Think of factory farming and it brings to mind images of hens in tiny cages, or pigs in narrow crates, unable to turn round. Think again about factory farming, but this time with bees. They aren’t kept in cages or crates. But the way they are intensively reared, transported and killed in their billions, nevertheless, seems questionable. It is true that we can feed the world without factory farming. However, our food future also depends, to an important extent, on a thriving population of healthy bees.

When bees fly from flower to flower they achieve two things; they gather pollen to make honey and beeswax at the hive; and they fertilise plants through pollination. Among the many plants they pollinate are those we eat or use to feed farm animals. About a third of the average human diet is said to depend on bee pollination.

In factory farming, the objective is to maximise production of the “crop”, be it plant or animal, at minimum cost. Bees too have been brought into this industrialisation of agriculture. Billions of battery bees are now used in a process that has been described as the “industrialisation of pollination”.

For example, in California’s Central Valley, which accounts for about 80% of the world’s almond harvest, 600,000 acres of land are planted with a vast monoculture; 60 million almond trees. Each year in late winter or early spring, around 3,000 trucks drive across the United States to bring some 40 billion bees here. Over a million hives are placed amongst the trees to do the essential job of pollination. The scale and industrialisation is about as unlike keeping a beehive in your garden as factory farming is keeping a couple of hens at home.

In their book, ‘A World Without Bees’, Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum write, “The majority of flowering plants need animals to pollinate them” and describes the honeybee as being “perfectly engineered to perfom the task”. They attribute to Albert Einstein the profoundly disturbing thought:

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.”

What’s happening to bees should trigger alarm bells for us all. Bees are becoming diseased or dying in unimaginable numbers. One in three bee colonies in the UK have died over the last two years. More than 90 billion bees have died over the past 10 years in France. Preliminary research suggests that what is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is linked to the use of a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Some countries have already moved to restrict their use, including Germany, France, Italy and Slovenia. Further research and action is urgently needed. Indeed, the British Government allocated £10 million for pollinator research, but as Benjamin and McCallum write on their blog, A world without bees:

“None of the £10 million set aside for pollinator research in the UK this year is going towards pesticide research. Why is this? Could it be because the funders, such as the Wellcome Trust and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the universities which could undertake the research are all reliant on the pesticide manufacturers for future funding? Is the British government in the pocket of these giant chemical companies?”

I urge you to support the campaigns of both the Co-operative, one of the UK’s largest farmers and retailers, and the Soil Association, which supports organic farming. The honeybees need our help.

The lives of bees are complex and organised. They rely on a navigation system that uses the sun and landmarks to guide them when they travel up to three miles away from their hive. They communicate through a “waggle dance” which is how they tell each other about where food can be found. Human civilisations throughout millenia have venerated bees. And for good reason. For who or what would pollinate our food plants without them?

This isn’t about whether bees are like pigs, chickens or cows. We know that these farm animals have social lives and behavioural and physiological needs. We know that pigs, chickens and cows are sentient beings, capable of feeling pain, suffering and, if we let them, a sense of well-being. We may not know the same about bees. Nonetheless, we must look after them. We must show them care and respect. They are special actors on the world’s stage, certainly when it comes to food and the natural environment. Without them, the world would become a dark place. “Without the honeybee” Benjamin and McCallum concluded, “the vitality and colour of the planet would be lost.”

2 Responses to “BEES AND US”

  1. Brody James says:

    organic farms could actually save us from carcinogens and toxins“.

  2. […] written before about bees. Frankly, I don’t think too much could ever be written about them. So, it’s always […]

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About Philip Lymbery

Philip Lymbery is Chief Executive Officer of Compassion in World Farming and co-author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat. He is an internationally respected authority on the impact of industrial agriculture on people, animals and the planet.