4 Myths About Honey & Beekeeping

Happy Fall, dear readers! May your pumpkin be spiced just the way you like it!

I'm here to talk about my favourite subject and my favourite food: honey. Now, as a bee, i get it — honey is delicious. We bees can't get enough of it. Literally. And you probably know that humans are crazy about honey too. So of course that means it's big business: last year, north american humans consumed a staggering 540 million pounds of honey, making it a multi-billion dollar industry. All good, right? Well, no. You see, every spoonful of honey a human eats is food taken right off a bee's plate. But most people don't even think of honey as bee food. And that's thanks to a few stubborn myths about bees, honey, beekeeping, and the honey industry. Let's take a walk through some of them.

Myth #1: Bees make excess honey just for us. If we don’t remove it, they'll suffer

This may shock you, but bees are not business people. They don't gather around spreadsheets and do projections or think about what a good market price for their honey might be this year. They don't have a concept like "enough" or "too much". They just keep foraging until they can't find any more flowers and they eat nectar and pollen and make honey and they store it up for the winter they know in their bones (it's a metaphor, ok?) is coming.

When winter does come, that store of honey is the only food the colony has to draw on until springtime, and they need it to stay alive. On top of that, bees in a colony shiver to stay warm in cold weather. All that shivering makes a bee hungry, and we can't just go out to eat when all the flowers are gone. So we rely on what we've stored up. When we come up short, that's a catastrophe and bees will often starve to death under these conditions.

Making too much honey for the colony is never a problem. All it means is that we start the new year with some food in the bank. Nothing is wasted, and we bees have evolved to know what to do: if we build up more honey than the colony needs, we just split the hive and make a separate colony when it feels right. This is a good thing.

Worker standing on top of a truck trailer full of beehives

When beekeepers take honey from a hive (they call it "harvesting"), this is stressful. Imagine a giant lifting the roof off your house and taking most of the food out of your freezer. (And remember, all the grocery stores in your world are closing for the winter soon.) Maybe the giant has a kind heart and replaces all that food with a big jar of jelly beans. I'm trying to give you an idea of what it's like when a beekeeper removes most of a colony's winter honey store and replaces it with candy, corn syrup, or sugar water. Which brings me to my next myth.

Myth #2: Bees get adequate nutrition from sugar substitutes don’t they?

Well. Would you expect to be at your best eating more candy bars than any other food - even for a single month? We're talking about the difference between a nutrient-rich diet and a steady stream of junk food. In a nutshell, honey really is for bees. It's designed by evolution to be our best possible food. It helps young bees to grow up strong, and it keeps all bees healthy.

Drum filled with High Fructose Corn Syrup, left for bees to feed
Drum of High-Fructose Corn Syrup in a bee yard for feeding.
(credit: honeybeeworld.com)

Of course, since the 1970's, it's been a common practice for beekeepers to give bees sugary replacements like High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) in exchange for the honey they take. For a time, bees seemed to survive just fine. Business as usual. Then, around 2006, bee colonies started dying off. Because it looked like a mystery to people who were used to the way things were, they called this global problem "Bee Colony Collapse Disorder." Maybe you've read about it on human social media.

Since that time, though, more and stronger pesticides have come into use. Bees made to eat HFCS or other cheap substitutes can't maintain a strong immune system, making them more vulnerable to the effects of these modern pesticides. Some really smart humans have even found that honey contains a vital enzyme (called p-coumaric acid, for you sciencey folks) that turns on a bee's immune response, so that they are better equipped to fight off the toxins they're exposed to. 

Without our honey, bees are finding it harder and harder to survive when our food sources have been sprayed with an ever-growing list of toxic chemicals. A honey diet just might give us a leg to stand on.

Myth #3: Honey has has unique health benefits humans can’t get anywhere else.

Being a bee, I can't help but be a honey fan. I'll admit that raw honey contains vitamins and enzymes and has other fine qualities, and the ancient traditions of beekeeping have lent honey an almost magical quality for its storied healing properties. The fact is, everything that makes honey attractive to health-conscious humans makes it essential to the health of us bees. 

The good news is that everything humans could hope to get from the best honey they could ever buy is easily found in other foods - leaving more honey in the hive for bees to eat. The Big 4 - garlic, ginger, cinnamon, and turmeric - along with fermented foods like sauerkraut, are well known for being antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, or probiotic powerhouses. 

Myth #4: Urban and rooftop hives are good for bees and pollinator populations.

Take it from me: my bee friends and I love all the humans trying to help us out. Your hearts are in the right place. You might be thinking: "If I keep some bees, I can really take care of them. This will make up a little for the bees that are dying. And I really want to do something!"

Sorry if I sound a little irritable, but nobody I know wants to be put in a padded envelope and shipped hundreds of miles from home to be part of a starter pack for an amateur beekeeper on some urban rooftop.

It's all about geography. As the number of urban hives grows in an area, the number of (mainly) honeybees grows. But the food supply in that same area very likely won't keep pace. This is a big problem for the native pollinators in that area, who now have more and more competition for a limited food supply.

So, rather than solving a problem - bees populations are struggling - urban hives are creating one.

If you really want to help, plant a bed full of bee-friendly flowers instead. This will increase the local food supply without adding more competition into the mix. The local bees will thank you. Hugs from me too.

Bee on a yellow flower

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Bottom line: We all want to feel good about our choices. And myths like these help humans feel good about choosing honey as a food. But us bees are literally dying for the lack of our honey. It's our vital, life-giving food. It helps our brood grow into strong, healthy bees. It sustains us over cold winters. Without it we don't stand a chance. And without us, your days are numbered too.

Let's find a balance both of us can live with.

Be kind,

bumble