Beginner’s FAQ: Honey and Ethics

A question of the morality of beekeeping is something that comes to the forefront of many prospective beekeeper’s minds. If you keep honeybees to harvest honey from them, how can that be ethical? In this post we explore the ethics of keeping honeybees for the purpose of producing honey.

There are a wide range of reasons that beekeepers like to keep honeybees. Most popular is that the beekeeper wants to start a new, challenging hobby. Some want to help the environment, some are aiming to be bee farmers themselves. Unsurprisingly, another popular motivation is to be able to harvest your own honey and give the fruits of your hive’s labour to friends and family. But how can this remain an ethical process?

Honey Bees Produce a Surplus

Honey bees are dedicated to producing a surplus of honey stores. They don’t have a ‘thought process’ of wanting or not wanting to produce honey, this is their instinct to survive. Simply put, they want to have as much food as possible in the winter. Many other species of bees such as the bumblebee usually only go into winter with just their queen, and she will be ready to start laying in spring to make a brand new colony. This is reflected in the fact that they do not produce much honey at all. In fact, bumble bees only store enough food for their immediate needs.

This is not the same for honeybees, the queen and a significant amount of workers will cluster over winter and therefore they need to have enough food to sustain them throughout the winter and for them to produce heat in their hive when the temperature falls.

This raises another ethical question then, are we making our bees expend more energy than they have to?

Feeding a tired bumblebee

They’re No Longer Living in the Wild

We must keep in mind that our honeybees are now kept in favourable conditions by their beekeepers. We’ve provided an artificial home that is more sheltered and insulated than their natural habitat, we place them in sites with very abundant sources of nectar and pollen (and if not, we feed them in their own home – a very beneficial arrangement).

We also do our best to protect them from diseases and pests which would otherwise ravage the colony.

Hives placed right onto the ling heather

It’s All About Management

The beekeeper has the job of managing the colony to enhance the honey bee’s (already fantasic) ability to gather nectar and produce honey. If there is a nectar flow on, then the bees can draw and fill a super within a week (and a drawn super within a couple of days).

The capable beekeeper will be able to spot when there is a flow on and will provide plenty of prepared drawn supers so that the bees do not have to produce wax (it is said that it takes 6-7lbs of honey to produce 1lb of wax – therefore it is costly process for the bees). The hobbyist may not have a huge amount of equipment so will have to extract their supers during the flow.

What happens if you don’t give them a super in time!

‘Removing All of Their Honey’

I’ve heard this statement thrown around by people who believe that this is actually what beekeepers do. Of course, this is a choice that a beekeeper can make, but it is certainly not the action taken by most beekeepers. Aside from the fact that honey will most likely still remain in the brood chamber, the beekeeper will be risking the colony’s survival over the winter.

In Conclusion

There is a tendency to anthropomorphise honey bees. But they do not have the same complicated thought process that humans do. They do not ‘want’ or ‘desire’ they have the instinct to survive and to do that they need to produce honey. Breeding programmes have also brought a rise of much more productive strains of honey bees, this means that an individual colony is bringing in much more honey than previously observed.

Beekeepers facilitate and take advantage of the survival instinct by providing their bees conditions that allow for an incredible surplus of honey to be produced, an efficient and beneficial arrangement for both parties involved.

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