03 Feb BEES USED FOR THEIR HONEY
Bees are fascinating, incredible creatures. They are arguably the most hardworking, efficient and organised inhabitants of our planet and play a crucial role in maintaining the health of Earth. Humans have been exploiting bees for centuries, perhaps without awareness of the complexities of these insects and the incredible amount of work honeybees put in to produce honey intended for their own use most importantly as a food source during the winter months. This is not only to the bees’ detriment, but also to humans and our environment.
The honeybee was introduced to Australia in the 1820s aboard a ship from England. The abundance of nectar found in Australian flora saw the rapid naturalisation of honey bees and the introduction of different species from all over Europe soon followed. There are approximately “673,000 registered hives in Australia, producing not only honey and beeswax but also live bees, and other products such as pollen and royal jelly. Around 467,000 hives are…considered to represent the commercial industry”(1)
In any beehive, there are three different types of honey bees, each working tirelessly to support and maintain the health of the hive’s ecosystem: The Queen bee, Drones and Worker bees.
The queen bee is the largest bee and is at the centre of life in the hive, having been fed royal jelly, a gelatinous, nutritious substance by the worker bees during the beginning of her life as larva. After destroying all the other potential queens in the hive at around 5-12 days, she will leave the hive once, mate and lay eggs above the cells of the honeycomb, all the while being protected and fed by her worker bees. Usually an older less productive queen and her loyal swarm will have left the hive to make way for the new younger queen for this to occur. One queen can produce up to a million eggs in her short 2-5 year lifespan.
The drone bees’ sole purpose is to wait patiently and compete with other drones to mate with a queen when she makes her mating flight. They do not have the capacity to collect pollen or nectar, are unable to defend the hive due to their lack of a sting, and usually cannot feed themselves, instead relying on the worker bees to place nectar on their tongue for sustenance. Only the quickest drone will mate with the queen, and once this is done their swift death ensues. The slower, unsuccessful drones return to the hive and will eventually die of starvation during the winter months.
The worker bees have the important role of collecting pollen and nectar, converting this into honey, feeding the drones and queen, and producing wax to create honeycomb and cells in which the young larvae grow. Their task is momentous. The worker bees anatomy is engineered so that incredibly they may carry close to their own body weight in nectar or pollen- their two sources of food. When the worker bee collects nectar from the anthers of flowers, it is stored in a special “stomach”- once full it is transferred to other bees in the hive. It is then passed from bee to bee in a process whereby the nectar thickens and eventually becomes honey. The worker bee will also sustain herself with this nectar via a valve in her nectar sac. Despite their continuous efforts and tireless work, a worker bee will produce only approximately 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in their short 6-7 week lifetime. “It takes 300 bees about three weeks to gather 450g of honey” (2)
Additionally, bees have the ability to communicate with each other via an extraordinarily complex system of vibrations to convey information such as the site and distance to nectar-abundant plants in the area- amazing!
WHY IS HONEY CRUEL?
Although bees are naturally hard-working and extremely productive, to increase yield beekeepers will house bees in unnaturally large hives so that bees must work harder to collect enough nectar and pollen to insulate the space and create enough food to last the winter when food sources are scarce. Overworked bees are likely to die prematurely because of this.
Beekeepers will extract the honey from the hive usually during Autumn when production is at its peak, leaving bees without their crucial food source during the winter months. Beekeepers will replace the highly nutritious honey with cheap, nutrient-deficient artificial sweeteners such as sugar water or corn syrup, resulting in bee malnutrition and death. Poor nutrition also results in the colony becoming more susceptible to disease.
Bee farmers often rent out their bee colonies to commercial crop farmers to pollinate farms and increase productivity. The bees are transported in large trucks in often extreme weather conditions which is highly stressful for the bees. The monocrop bees are usually exposed to once at their destination do not satisfy their need for a diverse range of nectar-producing plants for optimum immunity. Disease and pest infiltration of the hive occurs as a result. Furthermore, honey bees are typically not the superior pollinators- in many cases certain native bee species are more efficient. Some producers use their supposed interest in conserving declining bee populations as a reason to continue farming the insects and using them to produce honey. There is also a growing trend of small-scale beekeeping in urban areas supposedly for this purpose. However native bees are competing directly with honey bee populations for food, thus having the opposite effect.
After the queen bee’s initial mating flight, she will not leave the hive unless she dies, becomes less productive than a younger queen or if the colony becomes too large to inhabit a single hive. In the latter case the queen will take approximately half the swarm (up to tens of thousands of bees) to create and colonise another hive. To prevent the queen bee and her swarm from leaving the hive and thereby reducing honey yield and profit, beekeepers will cruelly clip her wings with scissors. Bees are known to have a central nervous system and would no doubt feel immense pain during this process- one which also completely restricts the queen’s natural behaviour and movement.
Additionally, queen and drone bees are subjected to extreme cruelty during artificial insemination, a practice carried out by beekeepers in order to produce the most productive bees thereby increasing potential profit, with absolutely no regard for the welfare of the bees. During this process drone bees have their heads crushed and are then milked for their semen. The queen bees are gassed using carbon dioxide to render her unconscious so she does not resist- according to NSW beekeeper Casey Cooper “this is to knock her out so she will stay still while we do the procedure”. The queen bee is then positioned upside-down within a plastic container while semen is inserted into her via a sharp needle. Up to 15 drones can be killed for their semen for every queen bee. Casey Cooper also states that “once the queen has been impregnated she is locked back in a hive, which she cannot fly out from” and a day later “she is gassed again to encourage her to lay. The queen bees are kept separate from the other bees including queens in the hives that are producing honey” (3). This is entirely contradictory to what would occur naturally once the queen bee is impregnated in the wild and is none other than the inhumane factory farming of bees.
As people become more aware of the cruelty involved in the farming of bees and commercial honey production, there has been an increase in the number of so-called “bee-friendly” honey producers who are cashing in on the growing sustainable food movement. However, these producers still exist and reap financial reward by way of exploitation of bees who cannot consent to having their life’s work taken from them for our unnecessary consumption. BEES NEED THEIR honey to survive and thrive. They are sentient, extraordinarily complex creatures who exist for their own purpose, NOT to produce honey for humans.
There are myriad honey alternatives such as molasses, maple syrup, agave nectar and rice syrup, all of which have the same rich sweetness as honey minus the guaranteed exploitation and harm. These products are readily available in supermarkets and health food stores.
Author: Kathryn Ryan
Vice President Vegan Rising
1. “The Economic Value and Environmental Impact of The Australian Beekeeping Industry” Diana M H Gibbs and Ian F Muirhead.
2. “How bees make honey” Australian Honey Bee Industry Council.
3. “Taking the sting out of a bee’s sex life” ABC News Country Hour by Michael Cavanagh.