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. 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.
Organic and Fairtrade certification
Organic certification normally acts as a simple navigation tool for consumers trying to identify more ethical food products. However in the case of honey this is less obvious if you hold environmental or animal welfare issues close at heart.
Organic versus local
You cannot buy certified organic honey sourced from the UK due to strict regulations on bee foraging distances, which are particularly difficult for UK beekeepers to meet. The Soil Association standards state that hives must be located so that a four-mile radius of organic crops and/or uncultivated land can be maintained to provide a source of nectar and pollen for honey bees. Sufficient distance must also be maintained between hives and potential contamination sources, for example: urban centres, motorways, industrial areas, waste dumps or waste incinerators.
The relatively small size of UK farms and the fragmented nature of uncultivated land, in addition to poor, UK-wide land management practices, mean that few British beekeepers could meet the organic honey standards even if they wanted too.
Buying certified organic honey in the UK therefore means importing honey with potentially high food miles compared to honey produced and bottled in the UK. This perhaps undermines some of the environmental motivations for buying organic in the first place. There is also some debate about whether honey can ever truly be organic due to bees’ foraging activity being relatively uncontrollable. Furthermore, unless it is Fairtrade certified, organic (imported) honey may be linked to poor working conditions, depending on the country of origin and a company’s supply-chain policies and practices.
Even though UK-sourced honeys are unable to carry the organic label, many UK beekeepers still raise their hives on organically managed land and follow organic principles in regard to hive management, honey collection and processing. Buying local honey from a known source or contacting a local beekeeper directly and asking about their practices and honey sources will tell you more than a label which simply says ‘English Honey’. Perhaps honey producers could be persuaded to provide more detailed information.
Although we haven’t covered the hundreds of small UK beekeepers on the score table above, you can use the local honey directory to find beekeepers close to you. This directory provides you with contact details for beekeepers by region and some information on honey sources. You could also contact your local beekeepers’ association or natural beekeeping group who can put you in touch with local beekeepers too.
Is buying honey good or bad for bee populations?
If you are concerned about bee populations, honey consumption in its modern form is arguably complicit in contributing to declining honey bee populations, especially if sourced from a business driven by profit. Buying organic honey may cast a vote for sustainable agricultural practices, but still maintains an human-centred view towards beekeeping that often fails to put bee welfare before human desires.
Organic standards encourage the feeding of bees with organic honey rather than sugar water; limit the use of antibiotics; prohibit the clipping of a queen bee’s wings and prohibit artificial insemination. But organic beekeeping can still include a number of practices that could be conceived of as ‘unnatural’, and as violating animal rights, and are argued by ‘natural beekeepers’ to be linked to a higher incidence of pests, disease and stress.
Beekeeping practices lie on a spectrum between industrial-scale beekeeping and bee conservation. The further you move towards the bee conservation end of the spectrum, the more you encourage a colony to take control and produce a hive in its natural form and shape, without pre-set wax moulds and with minimal disturbance of the hive. Bees are allowed to swarm according the colony’s own impulses, and, rather than relying on man-made medicines which are often developed by the same companies that sell neonicotinoids, bees are encouraged to fight off pests and disease themselves in order to develop a natural resistance. Honey, if taken at all, is taken when there is true excess and in the spring once a hive has survived the winter.
Viewed from a perspective of sustainability, honey consumption by humans might be less frequent than it is now. It could be seen more as a special occasion product or medicine rather than a regular item of choice.
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. Bees are also omitted from supermarkets’ animal welfare policies.