Abbie Rogers, Guest Contributor
As undercover footage from slaughterhouses and factory farms hits the news media, the public has become more aware of the harm caused by the animal agriculture industry to workers, the environment, and the animals imprisoned in the system. In this system, we breed animals for production efficiency, often using artificial insemination. We cage them, disrupt their natural social groupings and behaviors, ship or transport them over long distances with little concern for their comfort or safety en route, and cull any animal we deem unsatisfactory. We feed them unnatural and unhealthy diets, push them to produce, and routinely treat them with antibiotics to prop them up in spite of stress and illness.
These standard industry practices—routine treatment of cattle, pigs, and chickens—occur out of sight of the general public. Even more invisible is our similar treatment of the honeybee.
While some bee species lead more solitary lives, honeybees, an introduced species in the Americas, live in tight-knit colonies where each bee plays a vital role and each relies on the community for survival. For communal bees like honeybees, the life of the colony revolves around the queen, the only fertile female and the mother of all bees in the hive. The colony’s ongoing survival relies on her reproduction and, while she lays her body weight in eggs each day, the other bees tend to all of her needs, including feeding her, cleaning her, directing her to prepared brood cells, and raising the next generation. In observing colony dynamics, beekeepers have discovered that they can control the hive largely by controlling the queen.
A queen can live five years or more, however many beekeepers replace their queens every year or two for maximum production (similarly, egg-laying hens and dairy cows are routinely discarded as “spent” at only a fraction of their lifespans). Beekeepers generally purchase new queens from professional breeders who regularly ship queen bees, accompanied by a few attendants, in matchbox-sized cages through the postal system. As with newly hatched chicks routinely shipped to backyard chicken fanciers though the mail, the bees are subject to rough handling, temperature extremes, and abandonment at the post office. The fact that companies that ship bees have refund policies for orders that arrive dead indicates that this is not uncommon.
In nature, a queen bee leaves the hive at one week old for her “wedding flight,” in which she mates with up to a dozen male drones, supplying her with enough sperm from diverse sources to fertilize her eggs throughout her life. In contrast, queen breeders, like other livestock breeders, often use artificial insemination to control a colony’s genetics, selecting for traits such as docility and honey production. Unfortunately, breeding for production efficiency also means narrowing the gene pool, which weakens the overall honeybee population. Some beekeepers further control the queen by clipping her wings to prevent the colony from swarming. 
Honeybees collect pollen and nectar—the latter of which is converted into honey and other glandular secretions—to feed the colony throughout the year. The honey supply is especially vital to the reduced colony that survives through the winter. Depending on the size of the hive and the winter conditions, a colony may consume upwards of 100 pounds of honey over the course of the winter. As with the unnatural grain- and byproduct-based diets of cattle, pigs, chickens, and other livestock, bees’ diets are frequently supplemented with artificial and nutrient-lacking substitutes. In the case of bees, these substitutes include sugar water and corn syrup, fed in times of stress or when a beekeeper removes too much honey from the hive.
Furthermore, because many large-scale beekeepers have shifted their focus from honey production to pollination services, millions of honeybees are now routinely shipped coast to coast. With monoculture now the dominant system of farming, almond, blueberry, apple, and even alfalfa farmers depend on bees shipped in to pollinate their thousands of acres of crops. No bees can live in a monoculture year-round; there is only food available to them during the crop’s two- to three-week bloom. Instead of planting diverse crops that flower successively throughout the season, farmers rent a truckload of bees to come pollinate their crop for a few weeks, and then the bees are trucked—often thousands of miles—to another farm to pollinate a different crop. This migrant existence stresses honeybee colonies, as does the unbalanced diet of a monoculture.
Humans further manipulate bees to pollinate some of their less preferred plants. In the massive USDA document Insect Pollination of Cultivated Crop Plants, S.E. McGregor states that honeybee disinterest in strawberries “can be overcome with saturation pollination, or overstocking the area with colonies so the competing nectar and pollen are removed;” in other words, an imposed food scarcity can drive bees to pollinate plants they would otherwise pass over. Other suggested methods include caging honeybees with the strawberry plants to eliminate other food options, although studies indicate that caging excludes more effective native pollinators. 
Honeybees, like all of us, are especially at risk for disease when they are stressed, overcrowded, genetically limited, or poorly nourished. Since management of bees and other farmed animals expects high production often under these unhealthy pressures, beekeepers and other farmers turn to antibiotics and other medications to treat or prevent illness. Unfortunately, reliance on drugs while continuing to compromise the animal’s overall health and wellbeing can lead to antibiotic resistance that impedes our ability to treat disease in the future.
It is hardly a surprise that recent years have seen a decline in both managed and feral honeybee populations, an increase in newly introduced diseases in bee colonies, and outbreaks of drug-resistant pathogens and parasites. These crises came to a head in 2006, when bee keepers around the United States discovered their hives mysteriously empty, the bees simply vanished. This disappearance, termed “Colony Collapse Disorder,” has been attributed to the compounded effects of pesticides, malnutrition, weakened genetics, parasites, and other stressors.
Interestingly, as far back as 1923, Austrian philosopher and founder of the biodynamic movement Rudolf Steiner predicted a collapse of bee populations–and a decline in ecosystems—by the by the turn of the Twenty First Century, if human manipulation of bee colonies continued. Practices he specifically condemned included:
- The raising of larva in separate quarters, arbitrary feeding of royal jelly to produce queens, then shipping by post to keepers.
- Selection of bee populations for docility, de-selecting for aggression.
- In contrast to the normal 5 or 6-year life span of a queen, “re-queening” after one or two years
- Using chemical control agents for disease and pests.
- Providing ready-made combs [and wax] in place of bee-constructed combs, to save work (production time) for the bees
- Moving of hives over long distances at the will of human intention.
- Clipping of queens’ wings.
- Agricultural practices consisting of monocultures that wreak havoc on honeybee diets, limiting options once the dominant crop is no longer flowering.
Steiner’s prophecy appears to be coming eerily true as we continue to treat honeybees—and the rest of the natural world, domesticated and wild alike—like pieces of machinery that technology can repair or replace. There are clear indications, however, that this mechanical approach does not work. For the last few decades, apple and pear farmers in Maoxian County in China’s Sichuan Provence have been forced to pollinate their fruit trees by hand, climbing to each of the billions of blossoms with a paintbrush and pot of pollen. A history of heavy pesticide use in the county killed off native pollinators, and commercial beekeepers refuse to bring their bees in to pollinate because of the dangerous levels of toxins. While employing humans to pollinate crops does have the economic benefit of job creation, it comes at a high ecological and monetary cost (hand pollination costs the farmers 8 times the cost of bee pollination). If the United States were to rely on hand pollination, it would cost an estimated $90 trillion per year.
Is this the future we can we expect if we continue to commodify and exploit our fellow creatures, from 1/10 gram honeybees to one ton cattle? When it comes down to it, isn’t it more advantageous—not to mention compassionate—for us to view our fellow creatures as having intrinsic value all their own, without regard to their commodity benefit to us? What would it take for us to respect other species—and individuals—as having inherent value, independent of their usefulness to us? I believe the time is overdue for us to turn the tables and give back to those from whom we take.
What can we do to help bees?
- Plant a garden to feed pollinators and other wildlife
- Set out dishes of water for bees and other thirsty animals
- Build a bee house to shelter native bees or adopt a hive of honeybees
- Avoid the use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals in your yard and garden to keep bees and other visitors safe and healthy
- Buy organic produce to limit bees’ exposure to toxic pesticides in the fields
- Watch the films More Than Honey and Queen of the Sun and do your own research to learn more about treatment of honeybees
- Tell others about the inherent value of bees and all other animals.
Abbie Rogers is co-curator of the landmark exhibit Uncooped: Deconstructing the Domesticated Chicken at the National Museum of Animals and Society, and a caregiver at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY.
 For example, http://www.draperbee.com/beesupplies/Package_Bee_Prices.htm and http://www.honeybeesonline.com/queens.html
 Swarming is a honeybee colony’s method of reproduction. Bees swarm when the colony grows too big for the hive. The queen and older bees leave to seek out a new home, leaving the old hive to the young nurse bees, who will raise a new queen. From a beekeeper’s perspective, a swarm represents the loss of the prime workforce as well as the original queen’s genetics. http://www.gobeekeeping.com/getting_started_with_queen_reari.htm
 http://www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/53420300/OnlinePollinationHandbook.pdf Page 682-4.
 This is an edited list; the full list can be found at http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_5356.cfm