Last updated: November 2014
Helping the honey bee
The production of honey is part of the symbiotic relationship between bees and plants. Flowering plants provide nectar which foraging bees turn into their foodstuff, which enables them to develop thriving colonies. While collecting nectar, bees fertilise the flowers so that fruit and seeds are formed, thus allowing the plants to reproduce.
However, over the years this relationship has been exploited to meet a growing demand for honey, with intensive bee-farming methods leading to numerous problems for bee colonies. The spread of pests and diseases, the use of insecticides (especially neonicotinoids – some of which are subject to a temporary ban in the EU) and loss of natural habitat, have in recent decades been a major factor in the decimation of honey bee populations, especially in Europe and the United States. In Europe 15% to 35% of honey bee colonies have been lost between 1985 and 2005, while in the US this figure is even higher, standing at 60%. Less is known about honey bee populations in the tropics, except that their decline appears to be happening at a faster rate.
Despite this decline, demand for honey remains high. In the UK 25,000 tonnes are consumed each year. However just 1,500 tonnes can now be produced by British beekeepers as the number of commercial honey bees has declined by 45% since 2010.2,3 The rest is imported from major honey producing countries such as Thailand and China (the world’s largest honey producer). To meet the demand there has been a 45% increase in farmed colonies globally over the last 50 years.
A different approach to honey
However there are those working hard to promote more bee-centred methods of beekeeping that are having a positive impact on bee populations. This includes a natural beekeepers movement that advocates a balanced beekeeping approach, and community groups working hard to convert under-utilised land back into nectar-rich oases.
Balance seems to be the key word when it comes to beekeeping and honey consumption. Balance in the honey left for bees and that taken for human consumption; balance between pest and disease management and letting nature take its course; balance in how much honey we consume, if any at all. It is also worth remembering that bees are not the only insect or animal that humans rely on to pollinate crops, and it’s not just the honey bee that’s suffering. Three of the twenty five British species of bumblebee have become extinct and 50% of them are in serious decline since the 1970s.
The impact that pollinator declines may have for both the environment and our economy is not fully understood, but efforts are being made to try and quantify the pollinator services offered by insects. In this report however, we’ll be focusing on the plight of the honey bee and how your consumer decisions can help save them.
We look at the most widespread honey brands and how the companies behind the labels fare in regard to their ethical policies and efforts in supporting bee populations.