A Plea for Bees

By Melissa Rae Sanger

My fascination with bees began in a rather peculiar way: by adopting a dog named QB from our local animal shelter. We went from calling him QB to just B, and my children embellished his new nickname by indulging me with all things bee: bee T-shirts, bee pictures, bee keychains—you name it, I have it. What started as a sweet tribute to our dog became a newfound inspiration.

I decided to become a backyard beekeeper. I read books, frequented meetings and watched documentaries. I let wildflowers take over my gardens. My father built me the most beautiful hive. I was getting closer to my goal of welcoming bees—until one event altered my perception of “beekeeping” forever. September may be National Honey Month, but as I would soon learn, taking honey from bees is anything but sweet.

Filled with excitement, I attended my first hands-on honeybee workshop. I delighted in the sweet banana-like aroma in the air (which I later learned was an alarm pheromone bees emit when they feel threatened), harmonized with the gentle buzzing and felt the vibrations from thousands of tiny, delicate wings as I held a live frame for the first time. I was, without exaggeration, moved to tears.

But nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.

With the nonchalance of a server refilling a water glass, the instructor filled a mason jar with rubbing alcohol. I watched in horror as she quickly scooped what she estimated to be about 300 bees into a measuring cup and dumped them into the jar filled with the toxic liquid. Once she secured the lid, she began vigorously shaking the jar, passing it to the closest student for a go. I could hear the desperate bees inside, their buzzing growing softer with each shake.

After everyone (except me) had taken a turn, she poured the discolored liquid into a tub and flung the dead bees onto the grass, explaining that she was getting a “mite count.” Varroa mites commonly afflict bees, and although I knew that we would be learning about treatment options during this workshop, I had no idea that we’d also be getting an education in beekeeping’s dark side.

I mustered the courage to raise my hand. “Would the number of mites affect the course of treatment?” I asked. Her answer? “No.” Whether the alcohol wash revealed a mite count of one or one thousand, the treatment would stay the same. I asked if there was a humane way to determine a mite count. Her answer? “Yes.”

My gentle fascination turned to rage.

Why should these sentient beings be treated with such extreme disregard and cruelty? Bees demonstrate self-awareness, recognize human (and possibly bee) faces, process short- and long-term memories while sleeping and perhaps even dream. They can feel anxious, optimistic, fearful and frustrated—just like us. Yet bees who are factory-farmed for honey (even when the “factory farm” is in someone’s backyard) are exploited and killed, as if their suffering were of no consequence.

Beekeepers crush drones to death to extract their sperm, then immobilize the queen in a tiny gas chamber so they can artificially inseminate her. And they routinely clip her wings to prevent swarming (a colony’s natural means of reproducing), holding her hostage in her own home. All so we can pillage their honey.

The psychological stress inflicted on bees by the honey industry is a significant contributor to colony collapse disorder, which has caused a sharp decline in bee populations over the past decade. Simply put, humans’ greed is stressing bees, and it’s killing them.

Bees have as much of a right to live free from pain and suffering as we do. Unless we stop seeing them as a collective and start respecting them as individuals, their populations will continue to deteriorate. One of the simplest ways to help them is to stop stealing their honey and enjoy agave nectar, rice syrup or maple syrup instead.

As for me, I’ve decided to forgo beekeeping and spend my time spreading awareness of the plight of these precious pollinators. Bees need all the friends they can get.

Melissa Rae Sanger is a staff writer for the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.