I am a hobby-beekeeper. And I can tell you this much: what I know makes claims that modern beekeeping practices kill bees sound like bad slander.

Bees don’t die because of bad beekeeping practices. It used to be that way – when beekeepers just broke the beehive apart to steal the honey – but these days, bees have artificial houses which allow beekeepers to remove parts of the hive (e.g. just part of the honey room) to harvest honey without killing the bees. In fact, a lot less bees die thanks to modern beekeeping practices than compared to beekeeping a few decades ago. Bee colony health is of utmost importance to the beekeeper, as that’s where their livelihood depends on.

Honeybees have been bred to be more productive than wild bees. So yes, they do need to be cared for differently than wild bees in order to keep their population in check with the seasons. And yes, they have weaker immunity against mites, so they are treated annually – albeit not with antibiotics, but with oxalic acid. This is the only synthetic treatment the bees receive, and the only time at which a beekeeper needs to use protective gear to prevent the bees from stinging. The rest of the work is done with garden gloves. Even commercial beekeepers here work with just thin, non-stingproof gloves, and no other protection on.

A healthy honeybee colony has two or three ‘floors’. The ‘honey room’ is empty in winter: if it is full, the queen starts to lay lots of eggs, and the bee population explodes. In spring, the beekeeper fills the ‘honey room’ with honey to get the queen to start laying eggs early, so that the workers will be hatched when the flowers start blooming. Conversely, in winter, the bees get more beefood instead, so that the queen doesn’t lay as many eggs.

From spring to fall, the beekeeper inspects the bees regularly – about a weekly basis to monitor colony health. The bees don’t sting during inspection, even when each frame is taken out individually. When the honey room is full, or when there isn’t enough space for the bees, the queen will fly away and look for a new nest. She does not have clipped wings. So before the room fills up, the honey frames are removed and the honey extracted, and the empty frames hung back for the bees to continue their work. Or, new frames are added to the hive, so that the bees have enough space to live.

Don’t believe me? Go visit a beehive yourself. 🙂 No genetic manipulation, but the bees are manipulated (by manipulating the hive) to raise honey production in spring, and taper down honey production in winter. They can also be manipulated to create two beehives out of one (making one of the new hives raise a new queen), or to move the bees to an area with more flowers.

As to what does make bees die? Pesticides, mites, rats, and so on. But certainly not beekeepers!

6 Replies to “Slander and bad research: how are honeybees really treated?”

  1. +Gaythia Weis Sure – bees are trucked around here too. It takes a bit of effort to make sure the bees are comfortable in their new location and don't abandon their hive, but bees get trucked around for up to about 30 km here by the local beekeepers to do commercial pollination.

    While bad beekeeping is possible, (at least in the western world) I think it would be relatively safe to rule out bad beekeeping is because of economics. A healthy bee population costs about a hundred euros, not to mention all the accessories, food, treatment, frames – if you simply kill it off every year, you're going to be out of money pretty fast. The biggest challenge is, as you also indicate, industrial sprays deployed over agricultural fields.

  2. California almond growing is insane in many dimensions. Some groves have already been uprooted because of the drought there and the extreme over utilization of Central Valley groundwater. But some of the bees are coming in from as far away as 1000 miles. And then expected to do their pollinating thing in a very short time frame burst of almond blossoming. The mixing of different commercial hives also increases the likelihood of spreading disease.

  3. +Gaythia Weis Bees are very efficient at pollinating. Truck a beehive to a field in blossom, and each hive will gain 5-10 kg each day, and the honey room will need to be emptied every week or two. Sure, not all of the weight gain is honey, but that's still damn efficient – it's not as if they are stressed from the long haul and suddenly non-productive. Now, I'm not sure if this is also the case for bees coming in from 1000 miles, as I don't know any beekeepers who do that, but considering how quickly the bees adapt to their local moves here, I suspect it is not as stressful for the bees as it is for humans to move 1000 miles to new territory.

    Not sure about in the USA, but here, bees can only be used as commercial pollinators if they have a health inspection certificate. Furthermore, new queens are typically made at the start of spring (when the beekeeper checks on the colonies, cleans them up, and splits the bee colonies if they are too big before the main bloom is out), so there isn't much intermixing between bee colonies once they are deployed. So the risk of disease spread as a result of putting commercial hives next to each other is rather low.

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