A New Direction for Beekeeping
For thousands of years, beekeeping has come to the refer to the literal keeping of bees as a domesticated and farmed animal labor source. The wild hives humans raided for thousands of years before domesticating honeybees have come to be replaced by man-made and man-managed hives. And with this process, bee populations and health around the world have been impacted.
My interest in beekeeping naturally sets off alarm bells for many of my vegan comrades. And for my non-vegan comrades, it likewise seems a natural site to point out a discrepancy between my professed ethics and my application of them.
For nearly the last 5,000 years, beekeeping has been about humans facilitating the process of stealing honey from bees. And I’ll note that ‘stealing’ isn’t intended as an imposition of my ethical values on this process. ‘Stealing’ is literally the term I have heard from multiple non-vegan beekeeping teachers. We are literally stealing the honey produced by bees.
What I’ve learned over time though is that this form of beekeeping describes one possible relationship with only a handful of bee species. And, in this era of climate change and resiliency, a new definition or a new direction for beekeeping that considers the dynamic relationships between all bees, humanity, and our shared ecosystems is critical.
A few months ago I came up with this definition as a starting point in that new direction:
"Bee-keeping is the interdisciplinary art of assisting the survival of bees through climate change."
For some more conventional honeybee-keepers, this definition changes little as their work includes providing hives for local swarms of homeless honeybees.
In my mind, my definition also more broadly includes: education and advocacy regarding pollinator health and the interconnectedness between floriculture, horticulture, and agriculture, labor, and biodiversity; infrastructural design of accessible shelters, food and water access points, and gardens which are both aesthetically pleasing to bees and part of a sustainable permacultural plan for multiple species; and the critical study of bee health, intelligence, autonomy, meaning, and relationship to other species and the planet.
When I say that I am going to be a beekeeper, these are the themes of labor I have in mind. From my perspective, choosing to take steps to keep bees alive (and by extension, many other species on this planet) is the foundation of bee-keeping in the contemporary era.
Bee Survival is Essential
At present, humans and other animals depend on bee pollination for food. Often times, discussion of colony collapse disorder (CCD) centers on the human impact that will be felt by widespread honeybee population loss, but this issue is actually much broader in the number of species who will be affected. Humans are uniquely in the position of both likely causing CCD through overworking bees, destroying wild habitats, and exposing bee laborers to other harmful environmental factors, and being able to reinvent this relationship for the benefit of more than just our own species.
In my mind, a major part of this reinvention process is cultivating support for our local pollinators whose habitat loss and survival plights are often overshadowed by the production gains these circumstances offer to the commercial honeybee industry. Missing from some honeybee-focused education programs is that our local ecosystems are also home to a variety of solitary bees like leafcutter bees, mason bees, and carpenter bees, who are similarly capable of pollinating crops and flowers, and in some cases even immune to mites which can devastate honeybees. My hypothesis is that this likely is an indirect result of capitalist realism: our relationship to bees is centered around an exploitative dynamic that can generate profit for the beekeeper. We don’t really think about solitary bees because they don’t directly generate the capital of honey and other bee products for us, and an industry around managing their nests on the scale demanded by modern agriculture has not yet arisen.
Nevertheless, the labor of these pollinators is an essential component to the survival of life on this planet. And as the ethics of industrial pollination and honeybee-keeping continue to be scrutinized, directly supporting the lives of local solitary bees not only helps the resiliency of our planet but undermines the opportunity for capitalistic exploitation through modern agriculture.
Welfare Revisited: More Than Just New Hive Designs
Honeybee-keepers will likely be quick to point out that their industry has adapted significantly over time. This is true. Where once human-designed hives required the complete destruction of the hive and colony to collect honey, it is now possible to steal honey with very little resulting bee death. And this impulse towards compassion in design, to me, suggests an industry desire to continue to improve on these changes.
The key to this dynamic though is in scale. Industrially speaking, while the removal of honey may cause minimal bee deaths, the labor and environmental hazards bees are subjected to in the process has been linked (by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency no less) to CCD and thus carries a significant risk for mass death as a result. My concern is not particularly with small-scale or backyard honeybee operations at the moment, just as most other vegans are more concerned by meat production as a whole and not wildlife loss as a result of vegetable cultivation and harvesting. To each their own priorities however.
What does interest me is how backyard, non-exploitative support for native solitary bees can undermine the aggregate demand for industrial honeybee apiculture. If every vegan in the world set up backyard shelters (termed ‘bee hotels’) for native bees, what would the effect be on demand for industrial scale pollinators? If every backyard honeybee-keeper boycotted industrial scale pollination and diversified their work to include support for solitary bees, what kind of collective impact could we have on CCD and overall bee health? Can we fight CCD and honeybee labor exploitation, native bee habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, and the existential threat of a world without pollinators all at the same time?
For me, these are the most critical questions we can be asking as beekeepers in this era. How will we keep-bees when so many threats face them and us together? How do we act on valuing resiliency ahead of profit and products? What can we offer them rather than solely take from them?
The eon of profiteering off wildlife and animal labor is crumbling. In its place, the interconnected crises of bee health, human health, and planet health is an existential predicament every beekeeper should be actively involved in resolving. Having the best honey in town pales in value compared to being able to assist the survival of Earth’s many critters and flowering plants through this age of reckoning with modernity.
Pat Mosley (NC LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage and bodywork therapist in the Winston-Salem area. His work is rooted in compassionate touch, permaculture, and deep ecology with the resilience of all Earth's children in mind. Connect with him via email to firstname.lastname@example.org