You love honey. Everyone does. But do you know the way honey is processed? You may not know it but that favourite bottle of honey on your kitchen shelf may have not been processed ethically.
Wait a minute, is there even something like processing honey ethically? It's natural food. The bees make it, so there can’t be any foul play, right?
Wrong. There's a dark and distressing chapter in the honey processing story that will not exactly warm your heart. As with other popular foodstuffs, with honey too, some producers even go that extra mile, using extreme cruelty to get that bottle of honey on your table.
There are, unfortunately, not a few commercial beekeepers and honey producers whose sole aims are profit. And the concern is not honey alone; it encompasses a whole range of bee products because this bee business is worth billions of dollars.
So here goes.
Unethical Processing of Honey and Bee products: Cruel Exploits of Commercial Beekeepers:
- Beehive Management – Regular relocating bees to unfamiliar, unhygienic and less nutritional, surroundings. Transporting hives far and wide to pollinate thousands of hectares of mostly single-crop farms is stressful and unhealthy for bees. Research has found that pollen diet quality influences bee physiology and survival.
- Honey – It’s the bees’ own food. Beekeepers will extract maximum honey, leaving little for the bees to survive winters and lean seasons. Replacement with less-nutritious sugar syrup tells upon bee health, even causing wide-scale death of entire colonies.
- Pollen – Bees also collect pollen to feed their young. Scraping off this pollen deprives the baby bees of their food, starving them to death.
- Bee Venom – Bees sting to defend. Once they sting they die. Bee venom contains high-demand, medically useful chemicals. Beekeepers intentionally kill thousands of bees only to extract their venom.
- Bee Propolis –The gluey, antiseptic propolis has antiseptic properties. Bees plug small holes with it to keep diseases and infections off their colony. Beekeepers scrape away the propolis, effectively depriving bees of their healthcare.
- Beeswax – Bees produce wax to build hives and seal cracks to protect their colonies. Taking away beeswax also steals away bees' natural protection.
- Royal Jelly – Young 'nurse' worker bees secrete amino acid-rich royal jelly which is food for the queen and larvae of less than three days old. Robbing royal jelly cruelly deprives the queen and the young ones of their food.
- Bee Brood – There's a market for young bee brood, i.e., the eggs, larvae and pupae. They are eaten fresh, boiled, fried, or powdered. Killing the entire brood when it’s no longer viable for the beekeeper is a brutal way of ending these hapless creatures' lives.
- Clipping Queen Wings – swarming is the natural division of a bee colony. The old queen leaves so a young queen can make a new colony. Beekeepers often clip the queen’s wings so she can’t fly away.
- Artificial Insemination – Drones (male bees) are brutally squeezed to death to extract their semen. Beekeepers inject this semen into a queen so she lays eggs without mating.
- Bee Colony Culling – Once the bees have finished pollinating they are considered useless. Their keepers often starve the bees or burn their hives, killing tens of hundreds of thousands of bees. They reasoned buying new colonies is more economical than feeding the old ones.
Ethical Way to Consume Honey
Some animal rights groups say honey is made by the bees for the bees. They aren't wrong. Taking away honey is stealing from the bees. It's unethical, and it deprives bees of their nourishment.
But the excellent food and medicinal value of honey are too great to ignore. If honey can help humans thwart diseases and live a healthier life the reason’s sound enough to make use of this precious natural gift.
So the ethical way is to keep in mind the needs of the bees and see to it that their wellbeing comes first. It then wouldn't be wrong to collect their surplus honey for human consumption.
Ethical Honey Processing: Is That Possible?
Considering the massive demand for honey the world over and the honey-production industry being a multi-billion dollar one, there are now bee farms all over the United States and elsewhere, that specialise in so-called scientific beekeeping. Allied industries specialising in bee nourishment and other bee-related concerns have also sprouted alongside. Gain is often the prime motive.
Now, let's consider how industrious the bees are:
- To produce one teaspoon of honey, twelve worker bees must toil from dawn to dusk for their entire lifespan
- To produce one kilogram of honey, worker bees must visit four million flowers
- Bees suck and swallow the nectar, add enzymes to it and then regurgitate and store it in their honeycombs, capping the cells with wax
- They repeat the process over and over again because honey is their survival
Removing all honey from the hive will mean less food for the bees. It leads to the decline or death of bee populations.
That's why movements such as 'natural' and 'balanced bee-keeping' that promote a bee-centred approach to hive management are becoming growing trends among conscious beekeepers. This is a positive sign of ethical honey processing.
Beekeepers of Meghalaya, Traditional Ethical Honey Producers
Even as 'natural' and 'balanced bee-keeping' movements are going on in a big way in the west, indigenous beekeepers of Meghalaya have always been following this approach traditionally.
For these traditional minders, the bees are like their own children. Bees shouldn’t face stress and they should live in settings as natural as can get. Beekeepers talk to their bees as they introduce them to new hives and before taking out their honey. They plant flowering trees for them. Most importantly, they never take out all their honey. They ensure that the bees are comfortable, well-fed and happy to survive the seasons.
Bah Peacemaker, Traditional Beekeeper
Bah Peacemaker is a seasoned, traditional beekeeper from Thad Village, in Meghalaya’s Ri Bhoi district. He scouts for bee swarms in the jungles and when he finds one he observes and follows it till he gets to where they congregate around their queen, usually in hollows of trees, in crevices between rocks. Bah Peacemaker then prepares a new ‘ksing’ - a traditional hive – to house the bees. ‘Ksing’ is usually cylindrical-shaped, hollowed out from tree trunks, two to three feet in length and ten to twelve inches in diameter. He checks for cracks or holes and seals them with fresh cow dung. These ‘ksing’ closely imitate the natural homes of bees, he says.
Once the new hive is ready he carefully collects the queen and puts her in the new 'ksing', tying her with a string so she can’t escape. The swarm naturally follows their queen to the new home. The worker bees now start building their combs or 'lang', beginning from the deep end and progressing towards the entrance. This 'lang' is the natural equivalent of a frame in a conventional man-made bee box and takes the cylindrical shape of the 'ksing'. Depending on size, each 'ksing' can accommodate about ten to fifteen 'lang'.
When a new queen hatches, Bah Peacemaker knows it's time to splice the colony. He'd tie the old queen to a new hive a little away from the old one. Half the swarm follows the queen to the new colony.
Bah Peacemaker ensures he keeps sufficient stock of honey for the bees to survive lean and difficult seasons. Honey is the bees' own food, he says, and a beekeeper mustn't be greedy. Instead, beekeepers can help increase bees' food sources by planting trees. In Thad, they plant trees like 'dieng tohtih', a kind of bottle brush, that provides plentiful nectar.
He knows how important bees are for farmers and the environment. Bees are not carriers of diseases, he says. Instead, their honey provides many health benefits.
Bah Peacemaker now also has conventional bee boxes which, he claims, are more efficient. The design provide more space and the bees make proportionately much more honey than on the 'lang'. There’s better protection too from predators and the elements which definitely takes the stress off the bees, contributing to surplus honey production.
Does Bah Peacemaker (and his fellow traditional beekeepers) ever cull the bees, kill drones or clip wings of the queen?
That was a dumb question, says Bah Peacemaker. Whatever on earth should they kill the wonderful bees for?
So when you source your honey from traditional beekeepers like those from Meghalaya you are assured of two main features, among others:
- It comes from bees that thrive in natural and multi-floral surroundings
- The honey is raw and a surplus from the hives, not stolen from the bees
Ethically processed honey, anyone?