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Questions to Ask Before Buying Honey, Beeswax and Other Bee Products

Originally posted on Top-Bar-Beehives.com’s Blog:

Like many other mornings, Margo and I headed over to the local farmers market to supplement our weekly grocery purchases and to get out of the house for a bit.  Amongst the vendors selling potted herbs, veggie starts, maple syrup, goat and cow cheeses, and lotions, we found a few groups specializing in honeybee products.  With jars of honey and candles spread over their tables, we decided to say hello and chat.  Like other encounters we’ve had before, the conversation began with simple hellos followed by the inquiry of how many hives they have and what type of hives they run (which typically surprises and sometimes confuses the person behind the booth, since so few people understand or care about this information, hence the creation of this post!).

Noting that we have a hive in Arizona and build top bar beehives, one of the other beekeepers at the market responded that he normally has 30 Langstroth hives, which are moved around Minnesota throughout the summer.  After this, he stated that last year he tried to keep 8 of the 30 alive through the winter (usually he keeps none), which was difficult because he takes most of the honey from them in the fall for his business.  He said he tried to give the wintering hives lots of sugar water (not the same as honey, obviously), but of the 8 colonies, only 2 survived the winter, requiring him to reorder bees this spring; continuing this unsustainable cycle.

While I realize the economic reality that creates this type of hive and honeybee management, it is shocking how commonplace it has become at our “local” farmers markets and in natural food stores; places that are suppose to be promoting sustainable and ethical practices.   We have found that this is not unique to the market we visited today and have had similar (identical) encounters in Arizona.  Whether you are looking for honey, beeswax, lotions, salves or any other product that contains a bee product, it is time that we start to ask “local” beekeepers  the important questions about their practices (this should also be applied to farmers and other proponents of “green” lifestyles).

While it can be difficult to ask questions, since we don’t want to make anyone “feel bad”, it is vital that we do so in-order to bring accountability to our communities, and decrease our tolerance of unsustainable practices.  In pursuit of healthier and more sustainable communities, here are a few questions that I encourage you to ask before you purchase honey, beeswax or any other bee product:

1. Where are your hives located and what type of hives do you use?  By asking this question, you can evaluate whether or not the honey (wax, propolis, et cetera) is local enough for you.  At Top-Bar-Beehives.com, we define local to be within 30 miles from our home and always ask about the location of the hives since bioregions (and therefore the plants the bees collect nectar from) can differ drastically.  If you are looking to use honey medicinally to help with allergies this is important because you’ll want to make sure the plants that you’re allergic to are being visited by the bees that made the honey you’re about to purchase.   We encourage you to think about and define what local means to you and to start your own beehive, since that’s as local as it can get.

Regarding hive types, most commercial beekeepers (even small ones) are running Langstroth hives because they can be easily stacked on pallets and transported.  While Langstroth hives aren’t inherently “bad,” the management practices of the beekeepers who have them should especially be questioned.  Most Langstroth hives utilize prefabricated foundation comb because they “save” bees the time and effort of building their own combs, in theory making more honey faster.  As Michael Bush states on BushFarms.com, “The entire world wax supply is now contaminated with acaracides (poisons),” which are being recycled into the foundations that most Langstroth beekeepers frequently use.  Not only is this practice bad for bees, it can also be harmful to us, since we are now ingesting and covering our bodies with chemically-laced products.  Although some may argue that these chemicals are only found in trace amounts and therefore not harmful to us as humans, it is important to know exactly what you’re getting when buying because the chemicals are killing (and at best, weakening) honeybee colonies worldwide.  So if they say they use Langstroth hives/”the standard”/”normal old hives”, you need to ask if they are using prefabricated foundations.

2. Are your hives transported and used for commercial pollination?  This question’s pretty simple; if hives are stationary then it is likely that they are placed in a diverse and healthy ecosystem that can support the colony year-round; and in-turn their honey is more likely to be chemical-free and pure, depending on the management practices of the beekeeper.  In contrast, hives that are transported many times a year become weakened and are more susceptible to diseases and pest problems; resulting in antibiotic applications and chemical pest control techniques.  In this commercial setting, hives are also more often fed high fructose corn syrup because it is cheap and quick to disperse.  Likewise, bees that are transported to industrial farms, ones growing monocultures, are further exposed to that operations chemicals/toxins that then negatively affect the colony and the bee products that come from those hives.  According to NaturallyGrown.org, “the grassroots alternative to Certified Organic,” it is recommended that colonies are only moved when it would benefit the well-being of the hive and moves are limited to 4 per year, between no more than 3 apiaries.  If you’re looking for pure honey, wax or other bee products, refrain from buying anything from bees that have been hauled long distances, ask why the hives were moved if they have been, and where they were moved to.

3. What steps are you taking to keep bees alive during the winter? As noted above, most beekeepers kill off their colonies every year so they can collect all of the honey that the bees worked so hard to make so that they could survive the winter.  While many feel that this is their only choice since selling honey is a source of income, and buying new bees is cheaper than taking/selling less honey, we need to begin to question these practices because they are obviously unsustainable and are disrespectful to the bees we are supposed to be in a sacred relationship with.  With recent reports of Colony Collapse Disorder and other mass die-offs of bees, we cannot afford to continue to kill off bees just because we can buy some more nucs next year.  The Agricultural Research Service (USDA) estimates that we have lost over 2.5 million honeybee colonies over the last 70 years and colonies continue to decrease by about 20 – 30% each year.  Instead of recklessly killing more bees, we need to be supporting (breeding) zone hardy bees that can help us rebuild the honeybee populations.   Honey is the primary source of survival for bees during the winter so when we steal the bees honey to take to the market, we cannot be surprised to find boxes full of dead bees.  As a consumer, encourage beekeepers to leave the honey alone and only take what the bees don’t need once winter and spring have passed.

Asking these questions will give you a better understanding of the honey, beeswax and other products you’re buying.  Talk to your friends, farmers market coordinators, CSA stores and anyone else who is carrying “local” honey.   If we hope to become more sustainable, we have to stop buying products produced by unethical beekeeping practices while at the same time supporting those who are breeding local strains of bees, finding ways to be chemical-free and supporting a diverse ecosystem that can sustain both human and non-human communities.