Honeybees are responsible for $15 billion in added crop value to large farms, and Albert Einstein once quipped that one out of every three bites an American takes is pollinated by honeybees—which is why colony collapse disorder is so distressing. Scientists still don't know what's causing the ailment, which first struck in 2006 and killed up to 90 percent of some beekeepers' hives. But small-scale organic beekeeping operations didn't see the same drastic declines in bee populations, and haven't reported as many collapses as large-scale commercial beekeepers have. So when the dust settles, the disorder may leave us with nothing but locally produced honey.
Continue reading for four more reasons you should support local organic beekeepers:
Commercial beekeepers use antibiotics on their hives to combat a bacterial disease called American foul brood, says Ross Conrad, author of Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture (Chelsea Green, 2007). "It's a very deadly, very contagious disease," he says, that can spread quickly to other hives as bees in those hives eat honey from the affected hive. But, while antibiotics are good a wiping it out, they also kill the "good" bacteria that bees need. "Bees are like humans," Conrad says. "They need beneficial bacteria to help their digestive processes, and they also need it to process pollen, which provides nutrients and protein." Some tests have found traces of antibiotics in honey imported from abroad, so buy honey from local beekeepers who use mechanical methods, such as thoroughly cleaning out hives and removing infected honeycombs, rather than antibiotics, to kill diseases.
Honey is often touted as a cure-all for everything from burns (put raw honey on a burn as soon as possible to speed healing) to cuts and scrapes (honey's natural antiseptic properties allow it to work a bit like hydrogen peroxide). It's soothing for sore throats. And it may be good for your heart, too. Research by food scientists at the University of Illinois found that honey, especially dark honey, slowed the action of LDL "bad" cholesterol in test-tube studies. Buckwheat honey seemed to have the biggest effect. Honey is also full of health-protective antioxidants, though the clover honey that's ubiquitous in supermarkets has the least. Try buckwheat, sunflower, tupelo, and acacia types.
Learn More: The Healing Powers of Manuka Honey
"Bees collect honey all summer and store it away to eat all winter," says Conrad. "It adds back a lot of minerals, vitamins, and nutrients that are found in the nectar from plants." In organic beekeeping, farmers are pretty responsible about leaving enough honey behind for the bees and harvesting just enough so bees don't get hungry. However, he says, if the bees don't produce enough, or if they eat up all their honey in the first few months of winter, beekeepers have to feed them something to keep them going. "Typically, an organic beekeeper feeds them organic sugar syrup," he says, but commercial and large-scale beekeeping operations may feed them corn syrup or even high-fructose corn syrup, which Conrad says contains sugars that are mildly toxic to bees. And a study just published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry proves him right. Those researchers found that that high-fructose corn syrup produces a toxic chemical that kills honeybees when it's heated, as it often is before it's fed to the bees.
Reports of killer bees attacking and killing animals crop up every now and then, but those are Africanized bees, a hybrid specimen imported to South America in 1956 to breed with local bees to form a new breed better able withstand the temperature of the tropics. Their European counterparts that are used by American beekeepers, however, are pacifists that won't harm you unless under duress. As Conrad writes in his book, "Unless it feels threatened or is forced to defend itself or its hive, the bee is the only creature in the animal kingdom, that I am aware of, that does not kill or injure any other being as it goes through its regular lifecycle."
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