Albert Einstein once said, “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.” And though he wasn’t an entomologist, many scientists agree.
Bees are crucial pollinators for many of the crops that we rely on and enjoy. While we mainly think of bees in relation to honey and beeswax products, the truth is that, without bees, our stores would offer no almonds, avocados, pears, pears, peaches, plums, apples, berries, and the list goes on.
In fact, in 2016, beekeepers’ revenue from pollination surpassed their revenue from honey production. And, today, bees contribute about $20 billion to the value of U.S. crop production.
That’s largely due to almonds. Almonds are one of the most bee-dependent crops. Thanks to almonds’ health benefits and almond milk’s popularity as an alternative to dairy, almonds now account for roughly 70 percent of all bee pollination commercial use.
But there is a dark side to this story …
Commercial agriculture is rough on bees.
Unfortunately, many commercial farming methods pose real challenges for bees.
First, beekeepers must cart their hives from farm to farm, often traveling over a thousand miles during pollination season. Secondly, on farms, bees are exposed to chemicals and pesticides used in conventional agriculture, and studies indicate that bees may be weakened by collecting nectar from only one kind of crop for weeks at a time. And, finally, because hives travel to agricultural areas from all over, bees can easily pick up parasites from other hives. They can even spread parasites and diseases to wild bee populations, extending the harm further into the ecosystem.
Many beekeepers are beginning to see a serious toll from the kind of work their bees must do now, particularly for bees that pollinate almonds. Almonds require the bees to leave their dormancy period a month or two earlier than they usually would, and the industry requires astronomical numbers of bees to pollinate the crop.
It may not be a coincidence that the rise of colony collapse disorder has largely mirrored the rise of the almond industry. The results are looking grim for bees. In the winter of 2018-19, commercial beekeepers in the U.S. lost 50 billion bees. That’s more than a third of all commercial bee colonies at that time, in just one season.
More commercial honeybees die in the U.S. every year than every animal raised for slaughter (including fish) combined. LET THAT SINK IN FOR A SECOND.
Does this mean we should give up bee products?
Many vegans include bee products in the list of items they will not buy or consume because honey and beeswax are technically animal products.
However, much of the damage done to bees is not actually a result of the honey or beeswax industries but of the pollination industry, meaning it would be much more beneficial to bees if you gave up almonds than if you stopped buying honey or beeswax.
Some large commercial honey producers do participate in forms of cruelty towards bees, including clipping the wings of queens to prevent them from leaving the hive, killing off bees in slower seasons, harvesting honey in disruptive ways, and feeding bees with sugar-water in winter, which does not offer them enough nutrition.
However, there are also many small-time, local beekeepers that maintain the health and productivity of their hives by using supportive and bee-friendly practices. Since they produce on a much smaller scale, each bee is crucial to production. These beekeepers cannot afford to lose or injure large numbers of their bees through neglect or cruelty.
How can we support bees?
One of the best ways to support bees is to ensure that you buy bee products from responsible producers.
- Look for locally-produced honey or beeswax from smaller operations. Many of the cruel practices that make large-scale production efficient only hurt small-scale beekeepers.
- Avoid single-source honey when you can (i.e. honey that says it comes from the nectar of a single crop, like avocados).
- Avoid or research imported honey to make sure it does not come from operations conducted with little to no oversight.
- Know your beekeeper. A great place to buy honey and beeswax is your local farmer’s market. There, you’ll get to meet the beekeepers and ask them directly about their practices.
Honey and beeswax can both be produced and collected in ways that support healthy beehives and happy bees. Our best role as consumers is to do the research that will let us put our money where our values lie.
It might seem more straightforward to simply cut something out, but the world never operates in such black and white terms. Often, that approach does more damage than we intend.
At Lunar Method, we prioritize sustainability and animal-welfare in all of our practices. We’re always learning more about the best environmental actions we can take, and we encourage you to do the same!
We worked with the amazing women-led organization, Abejas de Barrio, in Mexico City to education ourselves on the importance of bees.