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  • Writer's pictureRoger Bray

Bee Welfare Code – a Marketer’s Tick-Box, or More?

Following six years of Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) investigation, through Landcare Research’s Colony Loss Survey which indicates around 10% of New Zealand bee colonies perish over a six month (winter) period, it is little wonder the Minister of Agriculture has indicated to industry groups that he wishes beekeepers to address what he considers are bee welfare issues.

The Minister has established bees are sentient creatures (that is, they have feelings) and thus deserve respect in their care. It appears the Minister has taken beekeeper views on overstocking causing starvation of colonies and other bee health issues seriously and asked industry groups to sort the problem.

: Bee beard: 1978 and young apiarist Roger Bray poses for a photo in the Ashburton Guardian with a “bee beard” to prove how tame bees can be. Most beekeepers treat their bees with care and respect – such as is needed to comfortably wear a bee beard – but is Bee Care Code required?

Anyone that actually works a beehive is aware that each time a beehive lid is removed the bees become distressed. As the beekeeper breaks the beehive down to expose the brood combs some individual bees are maimed and a few may be killed. As the hive is put back together it becomes an impossible task to ensure that all the bees in the hive are out of the way of being crushed to death. Such is beekeeping both in New Zealand and other countries.

Most beekeepers have an affinity for their bees, accept they are sentient and minimise harm as much as possible, within the constraints of using time efficiently when working in a commercial situation.

So, beekeepers have what appears to be an impossible task ahead of them if they accept there is indeed a bee welfare ‘problem’ that needs to be sorted.

Can any written document stop bees being distressed, maimed or squashed while beekeepers work them? Can a written document prevent starvation through overstocking? Can a written document on ‘bee welfare’ prevent sometimes large colony losses where the actual cause remains a mystery?

A written document may prevent bee losses from being confined as they sometimes are in netted orchards, or provide enforcement of spray regulations under animal welfare provisions. However, is it necessary to embark on writing such a document or should discussion centre on identifying if there is a problem and how practical it would be to address? Are there any other insects that are sentient – flies, varroa, bumble bees, wasps?

Roger Bray.

At the same time, it appears some honey marketers have been taking notice of a NZ Trade & Enterprise survey of consumer buying preferences when it comes to making their purchases. It shows, some of the important influences in consumers decisions relate to the sustainability of the product and that the product is ethically produced and sourced.

Have the marketers of honey simply seen a marketing advantage to push animal welfare when they may not be aware of how beekeeping actually works, or the insurmountable issues beekeepers have with manipulating beehives without causing distress or suffering to (a few) bees?

It has been promoted that a quality mark should be developed that acknowledges the production of honey is sustainable taking into account bee welfare, but would beekeepers be happy to sign a declaration that “No bees were harmed in the making of my honey”? That’s where modern beekeeper ‘ethics’ comes in.

Perhaps there would be a few beekeepers, and even some of our larger companies prepared to make such a claim. Therefore, any documented bee welfare code needs to have some monitoring and enforcement capability. How would monitoring take place? What would enforcement look like?

If a bee welfare code was developed would MPI see a reduction in the number of colonies lost as depicted in the Colony Loss Survey? Should losses through beehive management become zero, except for natural disasters that nobody can predict or plan for?

Finally, with respect to the ethics referred in the NZ Trade & Enterprise survey, some companies promote their product as being ‘ethically sourced’. One such company is the Bell Tea Company, who are part of an organisation called the Ethical Tea Partnership. That organisation promotes “creating a fairer, better, more sustainable tea industry for workers, farmers and the environment”.

It seems to me the NZ honey industry is a long way from being able to claim their products are ethically sourced while the situation remains that honey traders appear to have little regard for production costs, or the welfare and sustainability of bees or the beekeeper, when sourcing honey. They simply offer a take or leave (low) price knowing that the beekeeper either caves in and accepts or the next producer in the line will face the same dilemma.

Such are the ethics within this industry at present. Should we simply term this as ‘market forces’, create a tick box with “bee care code” and allow the marketers to portray another illusion to consumers though?

Roger Bray is a Mid Canterbury beekeeper of more than 50 years’ experience who has previously served on the executive of the National Beekeeping Association and is a current member of New Zealand Beekeeping Incorporated’s executive council.



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