The 'minefield' of eco-friendly products can be confusing for consumers says Doncaster ecotoxicologist
Columnist Kirsty-Jo explores bee products in relation to modern day’s eco-friendly ethos.
Are Bee Products Environmentally Friendly? Ethical? Affordable?
We’re at the start of a consumer revolution.
Many of us are aware of the impact of single-use plastic on the environment and that awareness is the first step.
Some of us are at the next stage of reviewing what we buy and making informed choices- mayonnaise in a glass jar instead of a squeezy bottle, reusable water bottles and beeswax food wraps instead of cling film.
But these choices aren’t always affordable, so if you’re going to splash the cash you want to know that the changes you make are a step in the right direction.
It’s common for companies to market something as being environmentally friendly, to stick “Eco” in a name and expect us to trust that their product is perfect or better than alternatives but often it’s just not the case that “eco” products are better and certainly the idea that they are “good” for the environment is beyond stretching the truth in many cases.
It’s a minefield.
As a consumer, trying to deconstruct products and assess every angle of environmental impact is tedious, time-consuming and often the results are ambiguous.
One swap where it is easy to see the benefits, is the switch from cling-film to beeswax wraps.
Beeswax is natural, right?
Beeswax comes from a renewable source and is recyclable and ultimately biodegradable.
Beeswax absolutely has less impact on the environment in the short, medium and long term than petrochemical plastics.
They’re not cheap though.
One small and one medium beeswax wrap can set you back £10 and the website I visited didn’t say how long I could expect the wraps to last.
If you’re vegan, the chances are that you have already decided against bee products.
The vegan society’s take is that “if you wish to support bees, please do not buy beeswax or honey,” they say that “mass breeding of honeybees affects the populations of other competing nectar-foraging insects.”
With our honeybee population in decline, what is the right thing to do?
Should we buy bee products at all?
There’s no easy answer but you can get informed and make your own choice.
That’s the key to this consumer revolution, informed choices and sticking within your own budget.
Where does it come from?
A basic first step is to look at the miles of travel in terms of carbon footprint.
If you’re into Manuka honey (happy days, you’ve got the budget to make some real changes!) then consider that it has been transported all the way from the other side of the world.
You might also want to consider that New Zealand exports less Manuka honey than is actually sold globally- ask yourself whether the price tag justifies the contents; are you buying 100% Manuka honey from New Zealand or an Asian substitute?
100% New Zealand government certified Manuka honey sells for £65 for 500g.
If you’re paying less, you’re probably not getting what you think you are.
Let’s assume we’ve all decided to buy UK bee products based on the transportation impact of buying bee products from further afield…
What impact does it have on honeybees?
I trained to be a beekeeper with the Harrogate & Ripon Beekeepers Association and kept a couple of hives for a couple of years.
I was taught to stop swarming at all costs, opening the hive and inspecting for queen cells every seven days.
I was taught to remove queen cells to prevent swarming.
A swarm was a sure-fire way for a beekeeper to lose friends in a community (and I did, apologies again to my neighbour, Jenny).
A honeybee colony swarm is the only true reproductive process in the honeybee life cycle.
It’s when genetic material is combined, it’s when genetic diversity is introduced, it’s when nature gives the species an opportunity of evolution and survival of the fittest.
Stopping bees from swarming is artificially preventing honeybee reproduction.
Taking away this evolutionary opportunity might contribute to honeybee population declines as the evolutionary process is artificially slowed down; the bees have less evolutionary “time” to respond to disease and build a tolerance to chemicals.
Not all beekeepers are equal, and attitudes are changing.
The Barnsley Beekeepers Association recognises that the culling of queen cells is sometimes still taught but that this is counterproductive and recommends allowing the bees to swarm naturally or artificially.
If you’re buying local bee products, ask how they deal with swarming.
Do they cull queen cells?
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Do they clip the queen’s wings?
Why wouldn’t beekeepers allow natural swarming?
Well, for one, it reduces honey and wax production and secondly the general public seem to have an issue with bee swarms.
A whole bunch of stinging angry insects is dangerous, right?
Well no, swarming bees have gorged themselves on honey in preparation for the house move, to the point that they physically struggle to sting anything (think about the bee beard trick, this is a swarming colony).
Gorging on food in preparation for their new home and having no home to defend actually means they are at their least dangerous while swarming.
Media coverage can convey a sense of panic when bees swarm in urban areas, which doesn’t help balance public perceptions of honeybee swarms.
The public’s fear of honeybee colonies and the beekeeper’s desire to increase hive numbers also means that swarms inevitably end up back in a human-managed hive.
When was the last time you saw a natural honeybee hive in the UK?
I’ve never seen one and I think that’s a shame.
We have got to a stage where the UK honeybee population is almost wholly managed by humans so the impact of choosing not to buy bee products may actually result in a further decline of honeybees.
If we’re not buying, the beekeepers won’t maintain as many hives or they might start to cater for the competitive export market which is unlikely to improve honeybee husbandry techniques.
So if we do choose to buy honey, aside from swarm management, what should we be asking the beekeeper?
One beekeeping practice undertaken by profit-driven enterprises is to take too much honey from the colony at the end of the season.
This leaves the bees short on food for the winter so they are given sugar as a food source.
Replacing their honey diet with sugar can impact on the overall colony health as the nutrients and beneficial properties of the honey are not replaced.
For a healthy hive, to avoid colony death over winter, bees should be left with enough honey reserve to see them through.
It’s only fair, in my opinion.
So what can we do?
It comes down to your personal position on honeybees as to whether you buy bee products but if you do choose to buy bee products as an alternative to petrochemical or synthetic chemical substances in cosmetics, consumables and food then consider the source.
Beeswax specifically is often from multiple hives over wide areas with different beekeeping techniques, through wax exchange or rendering co-operatives, for example.
Something all of us can do if we spot a bee swarm is to think about whether a colony in that place would cause a problem for the general public.
If it’s high up in the tree canopy away from high-density human populations then consider leaving it be.
If it’s going to cause an issue, then who are you going to call?
Responsible pest controllers are reluctant to deal with bees and will only exterminate if the bees are causing a hazard and cannot be removed and relocated.
Contacting your local beekeeping association will put you in contact with a beekeeper willing to remove the swarm but asking what the fate of the bees will be is a responsible approach- are they going to a small market-gardener who doesn’t cull queen cells and clip wings or are they going to an industrial centre where colonies are stripped of honey and fed sugar over winter?
Could the hive be relocated into the wild?
If you’ve found a local responsible beekeeper to buy your honey from, keep their number!
They may reward you with honey, mead and wax for reporting the swarm to them and you’ll have the peace of mind as to their fate.
As with everything in this field of consumer choice based on environmental impact, there’s no perfect solution because humans have an intrinsic impact on the environment.
Making your own informed choices, based on facts and within your budget is the start.
It’s OK to disagree with tomato ketchup in plastic bottles and voice this opinion but still buy them if you can’t afford to make the change.
Your choice is restricted- out of 20 bottles of ketchup on Tesco on-line, only two were in glass, the rest were in plastic.
Plastic bottled ketchup starts at 8p per 100g, glass bottled ketchup starts at 42p per 100g. Makes you wonder why that is when the cheapest mayonnaise option (8p/100g) is in glass and the most expensive standard mayonnaise is in plastic (64p/100g)!
Understand the problem and have an informed opinion which you are open to changing as new information becomes available.
Don’t let the judgement of others silence your intentions - we all have a budget and not many of us can afford Manuka honey and beeswax wraps.
I put a plate on a bowl to store leftovers in the fridge- I don’t disagree with beeswax wraps, I just don’t need them.
Rome wasn’t built in a day but CFC’s were banned despite the fact that not everyone could afford the alternatives at the time.
Your voice is as strong a weapon as where your pound is spent so if you can’t afford the expensive “eco” alternatives, find petitions you can support and sign, you’ll still be contributing to change.
As for beeswax wraps, why not have a go at making your own?
Recycling old cotton and using wax straight from an ethical source means that you’ll know exactly where everything comes from, get exactly the right size and shape for your bowls and will perhaps save you enough to go for ketchup in glass.
Or, just keep on using your mountains of plastic containers.
If you’ve got them, use them. Eco alternatives are still new products with an environmental impact so use what you already have before considering new purchases!