Bee keeping is a means of maintaining and looking after bee species, usually in order to harvest honey and other bee-related products. The practice is many thousands of years old and has in the past often involved the death of individual bees and sometimes the whole colony. However, modern beekeeping methods allow for more sustainable harvest, with less damage to the bees.
What is beekeeping?
Bee keeping, in its simplest form, means the rearing and caring for a bee species. In general, it is honey bee species (Apis) that humans keep, usually in order to extract honey, wax and royal jelly from the hive. However, bees can also be kept in order to help pollinate commercial crops. Although honey bees are also utilised for this, other bee species such as bumble bees are often bred and released in commercial settings for this purpose.
The products of bees have been a valuable resource for humans for thousands of years, with records of wild honey harvesting going back at least 10,000 years. Wild harvesting still occurs today and is often a highly dangerous and skilled pursuit. In wild harvesting, honey comb is gathered from the hive while smoke is used to stupify the bees to prevent them from stinging.
Bee keeping itself has existed from around 9,000 years ago. Bee keeping has been popular across much of the world, from Africa, to Asia, into Europe and America. Unlike wild bees those kept by bee keepers are usually transported into a man made structure. This has ranged from clay pots to woven hives, to wooden structures.
Up until the 19th century bee keeping involved the destruction of large parts of the hive in order for honey, and other bee products, to be gathered. Although the entire colonie would not be killed, many larvae would be destroyed within the comb cells, and there was often the risk of the queen herself being killed, which would lead to the collapse of the colonie.
Modern hives have been adapted to reduce the need for destruction, as this is unsustainable and wasteful. These hives involve the introduction of removable bars or frames, which the bees are encouraged to build their honey comb on. This means the hive can be opened and the honey comb removed without the need to destroy the structure.
Additionally modern hives generally have a brood box, where the queen is housed. She is separated from the removable combs by mesh that allows workers in and out but is too small for her to enter. This means she does not lay eggs in the combs that will be taken out and used for honey. Therefore, all larvae are kept safe in the brood box and are not killed when the honey is extracted.
Modern beekeepers use very similar methods for honey extraction as the gatherers of wild honey. Smoke is used to pacify the bee, to calm them and prevent them from stinging. The beekeeper generally wears a suit to protect him or her from any stings. The comb is then removed, and the frames or bars replaced so the bees can begin to build once more. Once the comb has been removed, it is generally placed in a centrifuge that spins these quickly around until the honey seeps out. Wax can then be processed separately.
One new type of hive reduced the disturbance of the bees even more. The Flow Hive has premade cells composed of flexible plastic. The bees build their comb inside and fill the structures with honey. The beekeeper can then turn a handle to compress the comb, breaking the wax and causing the honey to seep down and pour out of a tap on the outside of the hive.
Do we need beekeeping?
In the last decade, bees, in particular honey bees, have become a poster child for environmental destruction. It is well known that bees are excellent pollinators and that many of our commercial crops use bees to aid with pollination.
However, of the 20,000 global bee species, only a handful are honey bees, and in fact, many wild bees make much better pollinators than commercial honey bee species. Many honey producers have circulated the message that by supporting their enterprise, you are supporting hives, which have an environmental benefit due to the pollination capabilities of the bees.
While beekeeping is undoubtedly an ancient and highly skilled practise with cultural and commercial significance, commercial beehives are not as environmentally important as our wild bee populations. Therefore, it is essential that we put most of our energy towards the protection of wild bees and the habitats they rely on.
However, in terms of the production of honey and beeswax and the products we create from these, beekeeping is undoubtedly more sustainable than the gathering of these from the wild.
Does it harm the bees?
The ethics of beekeeping very much hinges on the personal beliefs of individuals. Nevertheless, modern beekeepers do their best to avoid the death of any individual bees. This is firstly because it has no benefit to them, as each bee helps the hive be more productive. Secondly, the accidental death of one adult bee can cause the other bees within the hive to become more aggressive and more likely to sting.
Techniques used in the modern honey collection also ensure that no larvae are taken out of the hive with the honey. This also benefits the beekeepers by ensuring the next generation of bees is protected, and keeps impurities out of the honey.
Most beekeepers aim to leave enough honey within the hive that the bees can still survive the winter, which is why bees store the honey in the first place. Many also give the bees sugar substitutes if the honey remaining is not enough to get the colony through this period.
However, as with all animal husbandry, there can be cruelty where individuals less interested in animal welfare are concerned, or where profits are prioritised over health and well-being. For example, large commercial beekeeping organisations have come under fire for practices such as cutting off the queen’s wings so she cannot leave the hive or for accidentally killing or maiming workers when the honey is being harvested.
Additionally, some people believe that, as bees started as wild animals, they should be allowed to live their lives undisturbed by humans and should not have to share their hard-earned honey, or other products, with us.
Is beekeeping cruel?
This question involves a certain amount of personal ethics. However, you can keep bees in a manner in which they can be comfortable and healthy. Beekeeping can have many benefits for the bee colony, and the rewards for humans are multiple. However, commercial beekeeping can certainly cause some harm to individual bees if the keepers are not careful enough or use practices that endanger the bees.
As with everything we buy, it is up to us to research how the producers make their product and the environmental or ethical repercussions of their decisions. The safest way to ensure your honey isn’t causing harm to bees can be to get to know a local beekeeper, many of whom may be happy to show you their hives and explain their methods.
The sweet life
It is easy to say that exchanging honey for sugar would be the most ethical choice. However, sugar comes from a crop, and crop production can involve killing many thousands of insects through the spraying of pesticides and the rotation of the soil. Thus, the ethics of what we consume are unfortunately very complex and often have unforeseen consequences.
It is, therefore, a very personal choice whether you are comfortable to have honey sat in your kitchen cupboard. Yet, hopefully, we can all agree on what amazing creatures honey bees are and what an important role they have to play both in the natural history of the world and in the history of humanity.