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Vegetarian Journal Cover

Vegetarian Journal


November/December 1996
Volume XV, Number 6

Busy Bees

By Caroline Pyevich

While some vegetarians eat honey and many vegans avoid eating honey, not everyone understands the ramifications of using bees for honey production and agricultural pollination. Beekeeping involves more than simply removing honey from the hive. The recent decline in the native bee population has increased agricultural reliance on the managed honeybee.

What is Honey?

Honey is produced by honeybees, which are vegetarian insects. Honeybees eat pollen to obtain protein, fat, and vitamins, and they make honey from the nectar of flowers for an energy source. Bees reduce the water content of the nectar both by fanning it with their wings and by manipulating the liquid in their mouths. Bees create honey through the use of their digestive enzyme, invertase. This enzyme converts the sucrose of the gathered nectar into equal parts of the sugars glucose and fructose in the bee's honey stomach.(1)

Food for Bees

Bees normally eat nectar, but they sometimes are fed a 50:50 solution of sucrose and water, which is the same ratio as that in nectar. The solution is sometimes given to the bees in the early spring to stimulate the queen to lay more eggs and build up the size and strength of the colony. Bees will receive the sugar solution if the beekeeper removed too much honey during the year, because each hive requires fifty to sixty pounds of honey in the fall to survive the entire winter.

Bees are not fed the sucrose solution during the collecting season when they produce enough honey to supply both the beekeeper's and the hive's demands. Bees will continuously gather nectar and produce honey regardless of the amount of honey which they have stored.(2) However, bees sometimes collect more nectar when they are provided with more storage room. Bees naturally live in a tightly crowded hive, and beekeepers often allow more room in the hive so the bees will produce more honey.(3) The honey which the bees make from the sucrose solution will not have the distinct taste of honey produced from nectar.(4)

Beekeepers sometimes feed pollen substitutes to the bees in early spring when there is not enough natural pollen in the foraging area. Some ingredients of a homemade pollen substitute include powdered skim milk, dried brewers' yeast, and dried egg yolk. Some bees are never fed either nectar or pollen substitutes.(1)

Treatment of the Hive

Beekeepers burn a hive when the bees are infected with American Foulbrood, a fatal and highly contagious bacterial disease in bees. No known treatment eliminates this bacteria, which easily transfers from one hive to the next through either honey or equipment contamination.(4) Burning the infected hive may prevent the spread of the disease.

Recently, the practice of fumigation has become available in a few states. This method eliminates the need to burn the hive, as the infected bees are poisoned with calcium cyanide. Beekeepers may also purposely kill bees when an overly aggressive colony could be harmful to the public. Introducing a gentle queen to the colony is a more typical way to deal with this situation.(4)

Beekeepers use smoke puffs to reduce their chances of being stung when opening the colony. A puff of smoke is applied for about 30 seconds to mask an alarm pheromone which the bees normally spread throughout the colony when they are disturbed.

Large-scale beekeepers are more likely to use caustic chemicals to repel bees when removing honey from the hive. The chemicals are sprinkled on acid boards and do not directly contact the bees. These fumes drive the bees away from the honey. A convenient, non-chemical alternative to both smoke and chemicals is the bee escape, a one-way exit trap, in which bees are separated from the part of the man-made hives containing honey. The bee blower, similar to a modified leaf blower, is another popular method of quickly removing the bees.(5)

Beekeepers obtain bees from either catching stray swarms, taking bees from a tree, buying an established colony, or purchasing packaged bees. Entire colonies or single queens may be bought. Packaged queen bees can be selectively bred for characteristics such as honey production, color, size, pollination ability, and gentleness. Genetic engineering has not been done on bees.


The improper application of pesticides and herbicides on crops can kill the bees which pollinate and gather nectar from these fields. According to federal regulations, certain chemicals cannot be applied to the areas bees pollinate or must be introduced after the bees have already collected nectar.(6)

Pesticides, which are either contact, stomach, or respiratory toxins, can affect the nervous system of the bee so that it can no longer locate food sources. The bees which pollinate these chemically-treated crops will die. While honeybees are easily transported off treated fields, ground-nesting native bees must remain there. Therefore, pesticides are more likely to harm native bees than honeybees.

Chemicals cause more problems in areas where irrigation systems are commonly used, and bees that rely upon irrigation as a water source can die from consuming the water's chemicals. Researchers are currently investigating pesticide alternatives such as the use of biological control of insects and weeds.

Bee Pollination

In America's present agricultural situation, the honeybee plays a key role in pollinating over ninety crops. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the anther, a male part of the flower, to the stigma, a female part. Pollination is necessary for plant reproduction. Bees carry pollen from one plant to another when they collect both nectar and pollen. While wind assists in the pollination of grasses and grains, insects are necessary agents for the pollination of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.(7)

In the United States, one-third of all food consumed by humans somehow requires the pollination performed by honeybees. Cantaloupes, blueberries, apples, cranberries, and squash are just some of the foods pollinated by the honeybee. Clover and alfalfa, used in animal feed, are also pollinated by the honeybee.

Bees assist in the pollination of about eighty percent of the agricultural crops that require insect pollination. Farmers often rent bee colonies to pollinate vast acres of crops, and migratory beekeepers move around the United States to sell their pollination services during times of high demand. For example, beekeepers gather in California each year to service the almond crop, which would not be as large without the honeybees.(5)

The different types of honey vary according to the type of crop which the honeybee visits. Clover honey, one of the most popular types, is made from the nectar of clovers, which are used in animal feed. Other types of honey, such as orange blossom honey, result from the pollination of citrus fruits.

Honey production and pollination may be related, but are not the same process. For example, while honeybees can pollinate pickling cucumbers, they do not produce a substantial amount of honey from this forage. Similarly, some beekeepers only manage bees only for honey production and do not rent their hives to pollinate crops.(8) Often a beekeeper and a grower both benefit from the bees' forage of a field.

The honeybee was introduced to North America from Europe for its honey and wax production, and this general pollinator can adequately service a wide variety of crops. Indigenous bees cannot pollinate some imported crops, such as varieties of apples and pears. These bees also do not produce the type of honey preferred by humans, and the cells of their hives are not made of wax. Therefore, humans commonly manage the honeybee rather than the native bee.

What About the Native Bees ...?

Recently, the need for honeybees has increased because of their pollination ability. Both the decrease in the wild bee population and the intensive pollination needs of today's agriculture have resulted in a new demand for honeybees. Previously, pollination was left to chance, but the large crop yield demands of modern agriculture require the service of the honeybees in order to secure a completely pollinated crop. Honeybees are seen by some individuals as being useful because they can be moved and because they maintain strong populations throughout the year.(5)

Native species are better suited to pollinate many crops in America, but not all the native species can promise the high pollination rate of the honeybee. For example, although native bees are physically adapted to pollinate cranberries better, honeybees will still pollinate this crop when no other source of nectar exists. Farmers then utilize honeybees to pollinate their many acres of cranberries.(9)

Modern agriculture promotes planting large acres of one type of crop, and all the flowers of this crop bloom simultaneously. Native bees are often specific pollinators of one type of crop, and not enough bees of a particular variety exist to sufficiently pollinate vast acres of one bloom.(10) For example, a watermelon blossom can require up to eight visits by a bee before it is adequately pollinated. The native bees can no longer perform this task alone.

New attempts have been made to introduce native species in greenhouse agricultur e, and many backyard gardeners and organic growers rely on native species to pollinate their produce.(8) Most large-scale farmers resort to using the honeybee for some of their crop pollination.

A combination of factors has contributed to the decrease in the wild bee population. The vast destruction of the native bees' habitat for purposes of urbanization and large-scale agriculture has greatly reduced the number of wild bees. For example, blueberry fields grow naturally when a forest in a suitable location is cut down, but the native bees are destroyed by this interference. Honeybees must then be introduced in order to pollinate the blueberries which will grow in this cleared area, even though native bees are better adapted to pollinate this plant efficiently.(5)

Other problems threatening the wild bees include pesticides and irrigation systems, which destroy the nests of the bees inhabiting treated fields. Bees also can be injured during the mechanized harvest of crops.


A more recent problem for both native and managed bees is parasitic mites. Two types of mites, tracheal and varroa, affect the world's bee population. The mites are a natural parasite of the honeybee and the bees have little resistance to the deadly invaders. The mites entered the United States from foreign lands even though federal regulation has prohibited the transfer of honeybees into the United States since 1923.

Beekeepers combat tracheal mites, which live in the breathing tubes of the bee, by placing a mixture of Crisco and sugar in the hive to disrupt the scent-tracking mechanism of the mites. Placing menthol (mint) crystals in perforated bags inside the hive can also reduce tracheal mites.(4)

The varroa mite can kill an entire colony within one to two years after infection. This mite is treated with an approved chemical, a fluvalinate, which is not used while the bees are producing honey for human consumption. Fluvalinate has not been detected in honey because this chemical is fat soluble and honey contains no fat.(5) The fact that only one approved chemical exists to treat varroa mites suggests that the mites may soon become resistant to it. If so, the bee population would be severely decimated.

Managed bees, unlike wild bees, are fed antibiotics as a preventive measure against secondary diseases precipitated by mite infestation. Therefore, wild bees have a high risk for these diseases. The antibiotics show no adverse side effects to the bees.(4)


From this information, we see that if we are to continue with current agricultural practices, we will increasingly rely upon the honeybee to pollinate our crops and if people continue to eat honey, beekeepers will keep on selling honey. Although bees could be managed strictly for their pollinating ability without using their honey, this system could affect agricultural costs. How does the bee fit into this situation?

Managed bees may be more likely to avoid the pesticides, mites, and disruption of their homes that typically threaten native bees. However, one reason the managed bees have a better survival rate than the native bees is that humans have interfered with the natural habitat of the native bees through the use of pesticides, forest clear-cutting, accidental introduction of parasites, and monoagriculture.

Although honey production may have been the initial reason for the importation of honeybees to America, it is no longer the sole reason that these bees are important to humans. The use of managed bees may be the only way modern agriculture can sustain itself. The question remains as to whether we could practically reintroduce a more "natural" system of pollination into our modern society.


(1)Odlum, Melanie. 1984. Beekeeping in Maryland. University of Maryland.

(2)Szabo , T., Sporns, P., & Lefkovitch, L. 1992. "Effects of frequency of honey removal and empty comb space on honey quantity and quality." Bee Science 2.4:187-92.

(3)Smith, Barton. June, 1996. (Maryland State Apiary Inspector) Personal interview.

(4)Miner, Ernie. June, 1996. (A bee-supply dealer in Maryland who is also a part-time state inspector) Personal interview.

(5)Morris, David. June, 1996. (President of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association) Personal interview.

(6)Levin, M. D. 1986. "Using honeybees to pollinate crops." USDA leaflet number 549.

(7)McGregor, S. E. "Pollination of crops." USDA Agriculture Handbook 355. 107-17.

(8)Shimanuki, Hachiro. June, 1996. (Research Leader for the USDA Bee Research Department) Personal inter-view.

(9)Batra, Suzanne. June, 1996. (Researcher at USDA Bee Research Labs) Personal interview.

10)Batra, Suzanne. 1984. "Solitary Bees." Scientific American 250.2:120-7.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 1996 issue of the Vegetarian Journal. We encourage you to subscribe to the magazine.

Thanks to volunteer Jeanie Freeman for converting this article to HTML

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