Is Honey a Sustainable Food?

Cook and culture

Written by cookandculture| Edited by Carol Coutinho and Katie Merikallio

Last week, I was topping my peanut butter banana toast with a drizzle of honey (one of my favorite breakfasts) as I thought about the current problem regarding the decreasing number of honey bees which I had learned about in a sustainability class earlier this semester. Don’t get me wrong, I love my honey, but a gut feeling of panic hit me as I wondered if I was contributing to the growing problem of a reduced number of pollinators. This prompted me to launch a full on investigation of honey bee keeping with one main question in mind: is honey actually a sustainable food?

A bowl of honey with dandelion salad and tea.

Why are honey bees important?

I started off my search with why the honey bee in particular is so important. What I found was very shocking. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, “honey bees made a little less than 163 million pounds of honey in 2016. With the cost of honey around $2.08 per pound, that’s a value of a little over $339 million.” While bees are important for the economy in terms of the honey they produce, the biggest impact of honey bees is pollinating crops, plants, and flowers. This agricultural benefit of honey bees is estimated to be between 10 and 20 times the total value of honey and beeswax, says the USDA. Therefore, it can be concluded that the honey bee plays a pretty important role in our ecosystem and food production. If the world lost the honey bee due to extinction, it “could lead to lower availability of crops and wild plants that provide essential micronutrients for human diets, impacting health and nutritional security and risking increased numbers of people suffering from vitamin A, iron and folate deficiency,” according to The Bee Cause. Without honey bees, agricultural systems will be impacted negatively as there will be less crops and wild plants. In scarier terms, this means without bees, there will be no food. 

A honeybee flies to pollinate a California poppy.

Threats to Bees:

 

 

  1. Climate Change:
  • Climate change, or the change in the average conditions — such as temperature and rainfall — in a region over a long period of time, is affecting honey bees on a large scale. Average monthly temperatures are rising across the nation, meaning that flowers have started blooming earlier than they have before. This early blooming is creating a mismatch in seasonal timing between flowers and bees. Flowers are producing pollen, but bees may not be ready to feed on the pollen because of climate change. “Even a small mismatch of three to six days could negatively affect bees’ health, making them less likely to reproduce and less resistant to predators and parasites,” according to Bee Culture. 
  1. Habitat Loss:
  • Furthermore, bees are being wiped out due to habitat loss by human implications. Road construction, agriculture, and development of the land breaks up naturally existing bee habitat. This largely affects the honey bees as the fragments of their habitat remaining may not be large enough for a colony to meet its needs. The Great Pollinator Project claims, “establishing and maintaining connectivity—safe passage among patches—is key to pollinator persistence in these areas.”
  1. Invasive Species:
  • An invasive species is most often a non-native species that spreads from a point of introduction to become naturalized, and negatively alters its new environment. Invasive plant species are a threat to bees as they can take over and kill the native plant species that may be a bees source of nectar. Honey bees may not be able to forage on new plants because of nectar or flower handling, which in turn, results in a decline of pollinators if they cannot get the essential nutrients. 
  1. Pesticides:
  • Pesticides could be the largest threat to the bee population. Farmers spray pesticides on their crops, which can kill bees when they crawl over sprayed surfaces of a crop or plant. The pesticides that are  high-risk for bees include diazinon, Imidan, Malathion and Sevin. When a bee comes into contact with a pesticide, it immediately dies and is therefore unable to  return to the hive. 

 

  1. Insecticides:
  • Insecticides differ from pesticides due to the fact that insecticides are a type of pesticide used to target and kill insects, while pesticides are chemicals used to kill fungus, bacteria, weeds, insects, etc. According to the Business Insider, “Bees that are exposed to insecticides can experience problems with their central nervous systems, often resulting in impaired memory, movement, and even death.”
A beekeeper collects honeycomb from man-made beehives.

The treatment of bees is unethical, as they are robbed of their hard work collecting nectar, and their natural resource for life and energy is taken from them.

Beekeeping

After knowing a few of the stressors that bees face, I wanted to look into current beekeeping practices to see if they had any effect on bee colonies. Bees make honey by flying around to various flowers and plants. The bee then sucks up nectar, a sugar-rich liquid, which is the bees main source of energy as it provides bees with nourishment and nutrition until they return back to their hive. The bees work hard to collect the nectar, as “a single worker bee may visit up to 10,000 flowers in one day” writes People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Once back at the hive, the nectar the bees collected is converted into honey, which is to be stored for the winter months for the bees to live off since they cannot venture out to get more nectar because very few flowers are in bloom during the colder months. That means, when bees are stripped of their honey they worked so hard to make and collect, their source of survival for the winter is being taken from them. 

Factory farmers take all of the bees honey for profit, and substitute their honey with a simple syrup to keep them alive. Unfortunately, another practice is to exterminate the bees to avoid feeding them throughout the winter. Additionally, factory farmers often hurt and manipulate the bees in their colonies. For example, when a new queen bee is about to be born, the old queen and half of the existing colony will leave their hive and start a new colony. This process is called “swarming.” According to PETA, since swarming means that less honey will be produced, “many beekeepers try to prevent it—often by clipping the delicate wings of the new queen or killing and replacing the older queen.”

The American Public Health Association defines a sustainable food system as, “one that provides healthy food to meet current food needs while maintaining healthy ecosystems that can also provide food for generations to come with minimal negative impact to the environment.” Because the treatment of bees is unethical, as they are robbed of their hard work collecting nectar and their natural resource for life and energy is taken from them, honey is not a sustainable food.

Bees entering a man-made hive

Effects on the Environment:

To make matters worse, there is a large carbon footprint associated with honey production. According to the National Honey Board, “There are an estimated 115,000 – 125,000 beekeepers in the United States.” However,  “75% of honey in America was produced outside the U.S in 2018” (2018 National Honey Report). It was estimated that in order to get one kilogram of honey from a factory farm to a table in the United States, up to 1.06 kilograms of carbon is emitted (2018 National Honey Report). Carbon emissions affect the planet significantly, as the emissions rise temperatures in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming and climate change. 

What You Can Do to Save Bees:

Feeling uneasy about the future of honey bees? There are plenty of ways you can do your part in saving this incredible species! 

1. Plant Bee friendly Flowers and Plants:

Planting bee friendly plants will attract pollinators to your backyard! Aim for plants that contain lots of nectar for an added energy boost for the bees such as: lavender, vipers bugloss, and hawthorn. 

2. Avoid Brands that use beeswax

There are many brands of cosmetics and chapstick that use beeswax. We don’t need these products to live, but bees need their wax and honey! Opt for eco-friendly or vegan brands such as Lush, EcoLips, and PETA vegan lip balm that do not use any animal products.  

3. Don’t weed your garden:

Pesky, unwanted weeds actually attract honey bees! Weeds such as dandelions are beneficial to bees, and therefore, us.

4. Avoid harmful pesticides:

Avoid using harmful pesticides and insecticides on your plants that can injure and kill the bees. Instead, try using compost or a different organic product. Natural solutions aid soil health and welcome beneficial insects that keep pests away.

5. Try out honey alternatives:

Honey alternatives such as agave, coconut nectar, and maple syrup are delicious alternatives to traditional honey. They taste great and help save the bees, a win-win! Another thing you can do is try creating your own honey at home, here is a great recipe to get you started: 

 

Vegan Honey Recipe  Author: Alex Knutte                                          

Prep Time: 15 minutes          Cook Time: 25 minutes          Total Time: 40 minutes                                                        Difficulty: Easy

 

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 5-6 medium-sized apples
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 Chamomile tea bags
  • 1 cup raw sugar
    Instructions:
    – Wash and remove surface wax from the apples. The best way is to leave them in very hot water for a minute and then scrub with a dry rough towel. You can add some vinegar and baking soda to the water, this will help in breaking the wax coat faster.
    – Cut apples into 4 to 6 slices and remove seeds. Do not peel apples as natural pectin in the apple peel will help in the thickening of the syrup.
    – Transfer apple slices into a food processor and pour over half a cup of water. Blend until pureed. It should be smooth enough that juice can easily be separated from the pulp.
    – Separate the juice from pulp using a strainer or a nut milk bag, whatever is available. This will yield approximately 3 cups of apple juice.
    – In a pot, combine the apple juice, lemon juice, raw sugar and chamomile tea bags. Bring it to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium.
    – Remove the tea bags after two minutes of cooking as they can tear apart while stirring and will be difficult to remove once the syrup gets to a sticky consistency.
    – Let the liquid reduce to about half. To check the desired thickness, let the syrup drip from the spoon. If the drippings are forming a string-like shape it is all done. This may take 20 to 25 minutes. Keep your eye on this so it doesn’t boil over, caramelizes or burn.
    – Cooldown the mixture over a cold-water bath and transfer into a glass bottle.

 

In conclusion, because of the way honey bees are treated in factory farms, honey is not a sustainable food. Bees are stripped of their resources to live, endure having their wings clipped, and the stress of their hive moving to new places. Consider reducing the amount of honey you consume or switching to alternatives such as agave or syrup. Bees do so much for us, including making the food on our plates. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “pollinators, most often honey bees, are responsible for one in every three bites of food we take.” Join the battle to save the bees as they are vital for our future! 

A bee pollinates cherry blossoms.

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