to Your Health,” Beeaware: Notes & News on Bees & Beekeeping, Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium, Jan. 2003. 13) Ann Evans, “Exploring Hive of Activity,” Coventry Evening Telegraph 18 Jun. 2005. 14) “The Value of Pollinators,” Pollinator Declines Node, National Biological Information Infrastructure, U.S. Geological Service. 15) Lane Greer, “Alternative Pollinators: Native Bees,” Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Aug. 1999. 16) Greer. 17) Greer. 18) Agricultural Statistics Board, “Honey,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, 28 Feb. 2006. 19) Anne Raver, “Bees Buzz a Path to His Hive,” The New York Times 31 May 2001. 20) Raver. 21) Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, “Apiculture Factsheet,” Factsheet #404, Nov. 2005. 22) Peter Schley, “Short Instruction”. 23) Raver. 24) Michelle Boorstein, “Beekeepers Struggle to Save Buzz,” The Washington Post 25 Apr. 2004. 25) “Mystery Ailment Devastates Bee Industry,” Associated Press, 11 Feb. 2007. 26) Nicolas Calderone, “Managing Brood Diseases,” BeeCulture May 2001. 27) Dee A. Lusby, “Suggested Biological Manipulative Field Management for Control of Honeybee Mites. Part #1 Concept & Causes,” BeeSource.com, 2000. 28) Calderone. 29) Dewey M. Caron, “Pollination Rental Colony Assessments,” Beeaware: Notes & News on Bees & Beekeeping, Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium, Jan. 2003.