The Ethics of Honey

The Ethics of Honey

As our society becomes increasingly more aware of ethical issues within the food industry, our attention can’t help but focus on the honey industry. Is harvesting honey bad for bees? Is there a way to ethically source honey?

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Interestingly enough, honeybees actually produce more honey than they are able to personally use to feed their colony. As a result, many ethical beekeepers harvest this surplus for commercial use. 

Of course, the key word in that sentence is “ethical” beekeepers. Unethical beekeepers want to sell beyond this surplus to maximize profits and better meet demand. In all fairness, the demand is certainly there- in 2018, the US consumed 555 million pounds of honey, which is almost 1.7 pounds per capita. This number is also steadily increasing as the years progress. 

The following list describes some unethical practices in the beekeeping industry:

  • Ethical beekeepers harvest their honey surplus in the Spring, since the bees have already eaten what they stored up to survive the winter. However, commercial beekeepers have no issue with harvesting the colony’s honey in Autumn, which robs the hive of their only food source. Of course, a dying colony doesn’t benefit anyone, so these unethical beekeepers will feed their bees artificial sweeteners that have little nutritional value. These sweeteners weaken the bee’s immune system, which directly contributes to the decline in population.
  • Unethical beekeepers will often put hives into oversized enclosures, which means the bees have to work even harder to fill the hive with honey. Bees are very devoted and hardworking to the honey production cause, and will sometimes work themselves to death to fill the massive space.
  • Unethical beekeepers have also been known to artificially inseminate the Queen, which has weakened the gene pool. This has led to an overall decline in bee health and life span.

So what does ethical harvesting look like? Luckily, has the answers:

“For thousands of years, honey has been extracted through a ‘smoking technique’. Essentially, a material is burned that masks the bees’ panic and response pheromones and makes them believe there is a forest fire nearby. In response, they gorge themselves on honey, intending to flee the nest with the queen and rebuild somewhere else. After eating, the bees are lethargic and nonaggressive, making extraction easier. While it may sound cruel, this actually does little damage to the bees. They typically regain their pheromone sensitivity after 10–20 minutes and quickly realize it was a false alarm, returning to their natural state. Provided natural materials like pinecones or wood chips are burned, there are no known long-term effects of this practice.”

When you combine the smoking technique, harvesting the surplus only in the spring, and providing reasonable dwellings for hives, there is definitely an ethical practice to extracting honey. 





(Photo by Bianca Ackermann on Unsplash)

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