Honey bees (Apis Mellifera) have been in the news quite a lot recently. Honey bees are vanishing at an alarming rate and since the 1970´s already almost 60% of honey bee colonies have disappeared, mostly due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Nobody really knows what causes CCD, but many experts believe CCD can be attributed to a variety of factors: increased use of pesticides, a virus-harboring parasite, inadequate/poor nutrition and bee management stress.
The honey bee is one of 250,000 bee species, all of which are pollinators. They are involved in the production of over 70% of global crops. It´s an agricultural animal, like chickens, pigs and cows. The bees are being moved from pollination site to pollination site, which is equivalent to introducing a new extensive species into each new area. By introducing the domesticated species, the wild species lose their share of resources and may be hurt by diseases carried by the honey bees, as stated by Jonas Geldmann and Juan P. González-Varo, the authors of the scientific article “Conserving honey bees does not help wildlife” (2018). And they are not alone: their perspectives on the honey bee is of growing concern among environmental conservationists. Accumulating evidence suggests that introducing honey bee hives can measurably reduce local populations of native bee species, which can have negative impacts on the local environment (native pollinators not only consist of local, wild bees, but also includes butterflies, moths, bats, flies, ants, and birds). Wild bees have a unique way of extracting pollen from flowers called “buzz pollination.” By shaking flowers at a certain frequency, more pollen will be released, allowing for more efficient pollination. Honey bees can’t do this. Furthermore, in many cases, native plant species have uniquely adapted to be efficiently pollinated by their native pollinators.
Native pollinators have also seen serious population declines in recent years and while the honey bee does a great job at pollinating the crops, it is imperative that native pollinators are included in conservation efforts. When flowers are abundant, there is plenty of pollen for both honey bees and their wild relatives. But in many landscapes, or when an orchard stops blooming, farmed honey bees can compete with wild bees for food, making it harder for wild species to survive. The positive side of all the attention on the honey bee is that concern for honey bees helped more people understand why it's important to have more land covered with wildflowers and trees, and that it needs to be free from pesticides, says Marla Spivak, one of the country's most prominent bee researchers who works at the University of Minnesota.
So what about the honey these honey bees produce? Is it an animal friendly product? For the bee keeper to be able to profit from honey, the bees´ desire to live and protect their hive need to be manipulated and exploited. Like other factory-farmed animals, honey bees are victims of unnatural living conditions, genetic manipulation, and stressful transportation. The white box that serves as a beehive has been around since the mid-1850s and was created to enable beekeepers to move the hives from place to place. Wild bees divide the hive upon the birth of a new queen (swarming), but since this 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.
Even organically produced honey often fails to put bee welfare before human desires. If we want to encourage a more sustainable approach to bee-keeping, we need to cut down on our honey consumption and look for alternatives, and there are plenty: date syrup, maple syrup, molasses, coconut blossom nectar, rice syrup and agave nectar. In case you do want to buy honey (for example as a natural remedy), buy local honey and from a known source (ideally organic or uncultivated land), where the honey is produced by individual bee-keepers who practice balanced bee-keeping.