A hotly debated topic, many people argue over whether or not it is sustainable to harvest honey and beeswax. In this article, we will cover the importance of bees, the devastating effects of commercial beekeeping, and how sustainable and natural beekeeping practices can help save these beautiful creatures from extinction.
The Bee’s Knees
In the 18th century, the expression “the bee’s knees” was used as a synonym for “small” or “unnoticeable”. Since the 1920s, the term was adopted by young people to describe something as being “amazing”. Although this was mostly just nonsense language (similar to “the cat’s pyjamas” and “the snake’s hips”), there is a lot of truth behind the phrase. Bee’s knees are pretty amazing!
The Importance of the Bee
Honeybees not only have the momentous task of collecting pollen for their colony, but they also play an important role in maintaining the planet’s biodiversity. You see, flowers often have no way to pollinate each other so instead, they open their blooms and diffuse a seductive fragrance to attract the honeybees.
Once a bee lands on the flower to feed on its nectar, the stamens rub against its body (including its knees) and cover them with pollen. After its meal, the bee will continue its journey, spreading the pollen to different flowers and subsequently enabling pollination.
In fact, bees pollinate 80% of flowering plants and a third of the food we eat! They also pollinate and contribute to the survival of plants that other birds and animals rely on to survive. Consequently, bees are a keystone species and play a much more important role than just producing honey and beeswax.
What is Sustainability?
Everything we require to survive and to promote our health and well-being is dependent on our natural environment, whether directly or indirectly. According to James Cook University, sustainability can be defined as “the ability to maintain healthy environmental, social and economic systems in balance, indefinitely, on a global and local scale”.
Why is Environmental Sustainability Important?
Whilst beekeeping is linked to both social and economic sustainability, in this article, we will focus on environmental sustainability, because of its importance in ensuring we (and future generations) can live healthy lives on a healthy planet Earth.
Environmental sustainability can be achieved when we maintain the rates of renewable resource usage, non-renewable resource depletion, and pollution so that they can be continued indefinitely. The exploitation of these resources and the production of pollution has had severe effects on our environment and contributes greatly to climate change.
Is Commercial Beekeeping Environmentally Sustainable?
Put simply, no. The majority of commercially-produced honey and beeswax is far from sustainable. Here’s why:
As previously mentioned, honeybees are a keystone species. That means they help to maintain biodiversity and are directly involved in controlling the populations of other species. They do this by pollinating crops and plants around the world.
Unfortunately, a large amount of unsustainable commercially-kept bees are used to pollinate mono-cultured crops, making them prone to contamination by pesticides and other poisonous substances. Traces of neonicotinoid chemicals have been found in 75% of honey samples from across the world and, in one-third of the honey, this was enough to be detrimental to bees.
If this wasn’t enough, the big industrial beekeeping companies give their colonies petroleum-based honeycomb to build their hives on, which leak toxins into the beeswax.
The majority of commercial beekeeping companies harvest too much honey and replace it with sugar water or corn syrup. These food replacements do not contain the same micronutrients found in the bee’s natural honey, which means that the colonies are weakened and less able to fight disease. One of the leading causes of honeybee extinction is due to diseases and parasites, such as the Varroa mite.
Mass selective breeding also narrows the gene pool and reduces the numbers of native bumblebees, which are more adapted to their environments and have better immunity to local diseases.
A slightly different issue that’s not quite under the same branch as environmental sustainability is the ethics of unsustainable beekeeping. We won’t go into too much detail here, but there are numerous animal rights violations associated with commercial honey and beeswax production. In addition to the micronutrient depletion, queen bees’ wings are clipped to prevent swarming and hives are often culled post-harvest to keep costs down.
Find out why SunButter chooses to be cruelty-free
Do Sustainable Beeswax and Honey Exist?
The good news is that beekeeping can be sustainable and there are many companies that work towards protecting and saving honeybees from extinction. From saving swarms of bees from unsafe environments to providing bees with a safe haven, encouraging genetic diversity, providing clean and diverse living conditions, and minimising disturbance, beekeepers can ensure the healthy future of their colonies.
Below we have listed some of the principles of natural beekeeping, according to Natural Beekeeping Australia, that allows for the sustainable harvest of honey and beeswax.
By avoiding petroleum-based combs and allowing bees to create their own, sustainable beekeepers can ensure that the health of the colony is strengthened and remove the risk of toxins leaking into the honey and beeswax.
Whilst commercial beekeepers discourage and actively prevent swarming, it is an essential part of a colony’s lifecycle and allows bees to reproduce naturally. Swarming deals with the threat of overcrowding and the splitting of the colony increases genetic diversity and ultimately improves the health and well-being of the honeybees.
To promote the long-term health of a colony, beekeepers should not replace the honey with sugar water or corn syrup. Naturally-produced food is the only sustainable food choice for bees.
A clean and diverse environment should be maintained inside and outside of the hive. This includes locating the hives away from crops that are grown with pesticides and avoiding the use of chemicals to clean equipment or control pests and/or diseases.
Honeybees have survived by themselves for thousands of years and continue to benefit from their independence. Inspecting colonies should be done infrequently and honey and beeswax should only be taken when it is made in excess. Only in this way will a harvest be considered sustainable.
How to Save the Bees
There are many ways to help save the bees from extinction, such as keeping a bee garden, buying organic produce, and even becoming a beekeeper. Another incredibly important step we could all take is to only buy honey and beeswax from sustainable beekeepers.
Sustainable Beeswax and SunButter’s Surf Zinc
In our SunButter Surf Zinc products, we only use sustainable beeswax from a local and small-scale company in Australia. This means that we can be sure of where it comes from and that it is ethically-produced. No chemicals are used in the production of the beeswax, the beekeeping practices used are cruelty-free, and all efforts are put into sustaining the healthy future of this highly resilient and beautiful species.
Our Surf Zincs are made locally in Australia for longer sessions in the sun. Not only do they use sustainable beeswax, but they also contain healthy minerals and natural oils to protect and enrich your skin.
Check out our full range of sustainable beeswax SunButter Surf Zincs