honey

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Bees are manipulated worldwide to produce many products for human use: honey, beeswax, propolis, bee pollen, royal jelly and venom. They are intelligent insects with a complex communication system.

Because bees are seen flying free, they are also often considered free of the usual cruelties of the animal farming industry. However bees undergo treatments similar to those endured by other farmed animals. They go through routine examination and handling, artificial feeding regimes, drug and pesticide treatment, genetic manipulation, artificial insemination, transportation (by air, rail and road) and slaughter.

Queen for a Year or Two

Queen bees are artificially inseminated with sperm obtained from decapitated bees. Queens are systematically slaughtered every two years because over time their egg producing abilities decline so their whole hive becomes unproductive and uneconomic. In Israel they are killed and re-queened every year.

Bees Crushed

When beekeepers manipulate combs many bees are crushed and killed. Hives have smoke puffed into them to calm bees down and make them easier to handle. Special excluders or devices that violate the bees' space are attached to hives to collect bee products from bees as they enter hives. Bees are separated from their hives by being shaken vigorously or jetted out with powerful streams of air. They may have their legs and wings clipped off. Clipping the wings of queen bees prevents them from swarming (flying off!).

Swarming is the natural way for reproduction, increase and survival of the species, at least in the wild. However, beekeepers are constantly trying to prevent this natural phenomenon and will use artificial pheromones, wing clipping and cage queens to keep their colony under control.

Artificial Feed

Beekeepers feed artificial pollen substitutes and white sugar syrup to colonies, often to replace the honey that has been removed. If these practices are carried out over long periods of time they lower hive productivity and lifespan. Colonies fed on their natural food - honey and pollen - result in larger emerging bees and more vigorous bees.

Pesticides

Beekeepers have become dependent on the use of synthetic pesticides and antibiotics to combat pests, and this has led to problems of toxicological hazards to beekeepers and bees, and risks of honey contamination.

Bees Transported

Bees are bought and sold worldwide. Transportation means bees may suffer stress, suffocation, overheating or cold. Many die entombed in their packaged coffins. Exotic bees are transported to strange countries and causing problems in the natural environment by spreading disease. They are subsequently treated as feral and nests are destroyed by pouring petrol in hives or bees killed by spraying with liquid soap.

Moneymaking

In a bid to improve the economics of honey production in South America in the 1950s the government ordered research into the use of the African honeybee. These bees are the most prolific honey producers in the world. Unfortunately, they are also extremely aggressive. All the native bees of South America were stingless but only three species made honey and certainly not in large quantities. Unfortunately, the African honeybees escaped. Thousands of hives of Africanised bees are now destroyed each year in the USA because they have been breeding with and destroying the more docile European honeybees, and they have stung and killed over 600 people.

Pollination

In many countries bees' services are bought for pollination purposes resulting in the bees (and their hives) being transported hundreds or thousands of miles. The food industry is now looking to artificially managed honeybees to provide to pollinate crops because wild bees and other insects (who would naturally pollinate crops) have been and are being destroyed by housing development, industrial pollution, pesticide poisoning, intensive farming practices, destruction of hedgerows, etc. The use of honeybees for pollination is now big business especially in places like New Zealand and America. However, even in the UK commercial beekeepers move hives (to find sources of nectar for honey production, and for pollination). Pollination fees are a very important component of the commercial beekeepers income. Commercially reared bumblebee colonies are now also extensively used to pollinate some glasshouse crops, particularly tomatoes.

Vivisection

Bees are also victims of vivisection and a vast number of experiments are carried out worldwide on these creatures. Unfortunately their generally quiet nature makes the honeybee easily manipulated and it has been claimed that they make an ideal laboratory animal. Many experiments are conducted for research and development into colonies that will produce more honey and thus make more money. In Japan they have irradiated bees to make their sting ineffective in an effort to achieve a 'stingless' bee for easier handling and in Australia trials are being undertaken on a protein in bee venom to treat cancer.

Health Risk

Honey and other bee products are widely used in folk medicine. However, people with asthma or allergies have been strongly recommended not to take honey or royal jelly after several deaths and severe illnesses. Honey is also not suitable for children under twelve months of age because of the risk of botulism. Bees have been seen drinking from sewage plants and have been known to collect tar, adhesives and paint instead of propolis. Moreover, a nutritional comparison shows that demerara sugar is higher in minerals, such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, copper and chlorine. The somewhat dubious health benefits of bee products do not warrant the use and abuse of honeybees. There are many other non-animal alternative medicines available.

Basic Bee Info

The most popular bee for honey production is the European Apis mellifera. In common with all insects it has a brain and several smaller ganglia (sub-brains) running through its body. In proportion to its size, the brain of the bee is very large. The ganglia have nerve fibres connecting them with the sensory endings on the outer layer of the insect. Other fibres carry nervous impulses from the ganglia to the muscles and internal organs, regulating their action.

On average a colony comprises 42,000-60,000 bees and can survive up to 20 years. However, the lifespan of individual bees is very short. Within the hive there are three types of bee: the worker, the drone and the queen. The worker carries out most types of jobs necessary to keep the colony ticking over including cleaning, feeding larvae, manipulating the wax, processing the honey and foraging or defending the colony. Foraging honeybees communicate food sources to fellow foragers by means of the famous "waggle dance" which involves an intricate series of circles and movements. After the first 20 days or so of its life it acts as a forager, or flying bee, collecting nectar and pollen. The life of the worker lasts about 30 to 35 days. As far as is known the drone's only function is to mate with the queen bee, after which it dies. Under wild conditions the queen lives for five years or so. She has two main functions in life: to mate and lay eggs. She is a very important part of the colony because she passes on her characteristics and controls its size by the number of eggs she produces.

Bee Statistics

The honeybee will fly about 800km in her working life and produce just half a teaspoon of honey. A queen may produce half a million eggs in her natural lifespan. However, she will only be allowed to live 2 years in the commercial world producing 150,000 eggs annually during this time. In calm conditions the foraging bee will travel at 24 km per hour and up to 40 km for short periods of time and work for 7 - 10 hours a day.

Some 300,000 tonnes of honey are traded internationally every year, and about four times this much is actually produced. The five major honey producers in the world are the former USSR, China, USA, Mexico, and Turkey.

Of the honey consumed in the UK each year, most of it (just over 2 million tonnes) is imported from New Zealand. There are around 40,000 beekeepers in the UK but probably only 320 are semi-commercial or commercial enterprises.

Bee Products

Honey

Pre-digested food made by bees from nectar. The bees collect the nectar from flowers and store it in their primary or honey stomach. Here it is partially digested and converted into the substance we call honey. It is a food source of the bee and is stored in the hive for the lean winter months. The metabolism of honey by the bee creates heat, which maintains the temperature of the hive at 17-34 degrees C. The colony requires approximately 200 lbs of honey a year to survive. It is used by humans as a food, as a medicine and in cosmetics and toiletries.

Beeswax

Secreted from eight small wax glands underneath the abdomen of the bee. The soft wax pours into eight pockets beneath the glands where it solidifies. It is then removed and passed to the mouth where it is worked into hexagonal cells called combs, which are used to form the basic structure of the hive. It is used in cosmetics, toiletries, pharmaceuticals, polishes and candles.

Propolis

A resinous substance gathered by bees from trees. It is used to fill holes, and varnish and strengthen the hive. Bees also use it as a natural antibiotic, antiviral and antifungal agent. It is gathered by humans by either scraping it off the hive or collecting it on specially made frames. It is used as a medicine and food supplement. It is sometimes called 'bee glue'.

Bee Pollen

Collected from flowers and brought back to the hive as a load on the hind legs. It is a food source for the bee and is stored in the hive. A colony requires approximately 60lbs of pollen per year to survive. The collection of pollen involves fitting special traps to the hive. These scrape it off and are just big enough to allow the bee through. Bee pollen is used as a food supplement.

Royal Jelly

This creamy-white sticky fluid is a blend of two secretions from the glands of the worker bees. It is the sole source of nourishment for the queen bee throughout her life. Since royal jelly enables the bee to become a queen, some people believe they can recapture their lost youth by eating it. China, where cost-saving techniques have been devised for gathering it, is a major exporter of royal jelly. Details of methods of collection are a closely guarded secret. It is sometimes called 'bee milk'.

Venom

The sting of the bee. Its collection involves the stretching of an electrically-charged membrane in front of the hive. When the bees fly into it they receive an electric shock and sting the membrane, thus depositing the venom. Venom is prized by some for its supposed medicinal qualities.