Way back in the mists of time when I was first learning Romanian, a friend of mine sent me a very special book called Ursuletul Winnie si Copacul cu Miere. I loved this book for many reasons, starting with the fact that I already knew the story in the original English version, it was illustrated so I could get clues from the pictures and because it came with a CD so I could hear the Romanian narrator correctly pronounce the words on the page.
Like many Winnie the Pooh books, part of the “plot” deals with Winnie trying to get some honey, which is his favorite food. I was thinking of this the other day when I published on my Facebook/Twitter feed a Telegraph story that had a lovely 6-minute video featuring beekeepers in Maramures (subtitled in English).
A guy I’ve respected and admired for a long time, Ronen of “Cutia Taranului” fame, had a few objections to this and I’d like to address them, if I may.
To begin with, the wraparound text all about how British beekeepers “must” increase production or that there’s some kind of adversarial contest going on with Romanian beekeepers is, to me, irrelevant.
To make a 6-minute film probably took an entire day (perhaps two) of actual filming, which required hiring Romanians for transportation and other forms of guidance plus all the translation work (which was excellent, for once). Then there’s all the post-production work back in the studio, editing and all the rest of it. So the film was clearly the major opus here. A few hundred words appended in the surrounding text were probably just the angle that the Telegraph demanded to “pique” their readers’ interest. In other words, the same video could’ve been accompanied by vastly different text without changing a thing.
As for the rest, while I’ve never actually worked with bees here in Romania (except in the classic sense of smiling while they pollinate my flowers naturally), I’ve known a few beekeepers over the years and eaten lots and lots of their honey. And never once did I get any sense whatsoever that they were being forced or induced to “industrialize” what they do.
In fact, what’s always been odd about ALL beekeepers that I’ve ever known, from all nations, is that they seem to really care about the insects. This is counter-intuitive because I’ve known lots of cruel farmers who were brutish and uncaring with large four-legged mammals that have faces and can scream in pain. Bees on the other hand are completely different than people and so tiny that you can’t read their faces but yet beekeepers (the ones I’ve known anyway) form this strange bond with them. I’m not really quite sure why this is but that’s what I’ve noticed.
Due to the way bees behave, i.e. a single queen with thousands of drones, etc., and their nutritional needs (food), I’m not even sure it IS possible to drastically increase the scale of honey production because I don’t think there is a way that you could get an exponentially larger number of bees together in one place AND have enough food out there for them within flying distance. Again, I’m not an expert, but in good old America where I have seen 80,000 chickens jammed together in a single barn I’ve never heard of some bee factory with a billion insects all being drip fed in order to maximize production.
In fact, in the video we meet a husband and wife team who live in a little wagon, which is about as small-scale as you can get. So if we’re lauding their accomplishments (as seems to be the case of the video/article) then a perfectly reasonable conclusion would be that small scale is doing just fine.
Now, as for the nomadism, I do admit that in the USA/Britain all the beekeepers I knew were stationary, that is to say that the bee hives were parked in a single location. Here in Romania though, many of the beekeepers I know are mobile (nomadism seems a bit exaggerated) and do move their colonies around for various reasons, usually to get within range of certain flowers so that the resulting honey has a more specific taste.
But is this bad for the bees? Is it harming them to be moved about? Well it’s certainly not bad for production of honey as that continues apace. The beekeepers I know who do it for profit (some do it just to have their own honey) wouldn’t be moving them around a few kilometers if it were hurting production. But is it harming the bees in some other way?
Well I’m not enough of an expert to know. I realize they have incredible vision and can see ultraviolet light and definitely know when their hive is moved (even a few inches) but I really can’t see how all of this is harming them.
Beekeepers move the hives at night (even if it’s a few inches) precisely because that’s when all the bees are home and asleep. I really can’t understand how a brief period of re-orientation hurts bees and I can’t find anything online that would suggest that. Surely natural conditions like bear attacks or windstorms would cause hives to move so if a few centimeters is enough to trigger this re-orientation then I don’t know what the difference would be with a kilometer or two.
As for the smoke calming the bees, yes that’s definitely its purpose and obviously the bees are angry because in some way they are under attack (or their honey is) but again this is what beekeeping is about, no? If you never interact with the bees or take their honey then you’re not “keeping” the bees at all. I should add here that the screen method (which is what everyone has been doing for the last 100 years) means that when you remove one screen (for inspection, honey removal, etc) the other bees on other screens are undisturbed and many beekeepers don’t need or use smoke at all because it’s not a very invasive process.
And clearly bears and other animals have been raiding honey for thousands of years which is why bees have stingers and the like. In other words, bees getting upset because of honey raiders is something that has happened for thousands of years and completely natural. It’s stressful but natural and a little smoke to calm them seems the more humane thing to do actually. If the keeper were to battle the bees “mano-a-mano” bare skin versus stingers, would that somehow be better? Nah. And from a bee’s perspective I don’t see what the difference is between a human hand reaching in there for the honey and a bear paw.
Now as for cruelly depleting the hives of vital honey during the winter, I did a little research and went straight to the official Asociatia Crescatorilor de Albine de Romania‘s website and what their recommendations were on this subject:
Trebuie accentuat faptul că pentru iernare, familia de albine are nevoie de aproximativ 18 kg miere şi 1,5-2 kg păstură pentru creşterea puietului în partea a doua a iernii şi în primăvară.
That says that “It must be emphasized that one hive requires 18 kilograms of honey over the winter.” Again, I’m no expert but 18 kilograms seems like quite a lot and doesn’t rise to the standard of depleting the bees or robbing them of their vital foodstuffs as they survive the winter. If any Romanian beekeepers are doing something different (like feeding them sugar instead) over the winter then they’re not following the official Romanian Beekeepers’ Association guidelines.
On the other hand, the Association does recommend giving the bees a sugar solution but in February or when winter is *ending* (and after the bees have begun flying again), not so bees have stored food on hand but to fight off a parasitic infection called “nesemoza” in Romanian. A plant extract is mixed with a sugar solution for this purpose here in Romania.
The only time sugar is recommended as food is for when bees had a long winter without enough food. So yes, an unscrupulous beekeeper could take some of that honey that was supposed to be used by the bees over the winter and replace it with sugar but again this is contrary to good beekeeping practices. And it must be emphasized again, every beekeeper I know always had this strong emotional bond with their bees.
So yes, an abusive beekeeper could feed his bees chemical compounds and sugar solutions all winter but really I’ve never heard of a Romanian doing this. I’m sure it happens in America and other places but that doesn’t really seem to be the case here, at least what I know about.
Now let’s address the overall ecological concept of “abuse” and whether moving hives from field to field constitutes abuse. Now we’re entering the larger picture of whether industrialized agriculture is harmful and I think there’s no doubt that it is. If bees play a small role in that by carrying chemical residue from place to place, that’s certainly contributing to the problem. But considering that Greenlanders are ingesting PCBs from DDT sprayed thousands of miles away, anything the bees might be doing is small potatoes. It’s a rotten system though, through and through.
However one thing that Ronen didn’t mention was that you can clearly see the old couple in their wagon use a hand-cranked centrifuge extractor to remove the honey from the screens. Earlier versions of this device were invented about 100 years ago. But one of the reasons why Romanian honey is so fabulous is precisely because of this, how the honey is extracted. Essentially the screen is rotated and the honey is flung onto the interior wall of the cylinder (due to centrifugal action) and then flows down where it is collected. Simple enough, eh? Even an old man can do it manually.
But in America and in truly industrialized processes, the honey isn’t extracted fast enough and can’t be put into jars and bottles fast enough so usually it’s heated. The screens themselves are placed in a heated room to warm up the honey within. An electric knife or other implement is heated to remove the caps on the honey. The (electrical) centrifugal extractor is heated. The honey is filtered and then kept in a storage tank. Then the tubes and pipes on the storage tanks are heated so that the honey flows out more rapidly into bottles and jars. In America especially, the honey is usually pasteurized (cooked at 70C and then rapidly cooled) both to kill any potential bacterial contamination as well as to make it look cleaner and smoother. Therefore a lot of the vital enzymes and other wonderful nutrition in the honey is destroyed with all this heat.
Not a single beekeeper I know in Romania destroys their honey’s nutrition with this excess heat. In the video you can clearly see the Maramures beekeeper using a non-electric knife to remove the caps on his screen and then you see him place the screen in a manual extractor. I sincerely doubt he’s pasteurizing his honey later in the process. So whatever those bees have produced is what you’re going to be putting into your body with nothing taken away or destroyed.
Honey is a wonderful food, it truly is. I can’t speak for what’s sold on the shelves in stores here in Romania but I always buy my honey from the local market, where you can meet the person who extracted it and ask all the questions about it that you like. If they get a few Euros from the EU as part of some cockamamy scheme then I’m all for it. But in the meantime I just say…