Huge numbers of bees suffer in a variety of ways from their exploitation by humans to make honey1 and other products.
Many people may think that bees don’t suffer. However, all the evidence available indicates that they, as many other invertebrates who have a centralized nervous systems, do have the capacity to feel suffering and pleasure.2 Despite this, as happens with other animals, they are used for human profits in ways that many people aren’t aware of. Their exploitation causes suffering and death to a large number of bees. This happens especially with honey, which bees produce by swallowing nectar and then regurgitating it repeatedly. To take honey out of the bees, these animals are harmed in a number of ways, and killed in great numbers.
There are people who think that, although many animals suffer, there are no reasons to believe invertebrates do. This belief is understandable because most people haven’t had the opportunity to learn a great deal about these animals. However, when we examine the issue and look at all the scientific evidence available we find that this assumption can hardly be right. There are many invertebrates who clearly satisfy any reasonable requirement for being conscious, that is, having experiences and therefore feeling suffering and pleasure. Among them are animals such as octopuses.3 In the case of other invertebrates we may have less evidence available regarding this. However, the evidence is still enough to conclude they are conscious.
This is what happens in the case of bees. These animals have nervous systems which include a brain, just as other insects and as other arthropods such as crustacea, and other invertebrates do. Moreover, these animals display an amazingly complex behavior. They communicate with each other with different types of body movements (also known as dances) to let them know about the position of flowers and where to pick pollen. They also have a great memory which allows them to remember where the flowers and the hive are. Bees are social animals capable of learning and complex behaviours. Bees even correct their flight course due to wind drift on their way to a new source of food that another bee told them about.4 As we explain in our section on what is relevant to be morally considered, this is not what should matter in order to grant respect. What matters is the fact that they are sentient. However, they could not have these capacities if they weren’t able to have positive and negative experiences. Therefore, the fact that they have these capacities allows us to conclude that they are capable of feeling suffering and pleasure. Of course, this does not only happen in the case of bees. These animals are closely related to other invertebrates. So if we conclude, as the evidence compels us to, that they are sentient, then we have strong reasons to conclude that many other invertebrates are also sentient. This is very important because the overwhelming majority of animals are invertebrates and many people still disregard them. To be sure, some of them (such as spounges) can’t suffer because they don’t have a nervous system, and others (such as jellyfishes) can’t suffer either because they have only radial nervous systems which aren’t centralized (and in order to suffer centralized nervous systems are needed). But there are many other invertebrates who do have centralized nervous systems and who do suffer.
Honey is produced by bees by swallowing nectar, regurgitating it and then repeating this process many times. During this process, their organisms add enzymes to nectar. Bees store honey in honeycombs by regurgitating it into a cell. The cell is then “capped” with wax. This process takes place so that the honey can then be consumed by the bees in the future. It takes about 12 worker bees an entire lifetime to create a single teaspoon of honey. Bees have to visit over two million flowers to create a single pound of honey.5
The exploitation of bees is done especially for the extraction of honey, which is sold in great amounts. The use of other products also entails the exploitation of bees, and contributes to make it profitable to harm them in several ways including their killing.
To take the honey more easily hives are sometimes heated while still in the structures it was made in. However, many bees are often transported with the honey and these may simply be killed. One author involved in bee exploitation writes: “If there are no windows in the room other methods such as an electric grid can be used to dispose of the stray bees”.6
When the honey is taken from the bees and they are not killed, the bees are left without their food. As a substitute for this, bees whose honey have been taken away are fed water with sugar. It is sometimes argued that this is not worse for bees than honey. But sugar isn’t as fit for the bees as honey, and they are not properly nourished with it.
Honey is not the only product obtained through the exploitation of bees. Other products for which bees are used include venom, bee pollen, royal jelly, propolis and wax are all products that are made by bees.7
Bee pollen is pollen collected by bees in sacs on their legs. Bees collect it from flowers and use it to feed their young. Beekepers place devices at the entrance of hives that trap some of this pollen, which is then sold to be used for human food (although it can be allergenic to some).8 This way the bees are still able to feed their young, but because they have a smaller amount of food they have to work much more to do it. It has become popular to use pollen collected by humans because humans have not developed a method to collect as much of a wide variety of pollen as bees can. This could be eventually done, but it is unlikely as long as bees are used out of convenience.9
Bee venom is obtained when the bee stings someone or something. It is now used for medical purposes. The bee commonly dies if she stings someone. The traditional method of obtaining bee venom thus means the death of a great number of bees. More advanced methods now only kill a reduced number of bees, yet there are always victims who die because of this. Venom collector devices are currently used for this reason. They are located at the entrance of the hive. When bees get to it, these devices administer electrical impulses to the bees to stimulate them to sting on a collector sheet, from which the venom is later obtained.
Beeswax is a secretion of glands on the underside of the abdomens of the bees, which is then masticated by them. The production of wax is very demanding for bees. In order to produce a certain amount of wax a bee must need to consume at least eight time as much honey. However, they need it because they use it to build their hives. It is also used to fix any big holes that may be opened in the hive.
It is taken from them to produce candles and cosmetics, as well as some food products and pharmaceuticals. This, again, entails that bees will have to work to produce more and more wax to make up for the wax taken from them.10
Propolis is a substance that bees use to build their hives as glue to cover small holes in the hive. It is also used for its antiseptic properties. It helps them keep micotic infections out of the hive. It is also used to isolate parts of the hive that are a threat to their health (as it may happen if an animal too big for them to remove enters the hive and dies there). Unlike beewax, propolis is not produced by the bees themselves. It is actually a resinous mixture, and it is collected by bees from tree buds or other parts of plants. It is used by humans for medical uses as well as other purposes, such as the production of cosmetics and special varnishes.11 Again, their extraction entails the bees will have to go and pick more for the hive to be kept safe.
Royal jelly is the special food needed by the queen which bees produce for her to develop. It’s not a form of honey, rather, it’s a substance secreted by the hypopharyngeal gland of bees (to be more exact, by the young workers called “nurses”). It is given to the queen and also to the larvae when they are less than three days old. After that, bees can select some larvae to become new queens if necessary (for instance, if the old queen has died, or if she is getting weak). The larvae selected to develop into new queens are fed with royal jelly, while the rest of the larvae are then fed with other products. Royal jelly then triggers a series of changes in the organism of the larvae that eventually lead to her development into a queen. Royal jelly is used as a food supplement or as a medicine (even though some people are highly allergic to it and can have serious reactions if they consume it). It is obtained from the cells in which the queens-to-be larvae are kept, which means the bee nurses will have to make a much more strenuous effort to raise them.
Finally, another product called bee brood is actually made of the bodies of bees themselves when they are young.12 “Brood” is a word used in a very general way to name the different early stages in the development of bees, including eggs, larvae and pupae. Even though this may seem surprising, they are eaten. They are stored and eaten both “fresh” and “powdered”. Bee larvae can be prepared several ways, including boiled or fried.
Wing and leg clipping, artificial insemination and other practices that are harmful for the bees are often used by beekeepers.
Many colonies die over the winter, or many are deliberately killed by beekeepers to reduce cost (it has been estimated that 10% to 20% of colonies in the U.S. are destroyed each winter, and in many cases this happens because they are left to die). More bees are simply purchased when they are needed once again, since this is cheaper. Especially in colder places beehives are sometimes burned with the bees still inside.
Hives are sometimes split up if the keeper wishes, despite the fact that the hive would not otherwise do this. In other cases two colonies of bees may be combined, but because there can only be one queen bee, the weaker of the two will simply be killed.
Queen bees are killed and replaced, sometimes as frequently as every 6 months. A new queen may be bought from breeders who artificially inseminate bees with sperm from male bees.
Queens may often also have their wings clipped to prevent “swarming”. Swarming is a process in which the queen bee leaves the colony with many worker bees, this is the way the colony reproduces.
Clipping is often done using a “baldock cage”, this is a ring with sharp spikes on its perimeter and a mesh covering the opening of the ring.13 This is used to trap the queen in one place, her wings are then cut with a scissors. Other methods for wing clipping include using a plunger and a tube with a mesh end which the queen is held against as her wings are clipped.
One author of a guide on wing clipping states to “derive quite a deal of satisfaction from clipping and marking each individual queen”.14
The marking of queen bees is another traumatic process, as is clearly shown in this video.
Bees are forcibly held in one place while paint is applied to their bodies. They clearly dislike this, which they understand as an act of aggression, and struggle to get free.
Instrumental insemination, also known as artificial insemination, is a process in which queen bees are injected with the sperm from several male bees.15 Small metal instruments are used to open the queen’s “sting chamber” and insert the syringe, which makes this experience very stressful to her. But it also causes a great amount of suffering to the male bees and their death. These animals are crushed painfully in order to extract their sperm. One website details this process as follows:
“A partial eversion is sometimes obtained by simply holding the drone by the head and thorax and teasing the abdomen. Further stimulation is usually necessary. Crush the head and thorax of the drone, holding this dorsally and ventrally. Sometimes it is also necessary to apply gentle pressure to the tip of the abdomen to stimulate the eversion.”16
The practice of crushing a male bee can be seen here. The bee appears to be alive for several seconds as he is being crushed as we can see that his antenna are still moving. The sperm from several dead bees is then taken and injected into another bee; this can be seen in this video.
Groups of queen bees are often transported from place to place. The conditions the bees must undergo during this may be highly unsuitable and detrimental to the bees. Queens often die because they are over heated or chilled. They can also be exposed to insecticides or other toxic products. And they are often left to wait stored for days while they are being delivered.
In addition, disease also spreads much more easily due to large numbers of bees being transported together. We will now see what diseases affect bees.
As it happens in the case of many other animals exploited in farms, the conditions in which bees are kept and used makes it likely for them to suffer from different diseases.17 There are a range of diseases that bees suffer from: American foul brood, European foul brood, Nosema, Colony Collapse Disorder, chalkbrood as well as various viruses. This is another cause of suffering and death for the bees in addition to the harms they suffer from exploitation. It is not that they don’t suffer from many diseases in the wild; they do and are killed in high numbers from disease, just as it happens in the case of many other animals living in the wild (even though there are ways in which we can help them and prevent this from happening). It is just that the exploitation they suffer in the hands of humans makes it relatively easy for them to suffer from different diseases, because of the stress they are forced to suffer, because of the extra work they have to do and because they aren’t properly fed.
One condition that is often suffered by bees is American foul brood, which affects larvae who are growing into adult bees. Paenibacillus larvae, a bacterium, contaminates the food of the larvae. The bacterium germinates in the gut of the developing bees and then begins to infect the whole larvae, all that is left of the bees is the bacteria. This disease eventually causes the death of the entire colony, as it kills all of the brood who then cannot be replaced.
This disease can spread very easily from colony to colony, is very resistant to high and low temperatures and can even survive for as long as 50 years. Colonies infected with this disease are often burned.
European foul brood also effects bee larvae. It is caused by contamination of food by the bacteria Melissocuccus pluton. The bacteria reproduce in the guy of the larvae and feed on its food, some larvae starve to death.
The larvae appears to have a white color due to the mass of bacteria inside it or may appear somewhat “melted”. If a colony is infected to a large degree it may simply be destroyed.
In 2007 around 700,000 colonies died in the U.S. It was reported that there were no signs of dead bees inside or very near the hives. This has been called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Its cause is still unknown. However some possible explanations include chemical contamination, pathogens, parasites and excess stress in bees.
Chalkbrood is a disease caused by the fungus Ascosphaera apis. The fungus infects the bee larvae, who become hard and white. Some believe that chalkbrood is related to higher levels of stress.
Acarine mites live in the trachea of bees and severely impair the ability of the bee to breath. As the mites grow they leave the trachea of the bees and search for another host. If bees are infected with these mites they are sometimes found crawling in front of the hive and may appear confused and disoriented.
Tropilaelaps is another animal which parasitizes bees. These mites live on the haemolymph of bee larvae and cause them serious damage as they grow.
Varroa destructor, the most damaging parasite to honey bees currently, goes inside a cell just before it is sealed and lay several eggs inside it. The baby mites parasitize the bee larva inside the cell by drinking its haemolymph. If the infestation is severe every aspect of the colony can begin to become problematic. Bees may become malnourished, deformed and have crippled wings.18
The exploitation of bees is one of the animal exploitation practices that results in more animal deaths (especially because of those dying during winter and when colonies collapse). However, none of the products obtained from the exploitation of bees are necessary. We don’t need to consume honey, or other products that exploit bees. If we like the way it tastes and its texture we can use other products such as syrup or molasses. Some of them are products of very good quality such as agave syrup or maple syrup.
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1 For an exhaustive examination of the ways in which bees are harmed due to their exploitation by humans, see Lewis, N. (2010) “Why honey is not vegan”, Vegetus.org [accessed on 15 January 2021].
2 Balderrama, N.; Díaz, H.; Sequeda, A.; Núñez, N. & Maldonado, H. (1987) “Behavioral and pharmacological analysis of the stinging response in Africanized and Italian bees”, in Menzel, R. & Mercer, A. (eds.) Neurobiology and behavior of honeybees, New York: Springer, pp. 121-128. Núñez, J. A.; Almeida, L.; Balderrama, N. & Giurfa, M. (1997) “Alarm pheromone induces stress analgesia via an opioid system in the honeybee”, Physiology & Behaviour, 63, pp. 75-80. Chen, Y. L.; Hung, Y. S. & Yang, E. C. (2008) “Biogenic amine levels change in the brains of stressed honeybees”, Archives of Insect Biochemistry and Physiology, 68, pp. 241-250. Bateson, M.; Desire, S.; Gartside, S. E. & Wright, G. A. (2011) “Agitated honeybees exhibit pessimistic cognitive biases”, Current Biology, 21, pp. 1070-1073 [accessed on 27 February 2017]. Klein, C. & Barron, A. B. (2016) “Insects have the capacity for subjective experience”, Animal Sentience, 9 (1) [accessed on 27 February 2017]. Loukola, O. J.; Perry, C. J.; Coscos, L. & Chittka, L. (2017) “Bumblebees show cognitive flexibility by improving on an observed complex behavior”, Science, 355, pp. 833-836.
3 Octopuses have mental capacities higher than those of many vertebrates, and similar to those of some mammals. This is not morally relevant, but appears to be concluding evidence they are sentient because in order to have those capacities one has to be conscious in the first place. It also shows that thinking that invertebrates are extremely simple beings for whom we should not care about is really misleading in many cases.
4 Riley, J. R.; Greggers, U.; Smith, A. D.; Reynolds, D. R.; Menzel, R. (2005) “The flight paths of honeybees recruited by the waggle dance”, Nature, 435, pp. 205-207.
5 North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (ca. 2010) “North Carolina honey…”, Marketing, North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services [accessed on 12 April 2016].
6 Root, A. I. (1980) The ABC and XYZ of bee culture: An encyclopedia pertaining to scientific and practical culture of bees, Medina: A.I. Root Co., p. 121.
7 Schmidt, J. & Buchmann, S. (1992) “Other products of the hive”, in Graham, J. M. (ed.) The hive and the honey bee, op. cit., pp. 927-988.
8 Dutau, G. & Rance, F. (2009) “Honey and honey-product allergies”, Revue Française d’Allergologie, 49 (6), pp. S16-S22.
9 Sammataro, D. & Avitabile, A. (2011) The beekeeper’s handbook, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
10 Coggshall, W. L. & Morse, R. A. (1984) Beeswax: Production, harvesting, processing and products, Kalamazoo: Wicwas.
11 Simone-Finstrom, M.; Spivak, M. (2010) “Propolis and bee health: The natural history and significance of resin use by honey bees”, Apidologie, 41, pp. 295-311.
12 Narumi, S. (2004) “Honeybee brood as a nutritional food”, Honeybee Science, 25, pp. 119-124. Finke, M. D. (2005) “Nutrient composition of bee brood and its potential as human food”, Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 44, pp. 257-270.
13 Baldwin County Beekeeper Association (2012) “Clipping and marking queens”, baldwin county alabama beekeepers [accessed on 30 January 2016].
14 Mac Giolla Coda, M. (1997) “Finding the queen: Guidance notes for finding, clipping and marking queens”, Dave Cushman’s Website [accessed on 23 March 2016].
15 Laidlaw, H. (1977) Instrumental insemination of honey bee queens: Pictorial instructional manual, Hamilton: Dadant & Sons.
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17 Shimanuki, H.; Knox, D. A.; Furgala, B.; Caron, D. M. & Williams, J. L. (1992) “Diseases and pests of honey bees”, in Graham, J. M. (ed.) The hive and the honey bee, op. cit., pp. 1083-1152.
18 Spivak, M. & Reuter, Gary S. (2001) “Varroa destructor infestation in untreated honey bee (Hymenoptera: Apidae) colonies selected for hygienic behavior”, Journal of Economic Entomology, 94, pp. 326-331 [accessed on 27 January 2017].