it’s all about the bees, honey
Honey is a popular sweetener that has been used for thousands of years, and praised for its natural properties, health benefits and taste. However, as veganism has become increasingly popular, the ethical considerations around honey consumption have been brought into question.
Honeybees are social insects that live in colonies, with a queen bee at the centre. They are responsible for pollinating crops and flowers, which makes them essential to our global ecosystem.
The honeybee, the genius of bee used in commercial honey production, will visit up to 1500 flowers in order to collect enough nectar to fill the first chamber of their stomach, called the proventriculus (honey stomach). Nectar is 70-80% water with a mixture of sucrose, glucose and fructose, plus some scent chemicals to help draw bees to the flowers.
Then it’s back to the hive… bees can carry up to half their body weight and have one of the highest power output rates in the animal kingdom allowing them to forage up to 5km from the hive, however at this range most of the nectar they’ve collected is used for the flight home.
After returning to the hive, the nectar with a helping of an enzyme called invertase, is regurgitated and passed mouth to mouth to ‘house bees’. It is processed by these bees until the water content hits 18% at which point mould and bacteria cannot grow. This honey is then packed into the wax chambers and sealed.
In spring and early summer, the bee colony uses all its honey to feed the larvae, building its workforce to a summer peak of up to 50,000 bees. These workers then spend a few weeks madly gathering nectar to see them through the winter. The hive works as a collective to provide each member with an adequate supply, it takes 12 bees their entire life to make a teaspoon of honey, significantly less than most people would expect.
Honey is absolutely fundamental to the hive’s wellbeing. The sugar syrups and other substitutes often left in place of the honey lacks the essential micro-nutrients of honey which has a detrimental effect on the bees.
Bees play a crucial role in pollinating crops and flowers, and the large-scale production of honey can lead to the exploitation of these bees, which can have a negative impact on the environment and the use of pesticides and other chemicals in honey production can harm the bees and other pollinators.
Mass breeding of honeybees can affect the populations of other competing nectar-foraging insects, including other bees. Overwhelmed by the ever-growing population of farmed bees, the numbers of native bumblebees have declined.
The importing of honey into the UK also increases our carbon footprint through the emissions associated with transport. 95% of the honey eaten in the UK is imported, mostly from China and Turkey.
There are plenty of alternatives to honey (we make quite a few right here in the UK 😉) which can be used in recipes as a substitute. By choosing honey alternatives, we can all still enjoy sweet and delicious foods while leaving those hardworking bees to their own hard won winter stores 🐝