Why humans can’t seem to leave bees alone

Greetings, fellow earthlings. OK, so I’m hopping mad. You’ve been warned. 

For a lot of humans, the honey we bees produce for ourselves seems to have almost magical powers. Even as news of global honey bee colony collapse has become more widely known, people seem to look for answers that allow them to continue extracting honey to eat or sell, and leaving honey bees with vastly inferior sugar substitutes - an insufficient junk food diet.  It’s like a honey addiction, and honey consumers are happy to try anything — so long as it doesn’t threaten their supply. 

 Humans seem unable to solve any problem except the one right in front of them. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. They seem bent on a terminally shortsighted approach, which stops them from thinking through the risks and longer-term consequences of the solutions they put on the table.  Some just opt for the calculated approach of human cost-benefit analysis - - “Will we gain more than we lose?” they ask.  This is all there is to some people’s definition of “sustainability.”

Around the same time the factory farming industry and the big food producers started to see some negative press about animal cruelty, environmental pollution, and poor food quality, supermarkets started to stock products with words like “sustainable” and “ethical” on the labels. Of course people want to feel good about their food choices.  

But can we be real for a second?  As I buzz around the neighbourhood, I hear you humans talking about “sustainable” or “ethical” versions of things you just don’t want to give up:

  • “Sustainable fish” taken indiscriminately from toxic oceans choked with the detritus of industrial fishing operations
  • “Grass-fed beef” that uses 4x the water and twice the land of a conventionally raised cow (and more importantly, a gram of protein from beef uses 6x the resources of a gram of plant-based protein) 
  • “Free-range chickens” that might get only  a daily glimpse of the world outside a crowded barn but never go outside themselves  

And I hear the same kind of thing about “raw, local, honey” --  still taken from the bees who need it to stay healthy, and still likely to contain both traces of antibiotics (widely used by beekeepers regardless of how ‘local’ they are) and pesticide residues.

More and more people  are learning to  take claims like these with a grain of salt. They really want to find out about how their food is made, where it comes from, what’s in it.  They’re starting to make different choices.

And some of those people want to help us bees (hopefully that’s you haha). 

But how?  

The answer goes back to bees’ three roles in today’s world.

1 Honey producer

Honey bees, unfortunately, are livestock - the are farmed animals - farmed for profit. And the temptation for honey farmers (some people still use the word “beekeeper”) is to extract as much honey as possible in order to have more to sell.  As I’ve said before, the lack of honey, which is bees’ optimal food, compromises the health of a colony, and makes survival over winter more difficult. My modest proposal is that we take bees out of the honey production business. Let them keep their honey. 

2 Contract pollinator

These same honey bees are made to work two jobs. They’re also hired out to large commercial farming operations as contract pollinators. This is very difficult work for the bees, under very challenging conditions. First they have to get to the job site (for example, an almond grove) - which involves, for most of them, a long journey by truck.  Hives are stacked on trailers and then shrink wrapped for transport like any other freight.  I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a little short of breath just thinking about it. 

Once they arrive, if they’ve survived the journey,  these frazzled bees are put to work pollinating whatever crop is in need at the time. If you’re among the 75% of US bees put to work pollinating the California almond crop, you’ll face day after day of pollinating flowers with very little nectar. By the end of the job, you might have literally starved to death.

This is a common pattern of forced migration for farmed bees across North America. When bees are put to work on large farms pollinating a single crop - the common farming practice of single-crop cultivation is called  “monoculture” - this means their diet is far from ideal. To put it bluntly, they suffer from malnutrition.  Monoculture is about as unnatural an approach to farming as you can imagine, and it’s making life hard for all the creatures that would make for a healthy living planet - and it has to stop if we want to grow good food for future generations, not to mention have healthier bees.

3 Backyard hobby

A surprising fact is that many bee farmers make more money selling bees than they do selling honey.  There are many reasons for this, which we can talk about in a future post. 

Thanks to skillful marketing, urban and backyard beekeeping is spreading like wildfire. On the surface, becoming an amateur beekeeper might seem like a great way to “help the bees”. Many people take to the role of “saviour” or “steward” very well and feel they’re doing a good thing.  

But introducing more honey bees into a given geographical area only puts the native pollinators in the area under greater and greater pressure, increasing competition for a limited food supply. 

And then there’s the honey. I heard one novice say to a friend the other day, “Having a rooftop hive is a great way to help bees - AND we get to eat the honey.”  Now hold on a second. I’ve said it before, but I’m gonna say it again and again: Honey is for bees.

How to help bees - I mean really help them

Look, I know your heart is in the right place. If you want to help bees, here are a couple of things you can do.

1 Become a gardener instead of a beekeeper

Without flowers, bees can’t make honey. And no honey, no bees. So do a bit of research into bee-friendly plants (bees love anything in the mint family, like oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, mint, for example), and plant things that will bloom at different times so the bees have  steady supply of nectar-rich sources. At least some native plants is a very good idea too. Don’t have a backyard or a balcony? You can always go guerrilla and scatter a bee-friendly flower mix on vacant lots or public spaces near you.

2 Support organic products and avoid pesticides & herbicides

If you can afford to, buy organic products. The more support consumers give to organic producers, the longer they can keep doing what they do.  The basic truth is: non-organic farming is killing our soil along with the animals in it and those that fly over it - including us bees. Pesticide makers will tell you the impact on bees is non-lethal - - but the latest science shows the harmful effects are a major contributor to Bee Colony Collapse.

Look for labels that say “Certified Organic” (you’ll see the Canada Organic or USDA Organic symbol) and that name the certifying body. Fun fact: Products that are Non-GMO don’t have to be organic, but products that are certified organic will always be Non-GMO too. 

3 Fight monoculture 

Our path should be away from industrial and inorganic monoculture and toward a diverse , organic, pesticide-free multi-culture.  For now, because most crops need bees,  let’s put pressure on monoculture operations to:

  • Bring bees onsite permanently  (so they don’t suffer the stress of transnational travel) 
  • Keep the honey in those hives for the bees
  • Interplant bee-rich flowers among their main crops
  • Create bee sanctuaries on their farms so the bees can get a more balanced diet

You know how sometimes someone will be nice to you because they want something from you? Well that’s basically how us bees feel about beekeepers.

What if a new generation of beekeepers gave up the farming and resource extraction mindset? 

What if they didn’t try to keep bees at all? What if they just did what they could to encourage all pollinators, preserving their food sources and adding to them by planting the right kinds of flowering plants, fighting for the conservation of habitat for wild bees, campaigning for organic farming methods. What if they just marvelled at how beautiful a wild bee alighting on a flower is?

Food for thought. 

For the bee-friendly world we want,