Readers Letters from Ethical Consumer Issue 153
Honey Guide Challenged
I would like to make a few points in relation to the Ethical Consumer guide to honey (EC151). As a beekeeper I was quite taken aback by some of the points raised in the guide. You say in the section ‘A new hope – Natural beekeepers’ that a number of studies have linked smaller cells to reduced varroa mite populations. The document you link to as reference for this actually quotes a number of studies which find inconclusive evidence for smaller cells reducing varroa. So hardly a ringing endorsement for the point you make.
You say “A key natural defence for honey bees against varroa is for the bees to groom one another and become ‘hygienic’ and able to remove the mites from larvae and their bodies”. If getting our bees to be hygienic was as simple as leaving them alone, all beekeepers would be doing it. The LASI research on hygienic bees says “Surveys of colonies.... generally show that only 10% of honey bee colonies are fully hygienic.” They hope to be able to make their strain available to British beekeepers, but they’re not selling these bees at the moment. Until then, most of us are doing what we can to help our bees survive, using treatments which mites have not been found to be resistant to. Most British beekeepers care deeply about their bees and only want to do the best by them. The official advice from FERA’s National Bee Unit is that we should be treating for varroa. If you speak to a National Bee Unit inspector in person, they will never recommend relying on foundationless beekeeping and icing sugar alone as the evidence is that just doesn’t work.
My worry is that the general public will be put off honey produced by small-scale British beekeepers if they are told we use supposedly unethical practices such as treating for varroa and preventing swarming. Stopping swarming in urban areas (using an artificial swarm – no need to clip wings) is good practice to be considerate to our neighbours. The general public may not be so keen to have beekeepers around if swarms end up in their chimneys. I appreciate that you are trying to help bees, and there are some really good parts to the guide, but I feel that some of it is unfair.
In your Guide to Honey (EC151) you state: “organic beekeeping can still include a number of practices that could be conceived of as ‘unnatural’, as violating animal rights, and are argued by ‘natural beekeepers’ to be linked to a higher incidence of pests, disease and stress.” However, many regular beekeepers and specialists in bee health (working for the German regional government) view some practices of natural beekeepers as being linked to a higher incidence of pests, disease and stress.
You go on to discuss natural beekeeping, balanced beekeeping, and conservation beekeeping.All these methods are frowned upon as they promote the spread of varroa. Letting bees with varroa swarm off is a death sentence for the swarm, and also through invasion, for many other surrounding hives. Natural beekeepers are very loathe to share their data on their survival rates – I have tended more than 200 colonies through the winter, I have lost 8 colonies, this is an exceptional survival rate even among my peers, but it is not through lack of maintenance of the colonies’ health.
You also assert that winter survival rates are far better in colonies that have swarmed and overwintered on their own honey as opposed to sugar water or worse... This is untrue – studies in Germany have shown sugar water is the best energy source for overwintering – the lower “ballast” of sugar water does not put so much pressure on bees digestive tracts, and reduces instances of Nosema.You go on to claim that there is mounting evidence of feral colonies faring better than those kept by beekeepers”. I would attest that there is no study that has scientifically proven this – just hearsay.
On page 8 you say: “Some beekeepers use cyanide gas while others will burn the beehives, killing all the bees inside.” This is incorrect, as cyanide would render the hive, wax, frames and so on poisonous and unusable.
A selection of comments made to Friends of the Earth by email.
Ed: Re cyanide: This is a mistake on our part. It is only used in extreme circumstances of mite infection. We will remove this reference. Regarding the issue of ‘natural’ vs conventional beekeeping: This is an area of important debate and we would love for extensive scientific studies to be conducted to compare an array of beekeeping practices. This report strove to cover alternatives to encourage discussion and question more widespread conventional practices that dominate beekeeping.
Is supplying the military always unethical?
I have been a subscriber for a year, and it has been a very educational 12-months. I certainly support your cause to let all workers have a living wage, to make all production sustainable and environmental friendly, and the fight against any kind of cruelty against humans or animals. But I do also find some situations where I just don’t understand your reasoning for considering certain things unethical. For instance, I have come across some companies that have been marked down, because they supply non-military items, like food and clothes, to the US military. I honestly do not see what is wrong with that. Sovereign states have a legal right to keep military units for self-protection, and the protection of allies through alliances, like for instance NATO. In a world of terrorism, we can debate how far that mandate should be extended, and that is a difficult debate, but that does not take away the fact that most countries need a military, and the military needs food and clothing for their soldiers.
Therefore, I think it is wrong to mark down a company for supplying these items to the military in perfectly legal ways. Could you please elaborate on your reasoning for marking down companies that supply non-military items to the military?
Jørgen Sivesind, via email
Ed: Our ethical rating system does indeed mark down companies which supply military forces with both ‘strategic’ and ‘non-strategic’ manufactures. A whole mark in this category indicates the manufacture of actual weaponry, warships, tanks and aircraft. Food and drink fits into the non-strategic supply and would result in a half mark. Arms and military supply is primarily a category for those with fundamental objections to military of any kind - e.g. Quakers. Like animal rights, it may not be for everyone. You can use the sliders on the product guide pages on our website to customise the ratings and ignore this category and any other category you don’t agree with. See our Quick Guide for details on how to do this.
Supermarkets: ethics under the spotlight
As a loyal reader of, subscriber to and investor in EC for over a decade, it is a significant guiding of factor in my shopping habits. Over a period of many years this has been influential in me now going beyond this, leading me into a change of lifestyle and becoming a supplier of ethically sourced food and drink myself.
The latest issue of EC (152) encapsulated the issues and dilemmas with sourcing one’s weekly groceries. The ‘Race to the Bottom’ where the main, if not the sole criterion for purchasing a product, is price paid whilst wilfully ignoring the raft of unethical factors that deliver that low price, is now ingrained in the consumer. The ongoing dairy farm crisis is not sustainable and recent events illustrate that we are at breaking point. In line with your feature on ‘Growing an Alternative Supermarket Network’, I have taken my own small step in combating this illogical and inequitable mentality by setting up Farm Fresh Oxford, an online farmers market supplying fresh, local, seasonal produce in Oxford. Local is the main selling point and we try to tick as many ethical boxes as possible, working to our manifesto which includes an ‘Asparagus and Bananas Rule’ – (fair trade) bananas are OK as we don’t grow them in the UK, but asparagus is only supplied in season and from a local grower. On the milk theme, our milk, cream and yoghurt are sourced from Jess’s Ladies Organic, an 80-strong dairy herd on an independent family farm. It is only by supporting the likes of Food Assemblies featured in your article and Farm Fresh Oxford (as well as other independent initiatives) that we will find solutions before reaching rock bottom on both the economic and ethical scales.
Matt Todd, Farm Fresh Oxford, via email
This week we bought some new Playmobil from eBay – the second hand dinosaurs had got lost in the post! – but when it came this morning we found the seller had simply bought from Amazon and sent it as a ‘gift’ to us! I know eBay aren’t great but to find this direct link to Amazon (or the sellers using it) is a shock. Are you aware of this happening? We were doing so well boycotting Amazon!
Roz Webb (via email)
Ed: This sales practice is known as ‘drop shipping’, and is completely legal. It is often promoted as a risk-free way of operating an online shop, as the seller holds no stock, and purely markets products through a different shop-front façade.
For more on the Amazon boycott (and other consumer boycotts) go to our boycotts pages.