Discussing honey over breakfast may not be unusual, but in our household it’s easy to get into the weeds over what’s on your toast. My husband is, among other things, a beekeeper and passionate about ‘the ladies’ residing at the back of our garden. When he talks to his ag journalist wife – me – bee health, pollination and nectar sources are regular items on the agenda.

Bees are not just a topic in our household, everyone talks about bees. They have become the living, buzzing ‘poster girls’ for some of the threats we face through climate change: loss of biodiversity, the loss of pollinators and what that means for our ability to produce food.

Save the bees! has become a rallying cry. Bee friendly gardening is a thing, as is promoting wildflower meadows and field strips. Urban gardening has become so popular that we are on the verge of having too many bees in our cities – there may not be enough forage for them and wild bee species like bumblebees suffer from too much competition from honey bees in hives. Overall, this new pollinator awareness is of course great. And it seems only just that for our efforts to save the bees we are being rewarded with honey. Wins all around – I thought. Until that breakfast conversation with my husband who told me that honey was in future going to be mostly off the menu.

And with that, I hand over to the rebel beekeeper who won’t harvest honey in summer anymore.

Beekeepers have become very good at maximizing the amount of honey they produce. We’ve given the bees big boxes fitted with frames that make it easier for them to build comb and for us to check on them. We place a ‘super’ or more on top, boxes that the bees can only use for storing honey. We try to keep the bees where they are and prevent them from swarming – in short, we treat bees pretty much like we treat any other intensively reared farm animal: not very well.

And many of our bees aren’t well. You may have heard about varroa, a mite that attaches itself to the bee and eventually kills a colony, if left ‘untreated’. Hives are treated with chemicals to rid the bees of the mites, but success varies, varroa remains a threat to many colonies.

There is little one can do, I thought until I came across the research by the bee scientist Torsten Schiffer who compares bees living in hives with wild colonies who have made their homes in hollowed out old trees. His findings are stunning:

Natural colonies are smaller than most ‘kept’ colonies.

Natural cavities – the space in those hollow trees – have significantly better insulation.

Here’s why that matters: Torsten Schiffer says bees are ‘hardwired’ to fly and forage for nectar until all available space is filled with honey. Beekeepers give bees a lot of space – including those ‘supers’ they can only use for honey storage. As a consequence, bees will fly and fly: they fly in bad weather, they fly when it’s not really warm enough, they fly late in the season when there are only a few flowering plants left, they will cover longer and longer distances to compete for the last remaining food sources. It needs a huge workforce to produce so much honey – which explains why the ‘kept’ colonies are bigger: the queen lays eggs for longer to produce more workers. Rearing them, of course, increases the colony’s need for honey: brood needs to be kept at 35°C …. Schiffer’s research suggests that we have put our bees on a treadmill.

Because natural colonies are smaller and the bees inhabit less space they need to fly less and that means they have time to chill and groom. It also helps that their homes – those tree cavities – are so well insulated that they need less energy to keep them and their brood warm. (In winter bees huddle together. Worker bees take turns to be on the outside and rapidly move their wings in ‘neutral’ position to create heat. No matter how cold it is outside, they have to maintain 25°C on the inside of the cluster, where the queen is. The stored honey provides the energy to produce heat, and it has to last until spring.)

Torsten Schiffer has calculated that bees in a natural colony fly 4.5 million fewer hours in one year than a similarly small colony in a standard hive (one hour = one foraging flight). What do they do with all that extra time? They groom themselves and each other, thoroughly, and are thereby able to get rid of most of the varroa mites! While their ‘kept’ cousins in their huge, barely insulated bee boxes are desperately flying to gather the last nectar of the season the bees in natural colonies are treating each other to hour-long ‘spa visits’.

I’m not arguing for us to give up eating honey for good. In spring, when the colonies have made it safely through the winter, taking the ‘old’ leftover honey isn’t a problem. The bees don’t need it anymore, because the trees are in bloom and they are out foraging.

What we can’t afford to do is take around 30kg of honey per year from every single bee box. Beekeepers may argue that they provide sugar water to make up for what they take, but that’s like handing the bees the equivalent of a fast-food voucher: the ‘honey’ they can produce from sugar water has none of the properties of real honey, made from nectar. About 1/3 of all bee colonies don’t survive the winter season on this diet.

And although we may not change beekeeping overnight, maybe we could do a little more to keep bees warm. Insulating existing hives better, not just during winter, should help.”

So, there it is, the lecture I got over breakfast from my rebel beekeeper husband. It made me wonder: do we actually need to use so much honey? Do we need to bake with honey, have honey dressing on our salad, honey roasts, honeyed nuts, sticky soy and honey pork, honey glazed vegetables, honey butter and crispy honey buffalo wings – to name just a few of the recipes a two-second google search brings up. Honey has a lot of beneficial properties, all of which are lost in cooking. Do we really need to make a cake that calls for 250g of clear honey, which means bees have flown about 45,000 miles and visited one million flowers to make that amount?

Maybe it’s time to appreciate honey in a new way: as a delicious, delightful, precious and rare treat.

Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.

Dr. Martin Kunz has been working in ethical and Fair Trade since the 1970s and is a hobby beekeeper.

Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel
Images (c) and used with kind consent @M.Kunz

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