The first thing I do in the morning is check my HBS e-mail for questions and comments. I love answering and often spend considerable time researching the details. But today my box was filled with “unanswerable” questions—questions (five of them!) where the answer depends on philosophy.
One of these read: “Why are we feeding bees at all? I have such a hard time hearing about this practice of interfering with the bees’ food source.”
I’m at a crossroads with this question. On one hand, I’m a proponent of organic agriculture and natural beekeeping. I have spent much of my academic life studying the adverse effects of pesticides, GMOs, and other “big ag” practices that are damaging life on earth. On the other hand, during my undergraduate study of agronomic crops, I developed a real empathy for those who must raise crops to feed the populous and make a living in the process. It’s tough stuff.
Honey bees are one of many species that have taken a hit because of modern agricultural practices. Anyone who forgets that bees are livestock—farm animals, if you will—is missing the big picture. Honey bees are needed for our system of industrial agriculture whether we like it or not. Personally, I don’t like the system, but my opinion has no bearing on its existence.
Of course, commercial beekeepers are not the only ones who feed syrup to bees. A beekeeper with one or a dozen hives may do it, and certainly those with thousands of hives do it. Let’s first look at the reasons without moral judgment:
- A beekeeper may believe his hives are not well-stocked enough with honey to make it through the winter. This may be due to bad weather, robbing, predation, or over-harvesting. In any case, the beekeeper is trying to save his bees from starvation.
- A beekeeper may have a pollination contract to fulfill and he needs a fast build up in the spring,. So he feeds syrup, perhaps laced with supplemental pollen or amino acids.
- A beekeeper may have problems with a disease such as Nosema so he decides to treat his hives. Syrup is the only way to administer the medicine.
- A beekeeper may be starting new colonies from splits or nucs. There is a good chance they won’t survive the first year unless they have a syrup supplement.
Now let’s look at the right-and-wrong of it. Many people think it is wrong to over-harvest the honey and feed the bees syrup instead. I agree with this, but I can understand the other side of the coin. If you are a commercial honey producer, which is “more” right: over-harvesting that valuable honey crop or making your kids go without medical care? Surely, that’s the extreme, the exception, but those situations can and do exist.
If you are an orchardist, are you going to run the risk of losing your crop because it’s wrong to feed syrup to the bees? If you are a commercial beekeeper are you going to default on a pollination contract because your bees didn’t build up fast enough? Growers and commercial beekeepers are business people, and they need to make competent business decisions.
As I stated in my earliest posts, I find the rift between commercial and hobby beekeepers disturbing. As hobbyists, we have lots of freedom. We can molly-coddle our bees, we can treat them like house pets and sing them to sleep–and it doesn’t cut into our bottom line, our personal finances, tomorrow’s meals. Meanwhile the commercial beekeeper is keeping a large segment of the agricultural industry rolling. He’s helping to put food on our tables, assuring us a steady supply of fresh produce and a healthful, varied diet. While we dine on this feast we criticize him for the sugar syrup thing. It hardly seems fair.
For me, the biggest question is one of moral responsibility. Do you find it more desirable to let your bees starve to death than feed them syrup? If you’ve had a hot, dry summer with little forage (as occurred in much of the U.S. this year) do you say, “Tough luck bees, you get to die a slow and painful death because it’s wrong for me to feed sugar syrup”? I find this philosophy repugnant. I believe that once you take an animal into your care you have a responsibility to give it the best life you can. Starving to death is not a good life.
One more point about the question: The writer referred to sugar syrup feeding as “interfering with the bees’ food source.” I disagree with that assessment completely. What interferes with the bees’ food source is not sugar syrup, but urbanization, industrialization, human population, agriculture, roads and freeways, pesticides, pollution, invasive species, global warming, deforestation, mountain top removal, and on and on. Without those things, there would be plenty of forage–and syrup would be a non-issue.
No doubt, honey is the single best food for honey bees and that is what they should be given whenever possible. But it’s not always possible in the environment we’ve created, and it’s not always the best answer given other circumstances. That old saying about walking a mile in another man’s moccasins before passing judgment applies. Nearly all beekeepers would love to avoid syrup, but sometimes they can’t. Who am I to judge?