We added bees to our family homestead to support organic gardening, regenerative agriculture, and the ecosystem. I often tell people I’m the luckiest girl in the world, because my Dad let’s me bring home any rescued animal out to his ranch for rehabilitation and safekeeping. It was no exception when I asked him in the Winter of 2020 if we could start an apiary. Our closest neighbor is a backyard beekeeper. He learned bee keeping skills from a war veteran in our community. And while he was willing to share anything I needed to get started, he recommended I take some classes. So the Callahan County Beekeepers Association, membership of three, was born.
Soooo. I completed a 6-month apprenticeship with Tara Chapman at Two Hives Honey and continued my studies volunteering to shadow my bee-best-friend Georgia Miguez of Sister Creek Hives, along with her mentors Les Crowder and Nathalie B. at Bee Mindful. Getting my hands in hives with professional beekeepers gave me confidence in understanding the ethics and responsibility of backyard beekeeping. This was not something I could have learned by reading books or watching YouTube only.
When it came time to do our first honey harvest in July of 2021, I needed to work through a series of ethics and questions that I’m sharing with you here. These opinions are based on my experiences and journey as a yogi, bestselling cookbook author, and amateur, natural beekeeper. It’s not about how much honey bees can produce for us, but how we can become good stewards of the land through bee guardianship.
“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” -Jane Goodall
Bees and the ecosystem.
Bees pollinate flowers, trees, vegetables, fruits, and other plants that create a diverse and interconnected source of air purification, soil nutrition, food for people, and forage for animals. Their hives are natural sanctuaries for the “honey faeries” to keep the local ecosystem thriving. The purpose of a bee colony is to replicate their DNA by swarming and ‘splitting’ their hive once it’s reached a certain threshold, so they can continue to work their magic in keeping our soils, food, plants, and air healthy. Beekeeping is a way to collaborate with nature and improve our biological community. It’s not about how much honey they can produce for us, but how we can become good stewards of the land through bee guardianship.
“When we learn to appreciate the smallest creatures, we learn to appreciate and value all creatures.” -Tara Chapman
Does eating honey harm the bees?
Yes and no. Many commercial beekeepers are in it for the pollination circuit, not the honey. They use massive amounts of chemicals (and fuel), and enforce unnatural pollination patterns that only temporarily assist the “organic” crops they are forced to pollinate. Eating grocery store honey contributes to sad beekeeping practices and mis-marketed honey. Large scale pollination is their livelihood and they have different goals than a backyard beekeeper.
Backyard beekeepers are a mixed bag, but many have ethical, sustainable practices that support natural gardening, and organic food production. Pulling a frame of honey from a healthy and thriving hive does not harm the bees. More on that later.
Most grocery store honey is environmentally irresponsible, bad for the bees, and unhealthy for consumption. It’s a mixture of ‘trash’ honeys that come from a global collection of commercial producers who are using non-FDA-approved treatments on their bees. Since honey is not their priority, it is considered a waste product to many commercial beekeepers.‘Trash’ honey is often diluted with high-fructose corn syrup, and other unhealthy fillers. The marketing is misleading, the labeling is curious at best, and the combination lends to honey-laundering. Most grocery store honey is not healthy for you, and contributes to large scale, monoculture farming as opposed to backyard beekeeping, which contributes to the health of a local ecosystem.
Did you know that drinking almond milk does more harm to bees than eating local, sustainable honey? Why? Millions of bees are trucked from Florida to California each year to help with the almond pollination and continue on a pollination circuit throughout the United States. While this may sound cute, most of these bees are treated with toxic chemicals, and remain disoriented throughout their unnatural migratory journeys. They are not living their best bee lives. I have often wondered how ‘organic’ mass-produced monoculture products that are pollinated with treated bees (and unethical practices) really are.
“The future is now. We are getting sick, tired, and depressed with the constant trickle of low level chronic toxicity and do not have to add to it in beekeeping.” Les Crowder
There’s a saying that if you put ten beekeepers in a room, you’ll get eleven different opinions. There is no universal definition for natural beekeeping, but the main component has to do with treating bees for pests as naturally as possible, or not at all (treatment free). Since pests are unavoidable, lineage becomes important. Survivor stock Queens are those that have successfully overwintered and survived in the presence of mites with no chemical treatments.
Story time. I took a field trip to Bee Weaver Honey Farm in Navasota, Texas. Established in 1888 and operated by five generations, they stand out in Texas for their dedication to pest-tolerant, disease-resistant Queens. They took thousands of their own hives, and left them alone (sustaining a major loss in income out of generosity for the future of bees). Two hives survived, and it’s from these survivor Queens that they began their breeding program.
Now. Selective breeding does not match up with vegan/yogi philosophies of bramacharya (more on that later over chai). But many beekeepers would agree that selective breeding is what has helped the bees evolve to coexist with pests, and has enabled treatment-free beekeeping.
“We are breeding both bees and mites when we keep bees. A good parasite does not keep its host from thriving. I do my best to keep breeding mite resistant bees, actually it is a little too easy in south Texas where the feral bees are very mite resistant and I believe the feral bees and the varroa have adapted to each other.” Les Crowder
Natural beekeeping is more than simply not treating bees with pesticides and chemicals. We are regenerating soils, ecosystems, health, and communities. There are emotional and spiritual components each beekeeper carries as well as providing proper nutrition.
Raw, unpasteurized honey from untreated bees is medicinal, and can be ethically harvested by backyard beekeepers and ethical honey farms. As beekeepers, we try to make the best decisions for the health of the hive. A responsible honey harvest makes sense depending on the state of the hive, and does not hurt nor exploit the bees.
Consider how veggies are harvested. A squash plant makes squash as long as the season lasts, it’s not determining how many squash to make, or when to stop producing. If you harvest all the squash at one time it is detrimental to the plant. But if you succession plant, and you’re only taking a small percentage at a time while the next batch coming in is growing, and the plants flourish.
Similarly, the bees don’t hit a maximum yield and quit producing. They make honey while the sun shines and take a pause in the winter, just like our veggies and flowers. Bees will hoard and store honey all Spring and Summer. It’s the job of the beekeeper to manage the hive's resources in a way that helps the hive thrive in a variety of weather conditions and seasons, while supporting the hive’s mission to divide and replicate itself. When we take honey, we are truly only taking excess (honey they would not need/use), and are ensuring the hive is thriving.
When you take a frame of honey, depending on hive set up and equipment, you’ll be taking the wax comb as well. Yes, there are ways to leave the comb which you can give back to the bees, but re-using old comb can also create immunity issues for the hive. So taking honey with comb keeps things fresh. It’s not about how much honey they can produce for us, but how we can become good stewards of the land through bee guardianship.
“Today, I only harvest surplus honey instead of feeding my bees sugar syrup, and handle my bees with utter respect and as mindfully as I can. I am not here to rob them from their precious resources to make a profit: I only want to learn from them, and only use what they no longer use or have a clear surplus of.” Nathalie B.
And honey-tasting is quite the adventure! I’ll save that topic for another time.
Veganism and Honey
Veganism and beekeeping is a nuanced subject. After writing fifteen cookbooks I became a vegetarian in 2017, and started a mostly vegan practice in 2019. I say mostly because veganism is defined differently by different people. Several vegan cultures shun honey due to a value in non-harm (ahimsa), a belief that honey extraction harms bees, and a vow to avoid exploiting animals.
Consideration: If we don’t eat honey for the bees, let’s not buy almond milk, blueberries, or other commercially harvested veggies (that require commercial bee pollination of monoculture farming) for the bees. We don’t have almonds where I live, but we do have pecans that I can use for nut milks. I’m healthiest when I’m eating locally, seasonally, and fruit and vegetably, with some raw medicinal honey from backyard bees kept naturally. Everyone must decide what is right for themselves and honor their own practices.
I went on a field trip a honey shop in Sante Fe owned by a sweet family. They shared that their local doctor always calls them to make sure they have osha honey in stock for flu season because they send patients there for this natural medicine.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I wanted to really-really-really understand what was happening with my bees and their honey before harvesting. My mentor Tara put it best “You know everything about those bees and their care. They were never treated in a way that you find to be unethical or wrong, and I know you’re very proud of their work and your care of them.” So Dad and I set out to take the first frame of Spring honey in July of 2021.
No bees, no veggies.
We can survive without honey, yes. But we can’t survive without bees.
Lastly, friends… there is an emotional component to beekeeping. It takes a special heart to really connect with a hive of insects for the purpose of leaving the world a better place. I’m grateful to learn bee guardianship from the leaders in the field and have listed them along with some resources below.
Thankful for Mentors + Leaders
Two Hives Honey was started by Tara Chapman, a native from the tiny West Texas town of Smyer, Texas. A Duke graduate and former CIA intelligence officer, Tara quit her government job to work for a beekeeper in East Texas rearing queen bees for 4 months. What started as a solopreneur running hive tours has evolved into a socially conscious business that aims to educate our community, support other local businesses, and of course, offer you the best damn honey Texas bees can make.
Sister Creek Hives was founded in Sisterdale, Tx by Georgia Miguez and about 40,000 honey bees. Georgia is an herbalist, a native plant enthusiast, and has been a lover of honey bees for over a decade. Her goal is to promote honey bee health by keeping chemicals out of the beehive and raising awareness of native pollinators and pollinator habitats.
Les Crowder is 55+ year veteran of the beekeeping world and a widely recognized expert in natural beekeeping. Earlier in his career, he worked for a business with 4,000 hives in New Mexico and was the President of the New Mexico Beekeepers Association multiple times. He also was a honeybee inspector there for 5 years. He wrote the world-renowned book “Top-Bar Beekeeping: Organic Practices for Honeybee Health”, and has a degree in biology from the University of New Mexico.
Nathalie B. is a professional educator and passionate advocate of Natural Beekeeping methods and is the founder of Bee Mindful. She has created and volunteers daily at the Hays County Beekeepers Association (HCBA). Over the last few years, she has volunteered hundreds of hours to lead HCBA and the Travis County Beekeepers Association (as President and Vice-President), and regularly contributes to the Austin Area Beekeepers Association and the Texas Beekeepers Association.
I’ll update this with my favorite books too - stay tuned.
- Medicinal honey vs vegan sweeteners
- What to do if you find bees
- What is the future of food if we do nothing with bees?
- Pollen Nation: which crops self-pollinate, which require bees
- Honey Tasting