For those of you who seek out local honey, it might be interesting to learn that midsummer is the time when beekeepers look at the colonies they tend, determine how much excess honey is available, and bottle up the liquid gold that flows to teacups and tables around our region. It's a sticky, meticulous job, taking place when the temperatures are highest in part to ensure that the honey flows free-er, and in part to give the bees time to put away additional stores in case the winter ahead is particularly hard.
We are careful with what we take from the bees, and concerned not to take too much. Beekeepers around here like to leave from 50 to 75 pounds of honey on their hives. Last year, I left 100 pounds (I'm a worrier), and ended up with boxes of unused and unwanted (and now crystallized) golden syrup. Well, it's better than starving 100,000 treasured neighbors!
As this year's honey harvest approaches, I've come across some t-shirts being sold by an animal-rights activist that say "Save the Bees, No Honey Please!" which stopped me in my tracks. The two phrases seem to me to be in complete conflict. My main reason for keeping bees is to help them survive the current onslaught of diseases and pests, and every beekeeper I know has as his or her prime objective the health and expansion of those fascinating insect communities. Harvesting honey is mostly a hard and hot job, and necessary to keep the hives open enough for large bee families (and to show our relatives some rationale for this obsessive, demanding hobby)! Most of us local beekeepers lose money on it. I was literally shocked to realize that someone thought that keeping bees was all about honey, and about hurting the bees, to boot! I am generally an animal-rights kind of gal, so I got to wondering what it could possibly mean.
Perhaps the slogan comes from the sad truth that you cannot keep bees without (at least occasionally) killing a few. When a hive is dwindling, often a new queen must be introduced, and the old one dispatched. Sometimes the beekeeper does this just a week or so ahead of the queen's own daughters. Sometimes the beekeeper gets stung, and honeybees die when they sting. Also, at this time of year, when the bee populations in the hives are at their peak, it's very difficult to move parts around (to check for disease, to offer some extra sugar water, or to add more living room) without squashing someone accidentally. But this is not a goal, or even desirable. And re-queening is a process that no beekeeper enjoys — and one that many of us put it off longer than we should.
Perhaps the anti-honey position is based on the idea that animal life should not be dependent on the whims of humans. That's one worry that gets me every time I make a beekeeing error, and one that has even cost me some sleep. But the honeybees can't make it without people just now, even less competent humans, and the truth is that people can't make it without bees, since between 20 and 30 percent of our vegetable crops depend on honeybee pollination. Even more, considering how many days the beekeepers spend chasing around after the schedule set by the bees themselves — working in bee-approved weather, adding hive space when bees need it, offering extra food when weird weather makes nectar collection hard, preventing swarms, buttoning hives down for winter — we sometimes wonder who is in charge. We pay for our pride when we think it is us!
Perhaps a ban on honey is as simple as making a rule and sticking with it: no animal products. Well, in that case, it is more about the human's need for ethical and dietary clarity than it is about saving the honeybees. Our forests used to be full of wild honeybees: now, anywhere in the world where you can even find a forest, the buzzing is largely silent. Those wings won't keep beating unless someone offers the bees a safe home. Clarity and choices are to be respected — they make us who we are — but they do not change the 25,000 year-old beneficial relationship between people and honeybees. And clarity certainly does not save any bees.
One of the things that the bees have taught me is that we live in a world that surrounds us with wonders, not explanations, and I'll take the former if I have to choose. I will also take some honey, thank you, and share it with my human friends in much the same way that I share my caring, hard work, affection, and gratitude with the bees all year long. And for those who see this honey thing differently, I'm willing to just share the wonder.