The buzz about our happy hoarders
Have you ever wondered if there are effects from harvesting bee by-products? If you are curious, read on to find out!
Who doesn't remember sitting under a tree in the summer listening to the sweet sound of bees humming up in the trees, going about their business.
Bees are critical pollinators, directly and indirectly responsible for a third of the food we eat, fresh fruit and vegetables, and crops for stock. For more than a millennium humans and bees have worked together as a team ensuring both species thrive.
A better understanding of bee behaviour and their diseases has had mutual benefits, allowing commercial and hobbyist apiarists to build hives that allow easier access (unlike the old rope skeps which prevented checking for disease and also required destruction of the whole colony to access the honey) and to manipulate bee colonies so they are kept at the healthiest state possible. Modern queen rearing and replacement techniques guarantee bee foraging numbers are at their optimum to capitalise on seasonal nectar flows.
Bees produce wax comb to raise brood and to store honey. Beekeepers replace old brood comb with its accumulated discarded pupal material to limit the chance of disease and to ensure brood raising cells keep producing full-sized mature bees. Most honeycomb wax, except for that in horizontal top bar hives which cannot be extracted centrifugally but is crushed and filtered, is reused, because bees must consume 8kg of honey to produce 1kg of wax. Wax cappings which have been removed for honey extraction are melted down and used for beeswax products. Those cappings produce the lightest-coloured, highest-quality wax.
Honey bees are instinctive hoarders. They live to raise brood, gather nectar to convert it into honey and to build wax in which to store it. That successful instinct allows bee colonies to expand and to swarm (which is how honeybees naturally propagate) and to ride out those times when there is little feed.
Beekeepers try to prevent swarming because swarms comprise older, field bees plus the old queen and a fair amount of honey stores. When larger swarms “abscond”, sometimes a hive can never build up sufficient foraging numbers to provide a surplus for the beekeeper. For that reason apiarists trick bees by inhibiting the swarming impulse, usually by replacing the old queen in time. Or they swarm a hive artificially either splitting it to build up the number of colonies in an apiary or to reunite the swarm and hive, but under a young mated queen.
The bee’s hoarding habit has thus far ensured the survival of the western honey bee - apis mellifera - with or without human intervention . . . until now.
The arrival in 2000 of the deadly varroa destructor mite which parasitises and weakens its host and carries crippling bee diseases, has inverted the relationship between human and bee.
Now it is the bee that depends on human exploitation for survival. Varroa, having jumped species from the asian honey bee that had developed a resistance to the mite, wiped out all wild colonies of the western honey bee. Now, it’s only the beekeepers’ intervention using chemicals and management techniques that reduces the predation by mites and ensures the survival of the species.
It is fair to say that never before has human exploitation of bees for their honey, or wax, propolis pollen and royal jelly production been so mutually beneficial.
While the vegan approach is to search for an alternative to any product that comes from the exploitation of animals, it is fair to say that should we all embrace that philosophy then all domesticated farm species -- the honeybee in particular -- would survive only as a memory
Selectively using byproducts of the hive is how we can ensure that doesn't happen and supporting our bees means supporting robust pollination for our local food system AND amazing sustainable products for us humans to use with gratitude for our buzzy busy friends!
- Words by Margot Pierard -