Clipping the wings of bees
It is not uncommon for beekeepers to clip the wings of the queens. Wing clipping is done to prevent queens from leaving and the bees from swarming. However, queens that cannot fly can instead fall to the ground, meaning that the bees swarm there instead or take off with a new queen. Swarming is a natural behaviour and one that is important to the breeding and lifecycles of bee populations.
The British Beekeepers Association’s assessment criteria can require trainee apiarists to demonstrate that they can clip wings:
“You may be asked to clip and mark a queen. Where there are strong objections to marking and/or clipping queens, a drone may be substituted. If you object to clipping wings on religious or moral grounds you will be expected to simulate the task.”
While they allow for people to choose to simulate the task, the fact that it is included demonstrates that it is considered standard practice.
Beekeepers that are more accepting of swarming can leave ‘bait hives’ out to try and encourage the swarming bees to take up residence there. The Natural Beekeeping Trust states,
“Swarm suppression is often justified on the basis that it increases honey yields; but beekeepers who allow swarming and operate an extensive rather than an intensive beekeeping system dispute this. Moreover, bee-centred beekeepers are not generally honey-driven, seeing the bee as a pollinator first and provider of honey second.”
Tropical Forest/Wainwrights, Hilltop Honey and Littleover Apiaries stated they did not practice wing clipping and organic certification also prohibits the practice. The lack of policies in other companies again makes it difficult to know which companies are doing what.
Control of disease and parasites in honey
Both conventional and natural beekeepers would probably agree that the biggest threat to bees, in terms of pests and disease, is the varroa destructor mite. However, approaches to dealing with these blood-sucking parasites is very different.
Varroa mites have often been treated with oxalic acid. However, some of the methods of treatment were actually found to be directly damaging to the bees’ health. Using oxalic vapour has been found to be effective at killing varroa mites whilst not harmful to the bees themselves.
A study, published in 2016, argues the case for a natural selection approach to managing diseases and parasites in bees, arguing that constant treatment of bees is preventing them from evolving resistance naturally.
Bees can also be treated against illness and infections with antibiotics. A study from the University of Austin found that in many cases treated bees were more likely to die than untreated ones. This is because the antibiotics can destroy the important microbiome in the bees’ gut.
Either way, killing varroa mites is still not great from an animal rights perspective as they are just as much a living creature as the bees themselves, even if they have been given a rather ominous name.
As very few companies had public bee welfare policies, it is not transparent what methods of disease control are being used by each company.
Culling bees for honey
There are some accounts that beekeepers in colder climates could cull bees in the autumn in order to avoid the costs of keeping them alive over winter. However, there is little evidence that this is still practised and there were no indications that this was what companies in our guide were doing. However, it is still mentioned on some beekeeping forums so, if you live somewhere with cold winters and are buying from small scale beekeepers, it might be worth checking what their overwintering policies are.
Interestingly, bees are not necessarily kinder to themselves. It is not uncommon to see drones being pushed out of the hive in the lead up to winter. This is because they have little purpose in the winter months and the honey reserves can be put to better use feeding other types of bees. However, this benefits the hive as a whole and the dead drones provide an important food source for other wildlife.
Pesticides and monocropping
Monocropping, the farming practice whereby one type of crop is grown on the land year on year usually on a large scale, is not great for bees. Only having one type of crop leads to a lack of diversity in insect populations as all the flowering will happen at once. This also means that certain pests are not kept in check by a natural ecosystem leading to increased reliance on pesticides.
Many GM crops are created to be more resistant to pesticides to allow them to be grown as monocultures which means that even higher levels are used. Neonics, a commonly used pesticide now banned in the EU, were considered to be a key factor in the increase of colony collapse disorder.
Unfortunately, evidence suggests that new chemicals used as replacements are not necessarily much better. For example, scientists have suggested that, ‘safer’ pesticides, sulfoxaflor and flupyradifurone could also be linked to disruption in bee colonies. The fact that pesticides are bad for bees does not seem like it should come as that much of a surprise.