Every day I see posts and articles about the plight of the honey bees; the dramatic loss of honey bees all over the world, the cause, and efforts to help them. I agree that pesticides and GMO crops are of the greatest concern. With about 40% of the Earth’s land surface being used for crop production and the widespread abuse of our Earth with pesticides and GMO’s being used on theses crops it is not surprising that the bees are dying. This is the main source of their food.
I am happy to see the apparent great concern and effort to do something for the bees. But, is it rather a great concern to do something to keep the bees providing for humans? There is a huge difference in that small shift in perspective.
I have recently seen an incredible rise in the availability of equipment, classes and information on keeping bees. There has been a huge increase in interest and the number of people choosing to “keep” bees. Many of these new beekeepers genuinely wish to help the bees. We are among those people who thought that keeping bees was somehow helpful to them.
When our first bees arrived six or seven years ago we were excited and proud to be doing our part to help the bees and looking forward to the delicious, nutritious honey they would happily give us. We read all the books, took classes and for the first season followed all the directions we were given minus the use of any chemicals or medications as we were taking a “natural and organic” approach to farming at that time. Being who we are, we like direct learning and began watching what we were doing, watching and listening to the bees and really paying attention to what goes on in industrial beekeeping as well as small scale, backyard beekeeping.
We fell in love with the bees and spent hours watching them in complete awe. Watched them work and create with perfection and beauty. We laughed at humanity’s naïve and egotistical perception that humans are the most intelligent beings on Earth. And we were ashamed. You see, first of all, honey bees are not native to our country. So it begins with the importing and breeding of honey bees in large apiaries. Artificial insemination and human rearing of queens is done to meet our desired outcomes. Hives are divided (families/colonies are split) and then packaged. One small cage is filled with a few thousand queenless honey bees and a can of sugar water and queens are placed in separate tiny cages. They are stacked on pallets and shipped all over the country. The bees spend days and sometimes weeks in these conditions until they have arrived at their new home. The bees are then dumped into a hive and a queen placed in the hive, still in her cage for a few days to give the rest of the colony time to acclimate to her as their new leader. Once she is out and hopefully accepted and the confusion and fear settles they begin to work.
In a new hive there is nothing to start with. They must build their comb and create food to feed themselves and the new larva which will be arriving shortly. It takes a tremendous amount of time and work to build comb out of wax that is created in the bees abdomen. The youngest worker bees get to work building the comb. They must chew the wax to soften it and then create a magical, perfect, sacred geometrical pattern of cells where they will raise their young and store food for the colony. Bees have been on Earth for millions of years and know exactly how to create perfect comb. However, in order to force the bees into more extensive honey production, conventional hives use plastic as a guide for the bees to build bigger cells. As the combs are being built by some of the workers, the queen begins to lay eggs and other workers head out to gather pollen and nectar to feed the hive. The process of collection and conversion of nectar into honey takes an incredible amount of energy and time. The bees must visit between 100 and 1500 flowers in one trip to fill their honeystomachs, which then weight almost as much as the bee herself, deliver it back to the hive where another worker works on chewing the nectar and then placing it into the cells where the water will evaporate from the nectar and turn into honey. One bee may visit 2000 flowers each day, all day long repeating these trips to forage, which puts a lot of wear and tear on her body. A hardworking forager may live just 3 weeks. In a lifetime, one honey bee will produce only 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey. During this initial process of establishing the hive, the beekeeper will feed the bees a mixture of sugar and water until the bees have established their own food supply.
Once the hive is established and growing, the beekeeper often looks into the hive and manipulates the comb to maintain the health of the bees (???) and manage the hive. To make the bees more docile and keep the beekeeper safe, most beekeepers pump smoke into the hive before opening it. Imagine someone lifting your roof and filling your home with smoke! Hive manipulation is done to prevent swarming (a colony’s natural evolution of creating another queen and splitting the hive into two to create another colony or leaving the hive if it is not suitable), to encourage honey production and to make access easier for the beekeeper.
In industrial bee operations, multiple hives are loaded on trucks and delivered to large agricultural crops, dropped off and left to pollinate the crops (often drenched in chemicals and planted with GMO crops) then picked up and taken to the next location. Over and over again.
Once fall arrives and winter is peeking around the corner, the bees are preparing for their survival. They have spent the last few months working diligently to create comb and finally have honey stored and ready to ensure the survival of the colony over the winter. This is when the beekeepers harvest the honey.
There is a general tool beekeepers use to determine how much honey is acceptable to take. They generally leave a pre-determined amount per hive that is considered acceptable to feed the bees through winter. Although we all know that there is no certainty about what each winter will bring. The rest of the honey is taken from the hive. The comb containing the honey is either completely destroyed and harvested for wax or severely damaged and returned to the hive and the honey is happily taken for human consumption.
The bees get what is left (some beekeepers take all the honey and feed the bees sugar/water or worse a corn syrup solution) to survive through the winter. When spring arrives, if the colony survived (a very large percentage do not) and the honey store is empty, the process begins again with rebuilding the comb, the honey supply and the colony.
It didn’t take us long to question theses methods and stop ourselves from participating in the exploitation of the bees. We still have honey bees who live here with us. We offer them a home, love and respect. Their hives are their homes. There is no plastic in them. They build their combs beautifully and perfectly, raise their young, create their honey and keep it. All of it. To feed themselves over the winter. They swarm and it is the most miraculous event that we are eager to witness and have been blessed with the opportunity to see. We offer them space for the swarm if they choose it. They pollinate our plants and trees and grace us with their beauty and magnificence.
It is time.
It is time to understand that the honey bees are not here for us. They are wild and need to be returned and allowed the freedom to live. They do not create honey for us to consume. They gift to us within the great interconnected web, the pollination of flowers and plants which in turn provide us food. We need to reconsider perhaps our way of looking at the honey bee (as we do all the beings who share the Earth with us, and the Earth itself) as a clue to their destruction and question ourselves. Do we wish to save the bees for the bees or for our greed? In this may actually be the answer to why the bees are dying.
*** Did you know…
A honey bee colony can contain up to 60,000 bees.
Honey bees choose the sex of their larva by the size of the cell the egg is placed in and what they feed the larva? They can create female workers, drones or a new queen depending on the needs of the hive.
Worker bees (who are all female) must perform different roles throughout their lives. Housekeeping, undertakers, nursing the young, attending to the queen, taking in nectar, fanning the hive (to maintain temperature), building the comb, guarding the hive and finally becoming a forager. Foragers must find flowers, determine their value as a food source, navigate back home, and share detailed information about their finds with other foragers.
The honey bee use one of the most complex symbolic language of any animal on earth.
The queen bee lays up to 1,500 eggs per day, and may lay up to 1 million in her lifetime.
Drones, the only male honey bees, whose only purpose is to mate with the queen, die immediately after mating.
The average life of a honey bee is only six weeks.