It’s probable that most honey bee colonies in the west do not live in the wild anymore. They live with beekeepers.
No matter what your views on eating or not eating meat are, there’s one animal product that I believe everyone should eat – honey. Thanks to modern food production, commercial bees are absolutely required to pollinate key crops. Without these semi-domesticated insects our fresh produce aisles would be bare and a vegan or vegetarian diet could be put under stress.
If you eat almonds, kiwi fruit, squash, avocados, melons, and a whole host of other fruits and vegetables1 then your diet is reliant on the work of bees. Especially honeybees. If you do not support the beekeeping industry, you are not supporting the growing of vegetarian foodstuffs.
Commercial beekeeping keeps food on all of our plates
There is no accurate data showing just how many wild colonies exist but some sources support the idea that populations are far lower than in the past. That means that wild bees cannot be relied on to pollinate our crops.
In any case, it might be impossible for them to pollinate on that level anyway. The huge swathes of farm land and orchards that supply our supermarkets provide neither cover nor diversity in food sources for wild colonies to flourish.
Why is pollination important?
Pollination, the act of moving pollen from one flower to the next, is how flowers change into fruit and berries. Pollination is also needed by many vegetables in order for the plant to set seed for the next year’s crops. What the bees get for their work is pollen and nectar that they take back to the colony to be transformed into bee-food. Honey is one of these foods.
Honeybees will travel about 1.5 miles from their hive to search of flowers. Now imagine yourself flying in a plane over farmland – uncountable miles of single crops that all flower at one time and then mature. One show of flowers and then nothing. Honeybees in that environment would starve after that flowering is over which is why commercial beekeepers move them from place to place.
What does eating honey have to do with pollinating crops?
Commercial beekeepers earn a living in two main ways – pollination services and honey sales. They’re paid to bring their bees to a crop to pollinate it and then they harvest the honey the bees made from that crop and then sell it on. If people did not eat honey it is unlikely that beekeepers could stay in business or that food prices wouldn’t skyrocket.
It may not be kind to move honeybees, but as long as we raise crops on the scale that we currently do, commercial honeybees will be needed. No bees, no food. Simple as that.
Ethical alternatives to avoiding eating honey
Of course there are ways to stay Vegan and to ethically not support beekeeping. Did you know that before settlers arrived in North America there were no honey bees there2? Native Americans ate crops not as dependent on honey bees and grew them in much smaller fields. Traditional staples included corn, squash, and beans.
If you eat and grow food the way they did then wild bumblebees, solitary bees, and even honey bees could do the pollination work for you. However, purchase some of these same foods from the supermarket and you’re once again reliant on the work of commercial bees.
Buying your produce from smaller organic farms is another option. They may have their own hives on the land to help with pollination but they might not be as reliant on sales of honey to keep their business afloat. That means the bees have more value as pollinators to their business than as honey producers.
But isn’t harvesting honey stealing from bees?
Honeybees make honey – lots of it. So much so in good years that you can harvest fifty to eighty pounds of honey from a single colony! Some beekeepers do take the maximum amount of honey they can from their bees but I only take the surplus. A good beekeeper always ensures that their bees have plenty of their own honey to last them the winter.
If you’re concerned about animal welfare contact a local beekeeper and talk to them about how they keep their hives. Ask them about how much they take off, where the bees are kept, how many hives they have, if they tend them all themselves, and anything else that might concern you. Commercial beekeepers can have a dozen hives or thousands which can make a difference in how they’re kept. It’s up to you to choose what you feel is best but please do support honey. We all depend on it.