Is Harvesting Honey Bad for Bees?

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Beekeepers benefit by harvesting honey, beeswax and other products from beehives, which they can then sell for a profit. However, there are some beekeepers that are in it solely for conservation purposes. The question sometimes pops up, is it morally wrong to take honey from bees? Have you ever asked yourself, is harvesting honey bad for bees? Well, if those questions have been on your mind, then this article will explore a few ethical issues about beekeeping.

Is it Morally Wrong to Take Honey From Bees?

No, harvesting honey and taking it from bees is not wrong, morally or otherwise. Bees are able to adapt to the loss of honey resources and most importantly, good beekeepers make sure to leave adequate honey in the beehive for the survival of the colony. Agriculture includes the production of both plants and animals. Beekeeping is a part of agriculture. It serves a demand for food by humans. Honey is a nutritious food that humans cannot make. The desire for honey consumption has led to the rise of beekeeping – an art that has been practiced for many centuries now. In beekeeping, honey is only one of the few products harvested from beehives, with the others being beeswax, propolis and royal jelly. Each beehive product is used for different purposes and applications, and each product is sustainably harvested.

A strong honeybee colony can fill up several beehive boxes with honey in one season. They make their honey in cells on frames. What we know as honey, is actually nectar that has undergone curing. It is passed through the digestive system of bees and allowed to accumulate sugars. The nectar is also dehydrated so that its water content becomes very low.

When honey is fully cured, bees seal up the cells that contain honey using a light layer of beeswax in a process called capping. A healthy colony does not feel the effect of honey being harvested from the beehive and continues making more honey. With proper beehive management, a single beehive can produce many, many pounds of honey in a season. The honey is harvested continually from mid July to mid September (before winter) in most regions of the USA.

What do Bees Eat When we Take Their Honey?

Bees eat varying foods depending on their age and type. The queen bee is fed different food from larvae. Worker bees in the beehive eat food that differs from forager worker bees. The diet of bees is made up of pollen and nectar. The nectar can be eaten as is, or processed into honey. Pollen in the beehive is made into a mass that cakes and stored in the honeycomb cells. When there is plenty, bees will eat the various foods as they go out into from the fields. When forager bees cannot go out of the beehive, the honeybee colony is kept going by honey and stored pollen.

Beekeepers harvesting honey from beehives, only take away some of the honey the bees had stored. The harvesting time is planned carefully so that it does not harm bees. The beekeeper does not remove all the honey and leave the bees with nothing. A few frames that contain honey are left in the beehive. The frames may be full or only have honey in some of the cells.

The amount of honey that is left in the beehive after harvesting, is enough to keep the bees going as they work to continue growing their colony and accumulate more honey. Harvesting of honey is done when there is abundance of nectar and pollen. During the nectar flow season, you can harvest honey from a beehive several times. It allows you to get the maximum yields from each beehive in your apiary. Keeping the supply of honey in the beehive low, makes bees spend more effort in collecting nectar and pollen. It is one of the management strategies used to prevent swarming.

When winter is approaching, bees collect less pollen and nectar. Eventually, they stop going out of the hive for foraging flights. Beekeepers should make sure that their honeybee colonies have enough supply of honey to last them through late autumn, winter and early spring. If the colonies do not have enough honey, supplementary feeding with sugar syrup and pollen patties can be done to shepherd the colony into the next honey flow season.

Honey in the beehive is used to feed brood, the queen bee and worker bees. In winter, the number of brood is reduced by the colony, which results in slower consumption of honey over winter. In early spring, the number of brood is often increased in the beehive to prepare for nectar flow season. A colony with many adult bees in honey flow season is able to collect more nectar, and thus make more honey.

Does Harvesting Beeswax Harm Bees?

Beeswax is a major beehive product. Its demand and number of uses only compare to those of honey. Honeybees use wax for many functions in the beehive. It is the primary material used to make honeycomb, where honey is stored and bee brood are reared.

Building honeycomb in the beehive is called drawing comb. It is attached by bees to beehive frames or top bars of beehives. In the wild, honeycomb is attached to the sides of tree hollows. Bees have a tendency to draw comb from the top towards the lower sections of the beehive. A frame is gradually drawn with comb from the top to its lower section. Frames in upper beehive boxes also get drawn with comb before frames in lower placed beehive boxes. Honeybees can draw comb quickly when there is need to. To do so, they need to eat foods that have high sugar content. They can use honey or nectar for feeding to trigger wax production. When the colony does not have enough frames with drawn comb, it re-purposes more resources and effort to drawing comb.

A beekeeper harvesting beeswax cuts the comb from the frame or top bar. A sharp knife is used to do the job. The knife may be serrated or not. It can also be a heated knife to make the job go faster. Comb that is cut from frames is then mashed or heated to melt it up. If it contains honey, the honey is first extracted.

Well managed removal of drawn comb from the beehive does not spell doom for the honeybee colony. It also serves other purposes in beehive management such as preventing swarming. The removal of frames with comb and replacing them with empty frames gives bees work to do and can delay swarming. It is used alongside other practices to keep the size of honeybee colonies smaller than the critical number that precipitates swarming.

Conservation Beekeeping – Keeping Bees Without Harvesting Honey

Conservation beekeepers practice a type of beekeeping where they do not harvest honey. Their main objective is to keep healthy colonies of honeybees that are allowed to swarm frequently. They do this to contribute to the presence of wild swarms of honeybees, which improves the genetic diversity among bees in nature.

Other beekeepers run apiaries where they do not harvest honey but still make money from bees. There are those that keep bees for pollination, and others that have beekeeping museums and educational apiaries to teach beekeeping. These other avenues of making money from beekeeping can sometimes be more profitable than the harvesting and sale of honey. For these beekeepers, honeybee colonies can be allowed to swarm whenever they like or managed in a manner to prevent frequent swarming.

When honey is not harvested from a beehive, it accumulates. A honeybee colony with enough food reserves and sufficiently large numbers is likely to swarm. A number of bees totaling about half or more of the colony, moves off with a new queen to start a new honeybee colony. Before leaving, the bees eat honey so that they can last long without eating. The honey diet also helps with wax production for when the swarm finds a home and has to draw comb quickly.

The honeybees left in the beehive where swarming has occurred repopulate the colony and swarming can occur again. In a period lasting between late spring and late autumn, a beehive can see swarming occur more than 2 times. Subsequent swarms from the same honeybee colony often have fewer bees than the primary swarm. They can also leave the bees in the original colony with very little honey supply. Swarming is not a bad thing for beekeepers. It ensures genetic diversity in honeybee colonies. Swarming also helps beekeepers get new swarms for their new beehives.

All in all, it is good to support conservation beekeepers that are into keeping bees without harvesting honey.

A Final Word

In conclusion, harvesting honey is not bad for honeybees. Beekeepers take many measures to ensure it is not a stressful activity for bees. Honeybees are able to produce much more honey than they can use up. Beekeepers harvest off surplus honey for their consumption or sale. Keeping bees is an agricultural practice, which is also called apiculture. Early beekeepers  conducted plenty research and contributed many discoveries used in modern beekeeping. The practice has been around for many centuries now. It is a major economic activity for many people. Use this guide to harvest honey safely and to enjoy the full benefits of your harvest.

What are your thoughts on this article? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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Joan Evans
Joan Evans
10 months ago

What about videos I have seen of bees struggling on factory belts squashed with their honey.. can ee not stop this cruel side of beekeeping?

2 months ago
Reply to  BeeKeepClub

Why is this not something you explore in your article?

Perhaps explain which brands treat honeybee’s in a kindly manner and which use ‘factory’ methods to extract honey.

I’m guessin that the MAJORITY of honey sold in the shops is mass produced and the bee’s are not treated very well at all (culled at winter, queen’s wings cut ect).

You paint a rosy picture in your article without explaining the BAD side of bee farming. It is disingenous.

1 month ago
Reply to  BeeKeepClub

I agree with previous comments, if you’re going to write an educational article about harvesting honey, I think you would do the bees a service and explore all ways a honey is harvested. People such as myself (I literally just learned something new from your reader’s comments) don’t know about the harmful ways bees are exploited. Ignorance is bliss and if I’m going to be honest, it seems you just contributed to it (whether you meant to or not).

3 days ago

Thanks for the article, it is very educational. Getting my bees 🐝 next week, going to take great care of them naturally, swarm and all 😉

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