My friend Harry keeps bees in a bustling midwest metropolis where he harvests bumper crops of thick and luscious clover honey. The honey is so popular with local consumers, he can command any price.
His particular area of the country isn’t known for bumper crops of anything, except the occasional bloom of rats or mosquitoes. Yet year after year Harry’s bees pack away impressive quantities of blue ribbon clover honey. How is this possible?
If you are an early-riser and willing to stalk someone in the wee hours of a spring day, you might find Harry preparing for planting. Under the cover of darkness, he loads his bicycle with industrial-sized bags of white clover seed, punches a few holes in the bottom, and pedals through the metropolitan parks and cemeteries, sprinkling seed as he goes.
Within weeks, well-groomed sidewalks and headstones are awash in clover. As soon as it blooms, his honey bees tend the blossoms, working tirelessly to collect, dry, and cap the precious nectar. Harry is truly the Johnny Appleseed of clover honey.
What is Ethical Beekeeping?
Most discussions of ethical beekeeping center on the treatment of bees. Do bees feel pain? Are they sentient beings? How should beekeepers treat their charges?
While the treatment of bees is an important consideration, and one that deserves scrutiny, ethical beekeeping does not stop at the apiary gate. The actions of beekeepers affect family, friends, other beekeepers, the public, and even the environment itself. When the topic of ethical beekeeping comes up, I inevitably think of Harry.
Given its importance, how can we recognize ethical beekeeping? By one definition, ethics is a set of moral principles that governs one’s behavior. Synonyms for ethics include nebulous phrases like moral code, rights and wrongs, ideals, virtues, and dictates of conscience. To certain professionals, ethics is a written set of rules, often enforced with sanctions. In other words, the definition changes with the person, the place, and the time. While ethical behavior is hard to define, unethical behavior is often obvious. Like pornography, you know it when you see it.
Messing with Plants
If you think spreading clover is a questionable activity, consider the practice of seeding invasive weeds. Beekeepers have been known to plant noxious weeds in direct violation of laws and ordinances designed to control the spread of such plants. I’ve known beekeepers to sow Japanese knotweed, yellow star thistle, and spotted knapweed along roadsides, railroad rights-of-way, and even church parking lots. I’m told if you wait until after the county sprays roadside weeds with herbicide, you can get a good crop of nearly anything.
The practice of sowing weeds isn’t at all surprising. After all, beekeepers have planted for their bees since the beginning. We plant crops, ornamentals, or little annuals we find at the garden store. We plant acres, if we can, or a few pots. So it’s not surprising that beekeepers, recognizing the honey potential of certain weeds, began to help them along. At first, maybe you just let them grow instead of cutting them back. Then, perhaps, you give them room to expand. Before you know it, you’re harvesting seed and sprinkling it everywhere.
In the meantime, huge taxpayer dollars are spent on road maintenance and weed control. More and more herbicide is sprayed by the county because those darn weeds keep coming back. In truth, the beekeeper is making money by costing the taxpayer even more.
Unfortunately, the damage to the environment is greater than any profit the beekeeper may realize. Invasive weeds displace the plants that pollinators, birds, and other wildlife depend on. They destroy the natural landscape and replace it with one of less biodiversity. Dozens of native plant species that supported hundreds of invertebrate species are suddenly replaced with one or two species that support fewer insects that, in turn, support fewer song birds that, in turn, support fewer raptors.
The Freedom to Roam
Beekeepers are unique because their livestock is free to roam—completely unsupervised—across private property, public lands, and consecrated grounds. And while they roam, they collect nectar, pollen, and plant resins from wherever they find it, pounds and pounds of the stuff.
Normally, we don’t think much about the things our bees take because they provide a service—pollination—to the plants from which they harvest, and because we humans aren’t prone to collecting these items ourselves. On the other hand, should beekeepers be allowed to profit from the items harvested from another person’s land?
Who Owns What?
Think for a moment about other forms of livestock. If your neighbors’ pigs, goats, cattle, or chickens were to roam onto your land and take whatever they wanted, leaving nothing but feces, how would you react? Imagine what the neighbors would think if your alpaca ate their apples or your cat fished in their koi pond. Or what if your dog peed on their rhubarb? Most of us would glow with embarrassment and try to make things right. But bees? Bees can get away with anything and we nary give it a thought.
The question of who owns what is not restricted to the suburbs. For example, in many jurisdictions, livestock is prohibited from grazing on public lands without a permit. In others, livestock is totally banned. But beekeepers frequently stack hives along property boundaries and fence lines so they face vast tracks of public land. Though their placement is technically legal, the bees are harvesting from the public and the beekeeper is clearing a profit.
Some say that where a bee goes and what she steals is an act of God, over which we have no control. But the acquisition of a colony is a deliberate decision, just as acquiring pigs, goats, or chickens. Once we decide to keep bees, we need to be mindful of what they are doing, even if we can’t control their minute-to-minute actions.
Public Lands for the Public Good
Many beekeepers believe they have a right to keep their bees on public lands or conservation tracts. However, many biologists believe that such lands should be set aside to allow native pollinators a place where they need not compete with managed livestock. After all, the idea of providing undisturbed habitat for native species was one of the primary reasons such lands were set aside.
I’m reminded of a man who was caught stealing duck eggs from a wildlife preserve and selling them at his local farmer’s market. In many ways, selling honey harvested from public lands is no different. While selling honey from a preserve feels “okay,” selling duck eggs from the same place seems preposterous—over the top wrong. But they basically come down to the same thing: one individual making profit by harvesting from taxpayer-supported property.
We need to stop and think. If representatives of public lands, and that includes voters, have decided that honey bees are not wanted on a particular parcel, is it ethical to line the margins of that parcel with bee hives? Similarly, if jurisdictions or private entities are paying for the upkeep of parks and cemeteries, is it ethical to seed them as you see fit?
Neighbors and Bees
Lori is a single mother with a preadolescent daughter allergic to just about everything. She left her job in the city to move her daughter into the countryside away from industrial pollutants and vehicle exhaust. Lori is not naïve, so she knew country living came with its own set of risks for those with serious allergies. Still, she thought the risks were more manageable. Soon after moving, she installed a swing set and small jungle gym in the backyard, not far from the porch, where she could monitor her daughter from her home office window.
All was fine until her neighbor took up beekeeping. Based on skin tests, Lori knew bee stings could be deadly to her daughter. The neighborhood where they lived was zoned rural residential with one house allowed in five acres, so both she and her neighbor owned at least that much. But the neighbor, let’s call him Tim, placed his hives right on the fence line facing the swings.
Lori talked with Tim, explained the situation, and asked if he would be willing to move the hives south perhaps fifty feet, just far enough so the bees could take flight without going through the swings and over the porch. His answer? “No way.” The area he chose received the most sunlight so he refused to change it. “Furthermore,” he said, “this is my property and I have the right to put bees wherever I please.”
Gray Area Disputes
Like so many problems in beekeeping, Lori and Tim fall into a gray area. Both followed the letter of the law in their jurisdiction and obeyed the rules established by their homeowners association. So while Tim’s answer may be perfectly legal, is it ethical? Is it the best way to treat a neighbor?
Their story is similar to one from India, where a woman was taking in laundry to make some extra money for her family. She hung the sheets out to dry on clotheslines, a practice that worked well until her neighbor got bees. After that, her business was ruined because the laundry was covered in bee feces before it could dry. It turns out that everyone was acting within the law, but the women was ultimately left without a job.
Feces is a problem in residential areas, too. Many beekeepers, myself included, never even thought about it until that memorable moment when a partner says, “Honey, what’s that sticky stuff all over my car?”
I’ve heard complaints about bee feces on everything from bicycles to lawn furniture, swimming pools, sandboxes, picnic tables, and tennis courts. When one homeowner complained that his new vinyl siding was stained, the beekeeper denied his bees could have anything to do with it, after all the bees weren’t crawling on the house.
Unfortunately, the beekeeper failed to consider that if a bee is flying 20 miles per hour when she drops her payload, that load is also traveling at 20 miles per hour, at least initially. As a result, the feces drops in an arc. In this case, his bees were leaving their hives and immediately flying up and over the neighbor’s house, leaving their marks as they went.
Gray-area disputes can arise between beekeepers, too. For 20 years, Frank kept 200 hives in the clover-rich lands of the Midwest. With so much forage, his bees flourished even in not-so-great seasons. But last summer, the parcel adjacent to his was purchased by another farmer who immediately placed 500 hives in view of Frank’s apiary. Within weeks, Frank began having trouble with lack of forage, robbing, and an influx of varroa mites. Within months he began seeing foulbrood and, later, nosema.
In this particular jurisdiction, as in most of America, the new farmer was within his rights to place hives on his land. In general, property rights do not accrue over time, but are immediately transferred with the property. As long as both beekeepers are acting within the laws of the jurisdiction, each has an equal right to keep bees. Getting there first just doesn’t matter.
Rude and Abusive Neighbors
Sarah began having neighbor problems before her first bees arrived. Her next-door neighbor had the habit of lighting fireworks around Independence Day, and Sarah was worried that it would cause her bees to abscond. She wrote to me complaining about this rude and abusive neighbor who stretched the holiday into a four-day crackerfest.
She went on to explain that she was going to complain to the police, the town council, and the county sheriff until she got this maniac stopped. My advice to her? Slow down and think.
Who will be the rude and abusive neighbor once her bees begin defecating on his patio furniture? Who will be the rude and abusive neighbor when her honey bees drink from his pool, swarm over his mailbox, or sting his kids? And who will be the rude and abusive neighbor when her bees misappropriate his hummingbird feeder and terrify his dog? If you expect your neighbors to accept your bees and their rogue behavior, the least you can do is cut them some slack.
The thing is, you never know what bees will do. One of my neighbors kept fruit trees for many years before I got bees. Lots of the apple trees were old, produced little, but provided enough fruit for the family to enjoy. However, once my honey bees found them, those trees produced bumper crops of apples. So many apples, in fact, that the old trees fell over, tugging the root balls right out of the ground. One by one over the next few years, they toppled from the tremendous load they were not accustomed to bearing. Though it was totally natural, it was also embarrassing.
The Ethics of Varroa Mites
Nothing has tapped on the ethics door more relentlessly than varroa mites. The mites proved vexing not only to bees, but to legions of frustrated beekeepers. New management questions continue to multiply faster than the mites themselves. How much medication, if any, will you settle upon yours bees? What will you do with colonies dying of massive infestations? Do you have a right to cross contaminate wild species with varroa-mediated viruses? What will you do with honey contaminated by mite treatments?
Steven, an agitated middle-age beekeeper, took me aside at a pollinator conference. “What mite treatment do you use?” he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he said, “You don’t think they harm the honey, do you? I mean all those warnings, they’re just government stuff, right?”
Steven explained that he used one of the commercial products that stipulated that honey supers must be removed before use. He did that for a while but then got all mixed up about which supers had been tagged for extraction and which were for bees only. He finally gave up and just mixed the honey altogether based on the old maxim, “Dilution is the solution to pollution.” Problem solved.
His kids ate it, he said, and no one got sick. The next year he sold it at the fair, and no one complained. Still, I could tell it bothered him.
Even things that seem simple and straight forward are sometimes not. I’m generally a law-abiding citizen and would not dream of selling honey contaminated with mite meds. On the other hand, I will feed my family a can of tuna that’s five years beyond the pull date because I think pull dates are bogus. I could say the same thing as Steven, “They ate it and no one got sick.” All of which demonstrates that our beliefs and perceptions color what we think is ethical and what we think is nonsense.
The question of pharmaceutical contamination in honey did not arise with varroa mites. Until it became illegal in 2017, beekeepers routinely used antibiotics in their hives to treat for both American and European foulbrood. Today, certain antibiotics can still be used for that purpose, but certification from a veterinarian is required before the antibiotics can be purchased. The problem was one of overuse: beekeepers were using drugs such as oxytetracycline and tylosin prophylactically to prevent outbreaks of disease.
As we have seen in other livestock, overuse of these drugs can cause resistant strains of bacteria to develop which can result in so-called “superbugs,” organisms resistant to specific antibiotics. Sometimes these superbugs like Staph become resistant to multiple drugs and can no longer be controlled by antibiotics, causing tremendous problems. When honey gets contaminated, humans end up eating low dosages of the drugs, which is one of the quickest ways to develop resistant bacteria. With low dosages, some bacteria may be killed, leaving only the resistant ones to thrive and reproduce
Some epidemiologists believe that long-term exposure to low-level dosages of antibiotics in everything from beef stew to hand soap sped the development of many of our current superbugs. In an attempt to lessen human exposure, these products are now being restricted in animal husbandry.
Oversight and Abuse
Of course, stricter oversight does not mean that antibiotics are no longer being used by beekeepers. Some beekeepers, by their own admission, stockpiled antibiotics before they became unavailable. Others are using smuggled merchandise or off-label products they managed to find on the Internet or from friends. Selmi, a retired accountant in Florida, said of antibiotics, “I can’t be lifting supers all the time, so I put it in the hives and leave it there. Nobody’s going to test the honey. And if they did, who’s to say where those things came from? Robbing bees maybe? Or drifters?”
Contaminated honey is not the only problem resulting from the misuse of antibiotics. For example, some beekeepers have unknowingly purchased nucleus colonies in which foulbrood was being suppressed by antibiotics. The new owner, having no idea that drugs had ever been used, suddenly finds himself with infected hives which must be burned, bees and all. Sometimes, entire apiaries are destroyed. In several of the stories relayed to me, the sellers simply shrugged and denied any knowledge of foulbrood in their operations.
More contentious than many issues in contemporary beekeeping is the question of treating, or not, for varroa mites. Whether it is “fair” to the bees to leave them defenseless is only a small part of the controversy; the larger and more problematic question is what to do with a collapsing colony.
When a colony begins to collapse from excessive varroa load, two separate processes help the mites migrate from the collapsing colony into a healthy colony. According to Peck and Seeley,1 the most important process is robbing by workers from a healthy colony. As a varroa-weakened colony loses the strength to defend itself, it becomes a lure for other bees that steal the honey and inadvertently carry mites and their associated viruses back home. In addition, bees that drift between colonies within an apiary can further aid the migration.
Many beekeepers who treat, as well as some breeders and queen producers, decry collapsing colonies as no better than vandalism, acts of unspeakable selfishness and ill will towards others. On the other hand, those who champion treatment-free methods are convinced that unless we stop treating, we will never solve the varroa problem. They believe that unless we force the bees to confront the mites with genetic resistance, they will never evolve the means to control them.
Culling the Weak
The middle ground is simple in principle but hard to implement: destroy the colonies that show no sign of mite resistance before they begin to drift and spread disease elsewhere. The problem, of course, is deciding when to call it. How many bees are allowed to drift and infect others before you make the ultimate decision? None of it is easy.
I met Chuck over lunch at a treatment-free seminar. He had been trying to establish treatment-free stock for six years, but his apiary died back to nothing every fall. He admitted that culling colonies was his donnybrook. “I just can’t do it,” he said quietly. “I give them one more week to overcome the mites, and then another. In the end, they all abscond and everybody dies.”
Protecting Other Pollinators
One of the greatest fears of those concerned with biodiversity is the potential damage that virus-laden varroa mites can do to other species. Due to the unique brood cycle of honey bees, it is virtually impossible that any non-Apis bee could harbor varroa mites themselves, but viruses are a different story. In fact, collateral damage from varroa has already been found in some species of bumble bees.
Recent work by Alger et al. (2019)2 showed that two species of bumble bees foraging near apiaries where honey bees had high viral loads were often infected with both deformed wing virus (DWV) and black queen cell virus (BQCV). Bumble bees foraging away from apiaries were virus-free. In addition, nearly 20% of flowers growing near the infected apiaries were found to contain the viruses as well, making the flowers the most likely point of transfer.
Bear in mind that this study looked at just two of the more than 3,500 species of bees found in North America. It is certainly possible that other species of bees, and perhaps wasps, may also contract the viruses. If so, these individuals may pass them on to others. In other words, allowing infected honey bees loose in the environment is a serious assault on pollinator health, possibly creating unhealthy and disease ridden ecosystems for the pollinators that feed us.
Remember that North American beekeepers imported the honey bees, the varroa mites, and the related viruses. We also imported the tracheal mites and several of the brood diseases. Spreading them carelessly throughout the environment isn’t much different than seeding invasive weeds. Do we really have the right?
Unethical or Unaware?
Many ethical issues arise from misrepresentation: a seller says a product is something that it is not. These breaches are seldom deliberate attempts to deceive, but result from a lack of understanding on the part of the beekeeper. Beekeeping is not simple. It takes years to develop a solid understanding of the details so, in the meantime, things can get confusing.
A good example is selling honey with a high water content. Every year someone sends me a photo of a jar of honey they purchased that literally exploded. The honey fermented until the lid popped off and honey oozed down the sides of the jar and onto the shelves below.
To me, this doesn’t look deliberate. Instead it appears that the beekeeper lacked a good understanding of the water content of honey or he didn’t know how to measure it. Perhaps he extracted too many uncapped cells or added water to make it flow better. Whatever the problem, I would file it under “unaware.”
Another example is selling sugar-syrup laced honey. In all my beekeeping years, I’ve never seen anyone do this on purpose. However, I’ve seen lots of people do it because they didn’t know better. The unsophisticated beekeeper often believes that honey bees somehow distinguish between nectar and syrup and manage to keep them separate.
Tonya, the beekeeper whose naiveté motivated me to start a blog, insisted that if you feed your bees all season long, they will eat the feed and store the nectar. In her mind, there is no possibility that honey bees might do anything else. She sold her harvest labeled “Pure Honey” and didn’t believe I could be so crass as to suggest it may contain syrup.
A third question comes from purchasers of honey who wonder about its provenance. “How do you know this is 100% alfalfa honey?” Well, that’s a good question. The US Department of Agriculture says beekeepers may use a varietal name if the honey comes predominantly from one type of plant. But how do we know that?
Experience with varietals certainly plays a part. I can tell certain ones by taste, and if you add in the color and season, you can often be pretty sure of the variety. Many beekeepers who sell varietal honey move their bees in and out of various crops as they bloom, which is probably the best assurance that the honey comes from predominantly one source. Some look at the pollen in the honey because that can be a good, although not perfect, indicator of where the nectar originated.
Without experience, though, determining variety is more difficult, and there is certainly the temptation to believe it’s something that’s sells for a high price. Manuka honey, for example, is so prized and expensive that overzealous beekeepers may believe their honey contains more Manuka than it actually does. Even here in the United States, some varietals such as sourwood, sell for such a premium that beekeepers need to reign in the urge to exaggerate their crop’s purity.
Hive Product Woes
Another practice some see as unethical is heating crystallized honey to liquefy it for sale. In North America, buyers of honey typically want it in liquid form, so in order to sell it easily, beekeepers often warm it. But if honey is warmed too much—typically above hive temperature—it begins to lose some of its best aromatic and medicinal properties, making it less desirable. A few beekeepers think any warming should be disclosed, while others consider warming to be understood—just part of the marketing process.
Similarly, organic labeling is a point of contention. Some beekeepers believe if they don’t treat their colonies with chemicals, and don’t treat their homes or farms with pesticide, then they can use the organic label. But it’s not that simple. The USDA labeling laws for organic products are confusing, especially for honey, so beekeepers are left without a clear pathway.
While selling hive products is fun and rewarding, it is also fertile ground for fraud. Selling mishandled or mislabeled honey is easy, and so is selling mishandled pollen and royal jelly. Using nuc sales to rotate old combs out of an apiary is not a new idea, nor is selling “slightly used” queens as brand new. If your new queen isn’t performing as she should, just sell her—no one will ever know.
Renting Colonies to Growers
Stories of less-than-honest beekeepers are popular in February when almond trees are in full bloom. Rumor has it that few growers actually inspect the hives they rent for size and strength, which means those who provide strong colonies with excellent pollination potential are competing on price with those producing weak, substandard colonies. Incredibly, tales surface of beekeepers throwing in a few empty hives along with the good ones, effectively raising the pay rate per hive.
Obviously, this hurts both the growers and other beekeepers, but here too the value of a colony is not always perfectly clear. We can agree that an empty hive is useless, but assessing strength of a normal colony is subjective. One keeper’s exceptionally strong colony is another keeper’s average colony, which doesn’t indicate dishonesty but only differences of opinion.
Agricultural Tax Breaks
Stories of substandard colonies remind me of complaints from beekeepers in some of the southern states, particularly Texas, where a landowner with a minimum number of colonies on a prescribed amount of acreage can receive agricultural tax relief. The details vary between counties, but apparently no profit need be made as long as something is produced, meaning the owner can simply eat his own honey or give it away.
Terry and Jim keep fifty colonies in a southern state and receive a tax break on their land. The adjacent landowner erected six hives three years ago, added bees, and never returned. Terry is angry about the abuse of both bees and taxpayers. “You know those bees are gone because nothing moves over there,” she said. “But every year the county guy comes by with a clipboard. Six hives. Check.”
Jim nodded. “I think the enforcement guy is afraid of bees. He never gets out of his pickup and doesn’t look for live bees, even at our place. Fifty-three hives. Check.”
Like so many gray areas, however, good can come from these programs. Some people hire professional beekeepers to maintain their hives, which helps the local economy, and the bees are a boon to agricultural endeavors. Sadly, it’s impossible to design a program that’s immune to abuse, and it’s natural for those who comply to feel cheated.
How Big is Our Footprint?
Many ethical dilemmas lack right or wrong answers, but they make us think. Ultimately, we cannot change honey bees or make them behave, but we can make ourselves aware of the burdens our bees place on others.
Beekeepers will derive no benefit from making enemies of homeowners, businesses, conservationists, or government agencies. We will be better served by trying to understand our own footprint and allowing other pollinators their space. Leave the conservation areas to wildlife, treat your neighbors with respect, and be empathetic toward those who don’t understand your fascination with bees.
Each beekeeper needs to draw a line between what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Since the demarcation will be different for every individual, we will never completely agree on what is right and proper. Nevertheless, my greatest hope is that we have the collective wisdom to draw our line in a reasonable and agreeable place before lawmakers are forced to draw it for us with complex and restrictive legislation.
- Peck DT, Seeley TD. 2019. Mite bombs or robber lures? The roles of drifting and robbing in Varroa destructor transmission from collapsing honey bee colonies to their neighbors. PloS One. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0218392
- Alger SA, Burnham PA, Boncristiani HF, and Brody AK. 2019. RNA virus spillover from managed honeybees (Apis mellifera) to wild bumblebees (Bombus spp.) PLoS One 14(6): e0217822. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0217822.