Last updated: September 2014
There are roughly three types of honey production: the collection of wild honey, small-scale production and industrial-scale production. The latter is the most widely criticised type of beekeeping and is akin to other types of factory farming. With industrial honey production, bees may be subject to a variety of processes and procedures. These include artificial feeding regimes, artificial insemination, treatment with antibiotics, inhumane transportation conditions and culling. Here are some of the main issues regarding honey bee welfare.
Culling of hives
One of the most brutal aspects of industrial-scale bee farming is culling. This occurs once the honey is collected (usually in autumn). In some cases it is cheaper to kill off entire hives rather than feed the bees through the winter. In cases where bees are not culled they are sometimes fed sugar water as a replacement for the honey taken for human consumption.
Short live the queen!
In wild hives a queen bee may choose to lead part of the colony to a new hive. A new queen then takes her place in the old hive. This is basically how the species reproduces. However this needs to be prevented in industrial beekeeping as it can leave a hive without enough bees to produce a financially viable amount of honey.
One tactic used by beekeepers (in both large- and smaller-scale farming) to keep production high is clipping the queen’s wings. This helps to prevent swarming. Because the queen is not able to fly, the swarm simply masses next to the hive. They are then collected by the beekeeper and returned to the hive. A second tactic used by beekeepers is to periodically kill and replace the queen. In wild colonies the queen is selected by the worker bees and specially fed in order to become sexually mature.
In factory farmed hives the beekeeper selects the queen and often replaces her every two years. This is because as a queen gets older she produces fewer pheromones. These pheromones are essential to stop swarming as they act as a magnet to the worker bees. Once the queen’s pheromone excretion begins to slow down the workers are more likely to swarm and, as described above, commercial beekeepers argue that they cannot ‘afford’ for this to happen. Queens may also be artificially inseminated using drones, which die in the process.
In some instances bees are transported thousand of miles to pollinate crops. For instance, in the USA, honey accounts for only a small percentage of the total income generated from honey bees. Most comes from the rental of hives to help pollinate fruit and vegetable crops. Commercial bees are used in the production of about 100 foods, including almonds, avocados, and broccoli. Over a million honey bee colonies are moved around the US, going from crop to crop as they come into bloom.
This transportation occurs all year round meaning that bees get no chance to hibernate as they would do in the wild. The transported bees are fed a diet of high-fructose corn syrup (and/or culled in winter) as their honey is removed for sale. Poor husbandry and breeding practices have reduced their genetic diversity and left them susceptible to large-scale die-offs. 
Treatment with antibiotics
Treatment against mites has become an important part of large-scale honey production as bee colonies become increasingly susceptible to them. However the treatments against Varroa mite in particular are increasingly found to be ineffective, as the mites develop resistance. 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.
Antibiotic treatments can be passed from bees to humans via honey. One of the most dangerous antibiotics, that is used outside the US and EU, is Chloramphenicol. This is known to cause aplastic anaemia, a sometimes fatal disease which affects the ability of bone marrow to produce red blood cells.
This antibiotic has been found in honey imported from both China and Thailand. In fact, honey from China, the world’s largest honey producer, was banned in the European Union in 2002 (the ban was rescinded two years later).
In more humane methods of beekeeping, pests are less of a problem. In commercial farming, beekeepers will have hundreds or even thousands of hives and, as with all agricultural systems, high populations are linked to increased pest and disease issues.
Bee welfare policies
Only three companies that responded to our questionnaire had a bee welfare policy. These were Littleover Apiaries, Tropical Forest and Rowse. Littleover Apiaries are 100% chemical free in all their hives and operate to organic standards even when the product is not intended as organic. Organic standards do contain some criteria for bee welfare. Other companies in the guide offering certified organic honey include Windmill Organics which sells the Raw Health brand.
Another company to have a policy was Rowse. While this policy lacked any specific detail it did begin to address the use of antibiotic treatments. The policy stated that, “we are passionate about looking after the health of bees and for nearly five years we’ve been one of the largest contributors to the Sussex Plan for Honey Bee Health & Well-Being. The funding we have given has been used in several project areas. One is on a form of natural defence to diseases called ‘hygienic behaviour’. LASI research has shown that this reduces the build-up of two important honey bee pests and diseases, the Varroa mite and the deformed wing virus.”
The Tropical Forest policy was also vague and only stated that, “On my own bee farm I have found that I am able to maintain the health and number of my beehives through careful husbandry. The most important aspects are careful selection of queens and bringing on a large proportion of new stock each year in the form of small, nucleus hives.”
Public-facing bee campaigns have been run by a number of supermarkets including the Co-operative’s ‘Plan Bee campaign’, Waitrose’s bee app, and Sainsbury’s ‘Operation Bumblebee’. All focus on planting pollinator-friendly plants, promoting biodiversity or building ‘bee hotels’. However, companies failed to address or identify the role of the honey industry and its practices in supporting bee populations. This is despite the economic and environmental importance of bees, and other pollinating insects, being widely recognised (see our special report on the ‘Value of Bees’ on Ethical Consumer’s website). Bees are also omitted from supermarkets’ animal welfare policies.