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Practical Beekeeping – when beekeepers have to decide between life and death

Wolfgang Ritter

Dr. Wolfgang Ritter Head of Reference Laboratory for Bee Health of OIE World Organisation for Animal Health

CVUA (Chemischen und Veterinäruntersuchungsämter) Freiburg, Am Moosweiher 2, D 79108, Germany

All beekeepers, regardless of whether they consider themselves to be working ‘conventionally’, ‘naturally’ or ‘biologically’, always have to consider if they are prepared or are required to accept that animals are damaged or even killed. Some points of orientation concerning ethically justifiable limits in beekeeping are discussed here by Dr Wolfgang Ritter.

Nobody is entitled to cause unnecessary suffering, pain or damage to animals. This basic rule of the EU’s Animal Welfare Act is valid for not only ‘higher’ animals, but also for bees and other insects. As honey bees can survive only within their community, the whole bee colony is the animal itself, while single bees are each one part of it. So, the death of an individual honey bee can be regarded as weakening or damaging to the animal, whereas with the death of a colony the whole animal dies.

To judge how much suffering is being caused to bees, it is helpful to compare with the natural living conditions of a honey bee colony. Whenever our interventions contradict the natural situation, then we have a special responsibility to ensure that our actions be as harmless as possible. This is illustrated by the following examples:

Squeezing bees

When moving combs or inserting frames, bees may be squeezed. This cannot be totally avoided, although harm to bees can be minimised by working in a very calm and thoughtful way, by using smoke and brushing the bees very carefully. Great care must be taken when using a bee-blower. In this case, many bees are squeezed as you blow out densely populated honey chambers. However if the boxes are first emptied with the use of bee escapes, the few remaining bees can be blown out easily without causing much harm.

Killing bees during night beekeeping

African honey bee races are more prepared to defend their nest than other races of honey bees. Therefore, it can be difficult to open bee hives and to harvest honey near to human housing during day time. Some African beekeepers do all their activities with bees during night time. However then all the bees that lose contact with the bee colony and their nest are doomed, and the death of thousands of bees is accepted. This mode of operation is more ‘honey hunting’ than animal husbandry. African management methods must enable colony handling during day light to prevent losses of bees, and to enable other problems to be recognised.

It may be considered natural to remove all brood to reduce the number of Varroa mites
Photos © J. Schwenkel

Transportation of hives with open entrance holes

It is fundamentally unnatural to move honey bee colonies to new areas of nectar sources. However there is sometimes no other choice for beekeepers who aim to provide good forage for the colonies and to obtain better honey yield. Disregarding the unfavourable CO 2 balance on one hand, long transportation always presents stress for bee colonies. In transporting bees with frame hive entrance holes left open, bee losses are inevitable, no matter whether they are transported in an open or closed vehicle, at day or at night. This can be avoided if the hive entrance holes are closed. Nevertheless, you should always pay attention to good ventilation and air-conditioning, and sufficient provision with water, and to avoid bees escaping while in transit.

Beekeeper’s disaster beyond all expectations – because of lack of air and heat accumulation, the strongest colony died during transport.


In most cases the honey bee colony recovers easily from the loss of worker bees; however, the loss of the queen is always critical. In a honey bee colony living in the wild, a queen lives for around five years. Only after her laying capacity has decreased, does the colony silently replace its queen, and for some time, there will be two laying queens in the colony.

Many beekeepers kill the queen after two years, because the older she becomes, the more her laying capacity decreases, and the more the colony’s swarming increases. Even if the queen in a wild colony may die early, requeening by the beekeeper cannot be regarded as natural.

Destruction of drone brood

In its unique role as sperm supplier, the drone is only of secondary importance for the bee colony. This is obvious during critical situations for a honey bee colony when drone brood is the first to be neglected. Therefore it would seem to be acceptable that for Varroa control, drone brood is cut out and destroyed. In spite of this, some beekeepers reject this for ethical reasons.

Here again it is helpful to compare with the natural situation: in the original host species for Varroa, the Asian honey bee Apis cerana, the capping on the drone brood cell is so thick that a developing drone infested by Varroa mites cannot emerge. The worker bees seal the cell with a mixture of wax and propolis. So the cell becomes a trap for the parasite, thus facilitating the survival of the colony. The same effect is intended by the extraction and destruction of the drone brood by beekeepers working with Apis mellifera colonies. Therefore, drone brood destruction may be considered natural.

Complete brood removal

However, is brood removal valid also for worker brood, when it is completely removed in case of brood diseases (like foulbrood and Varroa) to reduce the infection pressure? Colonies of the Asian honey bee Apis cerana and African bee races of Apis mellifera show a similar behaviour: they abscond from the nest and by this fresh start for the colony, secure its survival. Even if most races of the Western honey bee rarely show this behaviour, it is completely natural, without any doubt, to form an artificial swarm or a nucleus without brood for the purpose of disease control.

Killing colonies

Very weak colonies suffering from diseases or parasites represent a danger for neighbouring colonies when they are robbed. Therefore, they should be killed. Even if it is not natural, it secures the healthy survival of other colonies. In the course of pest control (American foulbrood or, at present, the small hive beetle) it is at this time obligatory in Germany.

Neglecting colonies

To leave colonies alone and let them die is not natural and has to be strictly rejected from an ethical point of view. The welfare of the bee colony has to be more important than the desire for a huge honey yield. The situation is the same when too many colonies are placed at one location, resulting in insufficient food and the spread of diseases.

Replacing colonies

To fully benefit from a good honey harvest opportunity, or to balance disease-caused losses, sufficient young colonies are created in spring. In general, there is nothing to say against this practice, under the condition that the death of the managed colony cannot be blamed on the beekeeper, and that it was not intentionally caused. Also in the wild, some bee colonies die during winter. In former beekeeping times, losses of 10% were regarded as normal. With diseases and other problems, nowadays a loss rate of up to 15% is acceptable. Disregarding disasters, the portion of colonies to be replaced must stay below a loss rate of 20%.

If a considerable number of colonies have to be replaced regularly, it is an obligation from the ethical point of view as well as because of animal welfare reasons to evaluate both the apiary site and the management methods being used - especially during periods of disease control.

These examples mentioned above are intended to give incentive to consider and reflect about the reasons for one’s own behaviour. If everybody reflects critically upon their own actions, then unnecessary bee losses can in future be avoided.

During day time fewer bees are killed and better inspection of colonies is possible

Author details OIE, Reference Laboratory at CVUA Freiburg, Am Moosweiher 2, D79108 Freiburg, Germany ritter@beehealth.info

Bfd acknowledges www.diebiene.de as the original source of this article