Consumer concerns about climate change, healthy diet, ethics, and animal welfare drive a significant shift towards plant-based diets. However, many plant-based replacements for meat and dairy foods require managed honey bee pollination to produce a crop; we eat increasingly more foods that need bees. At the same time, there is growing awareness and concern about managed pollination as a contributor to declining honey bee health and annual colony losses, which averaged nearly 40% in the last ten years. Practices employed in managing bees for pollination, such as transportation over large distances, and high exposure to monocultures and pesticides, can combine to increase bee vulnerability. Other studies have shown that flooding landscapes with honeybees can create increased competition for floral resources with local wild bees and also stimulate the transfer of pathogens (1)(2).
Managed bee pollination is used on around 100 crops in the US; however, the almond industry has been singled out in media coverage, probably due to the sheer scale of the annual almond ‘pollination event’ - with over 2 million colonies deployed in California almond orchards.
The nutritional and health benefits of almonds have been a significant driver for market growth. However, increasingly the way almonds are grown is as essential to consumers as the health and nutritional benefits. Thus industry performance and reputation on a range of sustainability issues have come under scrutiny, including the health and welfare of bees during almond pollination.
The industry has responded with a range of initiatives and programs to support honey bee health. The Almond Board of California is a leading investor in bee health research, funding 125 projects since 1995(1). It has also published Honey Bee Best Management Practices, which provide guidelines for keeping bees safe during almond pollination. In its Almond Orchard 2025 Goals, the Almond Board has committed to increasing the adoption of environmentally friendly Integrated Pest Management tools by 25%. The Almond Board has also joined forces with other pollinator protection organizations such as the Project Apis m. Seeds for Bees program and the Pollinator Partnership Bee Friendly Farming program to encourage almond farmers to plant pollinator habitat and reduce pesticide use. The Bee Better Certified program, launched in 2017 by the Xerces Society, provides independent farm level verification that certified ingredients were grown in ways that support bees and other beneficial insects. All these initiatives are gaining momentum and will make a difference; high profile food brands such as Haagen Dazs and KIND have committed to sourcing all of their almonds from bee-friendly farms.
Can animal welfare measures apply to honey bees?
Consumers are increasingly aware of and concerned about the broader issue of animal well-being, above and beyond a basic expectation of animal health. A survey of US consumers found that more than half (58%) are more concerned about food animal welfare now than they were just a few years ago. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed believe that the humane treatment of animals raised for food should be a societal concern and a regulatory issue(3).
For businesses in the food supply chain, corporate policy statements on animal welfare guidelines are no longer enough. The focus has shifted to measuring and validating the actual outcomes of animal welfare commitments. Technology is a crucial enabler to achieving this; the application of remote sensors to directly monitor animal-based measures of welfare is becoming an increasingly common practice in livestock farming. Sensors can monitor physiological measures (blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, etc.), animal behavior (movements, activities, noises, eating habits, etc.), and the incidence of disease or injury. Key welfare indicators can be reported in a standardized and representative manner and used to benchmark performance. Additionally, data-driven best practices can be generated, and welfare status shared with stakeholders in a meaningful and relevant way.
So can this approach be applied to honey bees? While there has been increasing public concern about honey bees’ plight, this is not usually framed in welfare terms, probably because it is harder to define what welfare could be for them. The debate is focused on specific aspects of colony health or threats such as habitat loss, disease, or pesticides. However, commercially kept honey bees are considered livestock by the US Department of Agriculture because of their vital role in food production. Beekeepers manage their feeding, breeding, movement, and treatment for pests and diseases, just as farmers do for other livestock. Over the years, there have been increasing numbers of initiatives for veterinary doctors trained in bee health. Also, when thought of as ‘superorganisms’, honey bee colonies exhibit social and cognitive complexity comparable to some vertebrates, and they are impressive communicators and learners. Therefore, animal welfare monitoring and management principles are applicable when considering a honey bee colony as a whole. Animal welfare is a broader concept than health and has three essential components: Physical Status, Mental Status, and Naturalness. These three elements can be considered independently from each other but do overlap considerably, and all three can be readily applied to honey bees colonies (Fig. 1):-
- Physical Status: This includes primary measures of colony health such as overall size/ strength of a colony, the presence of a laying queen and brood, stores of food, and absence of disease, etc.
- Naturalness: This would include access to diverse natural habitats and forage, free from pesticides.
- Mental Status: Initially, this may seem a more challenging concept to grasp concerning honey bees; however, most beekeepers can assess the ‘mood’ of their bees during an inspection. Agitated honey bees exhibit the same sorts of pessimistic cognitive biases that anxious mammals do(4) and colonies also exhibit specific behaviors when stressed - such as fanning.
What's more, just as with other managed livestock, sensor technologies are available that can be deployed in beehives that can automatically monitor and report key honey bee welfare indicators. It is possible to detect a laying queen’s presence, the colony size and activity levels, the number of food stores, etc. Also, colony acoustics monitoring can identify fanning and other indicators of distress or disease in a colony. It is possible to monitor signs of overheating and stress during transport. Thus, technology can provide direct insight into life inside the hive, specifically to help food supply chains monitor and manage the welfare of honey bees used in production agriculture.
Helping Agriculture’s Helpful Honey Bees
Honey bees are indispensable to U.S. agriculture. Therefore it seems natural to include them in the animal welfare debate and take a more holistic approach to manage their health and well-being. However, stakeholders need to agree on bee welfare commitments and set out what performance indicators should be assessed. We seek partners to join a Coalition for Honey Bee Welfare that will support academic research to advance understanding of honey bee welfare, promote welfare-oriented management techniques, and encourage the development of outcomes-based welfare commitments, policies, and practices. If you would like to find out more, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Mallinger RE, Gaines-Day HR, Gratton C (2017) Do managed bees have negative effects on wild bees? A systematic review of the literature. PLOS ONE 12(12): e0189268
2. Juan P Gonzalez- Varo, Montserrat Vila Spillover of managed honeybees from mass-flowering crops into natural habitats; Biological Conservation, August 2017, Pages 376-382
3. “Animal Welfare: Issues & Opportunities in the Meat, Poultry & Egg Markets in the U.S.” Packaged Facts 2017
4. Agitated honeybees exhibit pessimistic cognitive biases; Bateson et al., Current Biology, June 21, 2011