Many argue that beeswax is sustainable because it's renewable. But what happens when the demands of capitalism force beekeeping and the production of beeswax to scale up?
Humans have been using bee-made materials for artistic, spiritual and medicinal purposes for thousands of years. As a vegan company we choose not to use beeswax, but we recognize and appreciate that indigenous cultures have developed sustainable forms of apiculture.
The Industrialization of Bees
Today, thousands of tons of beeswax are produced for candles, food preservation, personal care products and industrial applications. The beeswax industry is worth over $500 million, and it’s inherently intertwined with the industries of honey production and pollination.
It’s said that one in every three bites of food in the U.S. is pollinated by a honey bee. Apis mellifera, or the Western Honeybee, to be specific. Native to Europe, Asia and Africa, Apis mellifera wasn’t introduced to the Americas until European colonizers brought hives over on their ships. Now, it’s the world’s most common bee species, with roughly a billion of them living in North America alone.
The majority of these bees live in commercial hives where they’re raised as “livestock” for pollination and the production of honey and beeswax. Commercially kept honey bees generate an estimated $15 billion value in crops each year, and they’re a vital part of America’s agriculture industry. From Florida oranges and Maine blueberries to the apple, avocado and almond orchards of California, the Western Honeybee provides an additional layer of migrant labor required to feed the country.
Yet the very industry made possible by these bees might be the same thing that’s killing them. Conservation groups and researchers have found a link between mass bee die offs and neonicotinoids, a type of insecticide that’s used widely on farms and in urban spaces. The Xerces Society says that neonicotinoids “are absorbed by plants and can be present in pollen and nectar, making them toxic to bees.” Consuming neonicotinoids can cause lowered immunity in bees and pass toxins on to young larvae, leaving the entire hive susceptible to pests and disease.
While bees may be good for the crops that produce our food, industrial agriculture isn’t good for bees. The mass production of monoculture crops relies on insecticides, pesticides and fossil-fuel based fertilizers. The labor of commercial pollinators is being used to prop up an agricultural system that’s inherently unsustainable.
Just as we don’t support the exploitation of farmworkers or native ecosystems for profit, we also don’t see the exploitation of honey bees for pollination or honey and beeswax products as ethical.
The Impact on Native Bees
“Although they are important for agriculture, honey bees also destabilize natural ecosystems by competing with native bees—some of which are species at risk.”—Alison McAfee for Scientific American
Prior to the introduction of Apis mellifera, the land now known as the U.S. was home to over 4,000 wild bee species. Native bees evolved over millions of years to form symbiotic relationships with flowering plants endemic to specific regions. Bumblebees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, digger bees, and specialized foragers like the blueberry bee, squash bee and cactus bee are all important pollinators for local plants.
Like the Western Honeybee, native bees are also experiencing mass die-offs due to neonicotinoid insecticides and industrial agriculture. Centuries of converting biodiverse forests, wetlands and prairies into monoculture farmland has drastically reduced the habitat of both native plants and pollinators.
Unlike the Western Honeybee, native bees are often highly specialized and dependent upon specific ecosystems. Many of them have relied on protected public lands for forage and habitat, but now these areas are being threatened by the presence of commercial beehives. The Western Honeybee is known as an “industrious” species for its ability to adapt to different areas and forage pollen and nectar from a wide variety of flowering plants. They easily outcompete most native pollinators, consuming massive amounts of local resources that native bees need.
Small-Scale, Indigenous, and Relational Beekeeping
Like many of the plants we explored in our Legacy of Plants series, the Western Honeybee has been used by capitalism as a tool for generating profit. But beekeeping doesn’t have to be exploitative.
According to Dr. Jessica Hernandez, author of Fresh Banana Leaves, “In the Mayan Ich Eq community in Hopelchen, Mexico, bees are considered relatives to the people.” Here, Mayan people continue to practice a form of beekeeping that’s been cultivated for hundreds of years. They build beehives from hollow logs to attract the stingless Melipona beecheii species (called Xunan-Kab in the Yucatec Maya language) which provide honey and pollination for local plant species in return.
People in the mountainous regions of South Asia have also practiced beekeeping for generations. In Chamba, India, people build hollows into the walls of their homes for Apis cerana honey bees to move into. One study showed that local communities benefit both environmentally and economically from these low-maintenance hives, stating that “Indigenous beekeeping is a live heritage in district Chamba.”
Rather than harvesting all of the honey and beeswax from their hives like commercial beekeepers do, Indigenous beekeepers often leave ⅓ of the honey for the hive to feed on during winter. This may decrease their harvest, but it also reduces the need for external inputs like sugar water, and it's crucial for maintaining long-term hive health and immunity. Where industrial beekeeping treats bees as nothing more than profitable pollinators, small-scale, Indigenous beekeeping practices are far more relational and sustainable.
Save the Bees
As a vegan company we don’t use beeswax in our products and we don’t believe that bees (or any animal, including humans) should be exploited for the profit they can create. We don’t believe that bees should be “saved” because we need them to pollinate our crops.
Instead, when we hear “save the bees'' we hear a call to protect native bees, ecosystems and biodiversity. We hear a call to action against industrial agriculture, and to create deeper relationships with the plants and animals who share this planet with us.
The Meow Meow Tweet Blog Is A Collaborative Thought Project Between The Founders Of Meow Meow Tweet And Our Editorial Team. This Post Was Written By Faye Lessler.