Is Beekeeping Sustainable?

In looking at the question posed by the title to this article – Is Beekeeping Sustainable? – I first needed to look at the meaning of sustainability in agriculture. What do we mean when we talk about sustainable agriculture? Or sustainable beekeeping? I also had to look at the differences between ‘sustainable’ beekeeping in Australia, as compared to the rest of the world, and further had to consider the different contexts for hobbyists and commercial beekeepers. So I will digress immediately, in order to set my reference points for the later discussion on the sustainability of beekeeping into the future.

In general terms, Sustainable agriculture is the act of farming using principles of ecology, the study of relationships between organisms and their environment. The phrase was reportedly coined by Australian agricultural scientist Gordon McClymont.1 It has been defined as ‘an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will last over the long term’ - for example:

  • Satisfy human food and fibre needs
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
  • Make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole

Sustainable agriculture can be understood as an ecosystem approach to agriculture. Practices that can cause long-term damage to soil include excessive tillage (leading to erosion) and irrigation without adequate drainage (leading to salinisation).

Although air and sunlight are available everywhere on Earth, crops also depend on soil nutrients and the availability of water. When farmers grow and harvest crops, they remove some of these nutrients from the soil. Without replenishment, land suffers from nutrient depletion and becomes either unusable or suffers from reduced yields. Sustainable agriculture depends on replenishing the soil while minimizing the use or need of non-renewable resources, such as natural gas (used in converting atmospheric nitrogen into synthetic fertilizer), or mineral ores (e.g., phosphate).

In simplest terms, sustainable agriculture is the production of food, fibre, or other plant or animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare. This form of agriculture enables us to produce healthful food without compromising future generations' ability to do the same. In short Sustainable Agriculture has to be:

  • Economically Viable - if it is not profitable, it is not sustainable.
  • Socially Supportive - the quality of life of farmers, farm families and farm communities is important.
  • Ecologically Sound - we must preserve the resource base that sustains us all.

So how does this apply to beekeeping? How do we define ‘Sustainable Beekeeping’ and how do we achieve it? It must also be realised that what is sustainable in a practical sense varies from place to place on the planet. For example, one cannot recommend making a hive of wood in a region where timber is scarce or where wood digesters such as termites abound.

Five key environmental challenges can be identified that potentially threaten the future viability of agricultural systems, particularly at regional and local levels. In the case of beekeeping as a form of (intensive) agriculture, each of the five (or some form of them) are relevant, but there are also for beekeeping some extra factors that need to be considered when looking at the question of whether beekeeping will continue to be sustainable. Some of these I will discuss lightly, but others I will look at in more depth

  1. Land degradation
  2. Limits to water availability
  3. Loss of biodiversity
  4. Declining agricultural genetic diversity
  5.  Climate change

    and particularly for beekeeping
  6. The effect of Varroa
  7. The influence of pesticides
  8. The ability to replace losses (and the associated ability to overwinter bees)
  9. The influence of a diminishing resource base

1. Land Degradation

This has relevance to beekeeping in that if farmers do not practice sustainable agriculture, the environmental flow-on for beekeepers is that there will be less agricultural land available and suitable for beekeeping. Poor farming practice will lead to degraded land, erosion, infertile soils, poor water retention, and unhealthy vegetation. It may also lead to eradication of desired nectar/pollen producing plants, although it may also lead to a proliferation of weeds (which are often utilised by beekeepers).

2. Limits to Water Availability

I interpret this as being either available water for irrigation and water for stock, but also as water retention in the soil. This is not only allied to the way in which farmers use water, but also to the way the community as a whole treasures its water supplies, and is linked to climate change. South Australian beekeepers, for example, must by law supply water in close proximity to their beehives, but this water has to come from somewhere. Heat waves such as those experienced in January of this year result in a reduction of the amount of available water at the same time as demand has increased.

3. Loss of biodiversity

This has great implications for beekeeping. Bees need pollen for protein, and need to obtain it from a variety of plants if they are to be able to satisfy their ‘dietary’ needs. Agricultural monocultures reduce biodiversity. This is causing huge problems for beekeepers overseas, particularly in the US and Argentina, with widespread loss of biodiversity to accommodate the planting of corn and soy for biofuel. The Europeans have also suffered from the problem, but to some extent are actively working to restore biodiversity, planting hedgerows and allowing parks to revegetate with wildflowers.

This is of great benefit to hobbyist beekeepers. Provided they look after their bees, they are the ones who could have greatest influence for the future well-being of honeybees and the husbandry that goes with them. We do not need to tell beekeepers about the important environmental service performed by their bees or about the important socioeconomic benefits from them.

Monocultures such as almond orchards provide avenues for pollination, but are biodiversity ‘deserts’ after flowering

Monocultures such as almond orchards provide avenues for pollination, but are biodiversity ‘deserts’ after flowering

In Australia, with our great reliance on native flora for honey production and with the added benefit of the available pollen sources from native flora, we have not felt the effects of monoculture farming to the same extent, but it is happening. Almonds plantings are growing, and while this has the effect of providing both a ‘cash’ crop for beekeepers as well as an late winter opportunity to stimulate hives, it is also reflective of the way in which agriculture is developing. If no floral is available to the beekeeper after the almonds, we are heading towards the sort of situation that exist in America, where bees need to be propped up with sugar syrup and pollen supplements.

The sustainable option is not to feed sugar or corn syrup. They are usually products of intensive monocultural agriculture and are processed in a chemical refinery before being transported long distances. The energy

consumption, environmental degradation and pollution involved do not justify their use. Routine sugar feeding entails procurement, additional equipment, preparation, distribution and cleaning – all of which add complexity, cost and labour to the operation. If sugar must be used, then the gold standard would be organically certified, refined, i.e. crystallised, sugar. The choice of the actual plant source for sugar, whether cane or beet etc, depends on its relative environmental, social and economic impact. Food miles, supporting sustainable livelihoods and fair trade should all come into the equation.

Is bulk feeding of sugar syrup to honeybees part of a sustainable future?

Is bulk feeding of sugar syrup to honeybees part of a sustainable future?

If sugar is not fed, then it leaves only honey as the possible primary energy source. Honey is the natural choice. A sustainable beekeeping operation retains sufficient comb or extracted honey to satisfy emergency feeding. Life cycle analysis has shown that, compared with sugar, honey is the sustainable and ethical sweetener.

Similar arguments apply to the choice between feeding pollen or pollen substitutes. If pollen diversity and quantity are low, the question must be asked as to whether the site is at all suitable for sustainable beekeeping.

4. Declining agricultural genetic diversity

This is already the basis of research and discussion in beekeeping. The influence of Varroa has been to stimulate breeding programmes in beekeeping, as we look to develop Varroa-tolerant/sensitive strains of bees. These programmes have now made us question whether the genetic pool amongst our bee populations is sufficiently diverse to sustain our bee populations. Western Australia, for example, has had a closed bee population since 1974, (after the advent of EFB in the east), and have had Dr Ben Oldroyd and Peter Oxley look at this very question, in relation to the WA Better Bees program.

Will breeding for Varroa tolerance reduce the overall diversity of the genetic pool?

Will breeding for Varroa tolerance reduce the overall diversity of the genetic pool?

The conclusion was that the WA genetic pool is sufficiently diverse to sustain their breeding program, but as we (meaning the wider beekeeping world) struggle to develop VHS strains of bees, the concern is that we may concentrate on just a few lines of bees, developed to handle Varroa, at the expense of the sustainability of the wider genetic pool.

5. Climate Change

This is the elephant in the cupboard, and the longer we choose to deny that climate change is happening, or delay doing something real and meaningful to minimise our effect as a race on climate change, the worse off we will be.

The impact of climate change is multiple. The effect on water availability. The extremes of climate events (heatwaves, droughts, climate variability etc). Poor pollen availability in Autumn. In the US there are already well-documented cases where it has been found that flowering times for particular species of plants has changed. Early blooming times, particularly early in Spring, influence the bees’ ability to breed, and the beekeepers’ ability to have their hive build up in numbers to the extent where they can capitalise on early nectar flows.

Bees need pollen from a variety of sources at any time. Resource security is vital to the sustainability of beekeeping

Bees need pollen from a variety of sources at any time. Resource security is vital to the sustainability of beekeeping

6. Varroa (and for Australia, AFB/SHB)

The influence overseas of Varroa has changed the beekeeping landscape. ‘Western’ beekeeping is based on the European bee, Apis mellifera, because of its superiority as a honey producer and pollinator of our preferred crops. Unless we can either develop a bee that can tolerate/’live with’ Varroa, or (as Dr Denis Anderson believes) alter the reproductive capacity of the Varroa, beekeepers are constantly faced with the need to replenish losses in colonies. This has led to

  • Commercial beekeepers maintaining extra colonies, mostly as nucs, made by either splitting established colonies or by collecting swarms.
  • Hobbyist beekeepers considering the need to run ‘2.5’ colonies
  • The overwintering of larger numbers of colonies, to be used in Spring to restock lost colonies of boost colonies that have suffered during the winter.
V arroa has affected the sustainability of beekeeping

Varroa has affected the sustainability of beekeeping

Not related to Varroa, but more to climate, Australian beekeepers have felt the impact of high winter losses. Witness the effects of climate upon Victorian beekeepers last Autumn (2013), with large winter losses as the result of poor Autumn conditions.

In Australia we may not have Varroa, but we still have to contend with an ongoing problem with AFB, and now have to cope with Small hive beetle, both of which are having an influence on the sustainability of beekeeping at all levels, commercial and hobbyist.

7. The influence of pesticides

This is a two-fold issue – pesticides are applied by farmers, and also by beekeepers, particularly in the case of overseas beekeepers trying to control Varroa.

Pesticide damage to bees is not a new problem – it has been reported since the 1870’s according to C. Johansen and D. Mayer in Pollinator Protection: A Bee and Pesticide Handbook. Periodic problems have occurred with heavy pesticide losses and a continuous threat to keeping bees in certain areas or crops in certain areas. Emergency mosquito sprays in Ohio after the a hurricane lead to widespread flooding and public health mosquito population control measures by airplane; the use of microencapsulated materials of the 1980s that caused colony devastation in apples and corn; and the use of carbaryl in gypsy moth control in the eastern U.S.; the effects of cotton sprays in Australia.

Now the use of neonicotinoids and especially Imidacloprid systemic insecticide has created the latest storm over pesticide and bees. The key here is that the insecticide does not seem to kill bees directly, but indirectly through its systemic action. This class of insecticides acts on the central nervous system and has a much lower toxicity to mammals. Imidacloprid is the most widely used insecticide in the world, and is used in soil injection, tree injection, application to the plant, as a ground application and as a seed treatment. It is widely used in agriculture, in termite control, gardens and to control lawn pests, as well as to control fleas on pets. It is used to protect trees from boring insects.

The systemic effects are linked to colony collapse disorder and have lead to the decline of honey bee colonies in North America and Europe since 2006, associated with the translocation of the material into bee-collected nectar. Several countries have banned the use of the material with statements that Imidacloprid is not part of sustainable agriculture. Further studies show that bees that are exposed to the compound and a range of other stress factors, including viruses and diseases, lead to colony mortality, in part, through bee behavioral changes associated with learning.

To continue to be sustainable, beekeepers must avoid the areas and crops where neonics are used, which is very difficult to do. Areas of general agriculture are hard on bees. These areas eliminate habitat and negatively impact, through insecticide and herbicide use, native pollinator populations. The sustainable beekeeper needs to have refuges of low pesticide use and exposure to intensive agriculture—both because of pesticides and also from the loss of nectar and pollen diversity. This is directly linked to important issues of colony nutrition. This is an area where some local bee clubs are cooperating to fulfill the local nutritional needs of their bees. Landcare groups in Australia can also play an active role in their plantings. The RIRDC book -

Bee Friendly: A planting guide for European honeybees and Australian native pollinators- preparation of which was funded by the honeybee industry via the Honeybee R&D Advisory Committee, has become a valuable resource in this area.

8. The ability to replace losses

This has already been touched on in point 6 above. The sustainable beekeeper is one who keeps extra bee colonies in production at all times. Many Australian beekeepers already do this.

Progressive northern hemisphere beekeepers are keeping nuclei alive during the winter, and using them as brood and bee banks to strengthen frill sized colonies during colony buildup and just before honey production, and to make further increase to replace colony losses or make new colonies for sale to area beekeepers in line with the local bees’ attributes. Australians may need to start looking at feeding bees to stimulate their bees, and may also need to look at re-queening earlier in the season (with overwintered queens), with queens produced locally and in hives produced from local bees.

9. The influence of a diminishing resource base

The Australian resource base is diminishing, partly as a result of urbanisation; but also largely due to government restrictions being placed upon access to public lands. In Australia, some 70% of our honey is produced from native flora, which also provides a valuable pollen resource.

Increasing demand for agricultural production is leading to a lessening of available native flora in farming land, so beekeepers need to have continued access to public lands (such as National Parks, State Forests and Travelling Stock Reserves) if beekeeping is to be sustainable. Such access is needed not only for production, but also as a refuge from pesticide-contaminated farming land and also to allow strengthening/re-building of colonies to have them in a condition that will allow them to pollinate crops.

State forests and National Parks are a vauble resource for beekeeping, providing a shelter refuge, an opportunity for the bees to re-build, and sometimes a production site for honey.

State forests and National Parks are a vauble resource for beekeeping, providing a shelter refuge, an opportunity for the bees to re-build, and sometimes a production site for honey.

The situation varies from State to State. Environmental groups in WA and Qld continue to put pressure on their Governments to restrict beekeeper access to National Park and State Forest lands. Queensland even has a sunset clause on the keeping of bees in State Forests (none will be allowed after 2024). The Victorian Government has recently embraced beekeeping and is striving to give the industry better security and access to public lands. NSW is currently having problems, with a cash-strapped Government seeking to maximise the return it can extract (excuse the pun in a beekeeping context) from beekeepers via State Forests again trying to raise lease fees, and a National Park system vacillating over continued access. In the Northern Territory, land management practices means that ‘controlled’ burns are having a huge (and negative) effect on the beekeepers’ resource base. In Tasmania, problems with ongoing access to and security of the Leatherwood areas is of concern.

To be sustainable, the beekeeping industry not only needs access to a public resource base, it needs that access to be secure. It is in the community interest to provide that security, as it needs the beekeeping industry to be sustainable if crop pollination (and thus food production) is to be sustainable.

Looking to the Future

Not touched on in the above discussion are a number of extra points.

i.) Rising Costs of Production

Australia has the most nomadic beekeeping industry in the world, with beekeepers covering great distances to monitor and pursue honey flows. The rising cost of diesel fuel means it is becoming more expensive to chase honey flows over the great distances involved. The increases in costs for electricity is making it harder for beekeepers to operate the modern extracting facilities demanded by quality assurance programmes.

Couple this to the poor returns for their product, imposed upon them by supermarket chains striving to maximise their profits, but who are really only satisfying the public’s demand for the cheapest grocery bills possible, and the net result is a serious negative impact on the ability of beekeepers to survive. To remain sustainable, returns have to exceed the costs of production. Somehow, the public has to be made aware and appreciative of the true cost of producing a jar of honey, and the beekeeper has to reap at least some of the benefit.

ii.) Avenues for pollination, as a means by which the beekeeper can diversify his income stream, need to be improved. The wider agricultural community (read growers) have still not really come on board with the benefits they will obtain by employing a quality pollination service. Mind you, many beekeepers have also failed to realise the benefits to them (the beekeeper) that would be obtained by provision of a quality service.

iii.) The whole question of sustainability also needs to consider the very materials we as beekeepers use. To be sustainable, we should be using sustainable products in our hove materials. We need to consider that all woodware should come from sustainable plantation timber (which to some extent it is, as much of it now comes from plantation pine), and in the future may need to stop using plastic frames. Plastic is a by-product of the fossil fuel industry, and as the oil runs out, plastic frames and plastic foundation will be unsustainable.

Will rising costs for electricity and diesel, coupled with the need for expensive extracting facilities, affect the sustainability of beekeeping?

Will rising costs for electricity and diesel, coupled with the need for expensive extracting facilities, affect the sustainability of beekeeping?

Sustainability is not a new concept in beekeeping. It was the basis of skep beekeeping in the Middle Ages. Then, the common practice was to kill the strongest and the weakest colonies by burning sulfur, and keep the medium-sized colonies for the winter season. Swarms were captured the next season and placed into the vacant skeps where they built new comb. Elimination of the weak hives, which may have had queen problems or disease, was a form of culling inferior hives, and probably selected for the best bee stocks. Elimination of the largest hives, and harvesting the honey and wax, sustained the beekeeper without doing damage to gene pool of the bees (and may have ensured wintering success, as the larger hives may have eaten all their stores and starved to death over winter).

The above discussion has been constructed so as to encourage food for thought. Hopefully beekeepers who read it will go away and think about what they can do to in their own work practices and businesses to become sustainable. Intensive beekeeping, especially on a commercial scale, requires great time and consumes a lot of energy in return for a variable and unpredictable honey crop. Energy is used in every stage of the process, whether as carbon burnt to move vehicles of to produce electricity – the reconnaissance, the moving of hives, the harvesting of the honey, the construction of the extracting sheds, the processing of the honey crop, the cleaning of the equipment, the maintenance of the hives etc.

In practical terms, sustainability may mean running less hives and producing less honey, but which is sold for a higher price. Or it may mean just doing things differently, after putting some thought into reviewing the way things are being done.


  1. Rural Science Graduates Association (2002). In Memorium - Former Staff and Students of Rural Science at UNE. University of New England.
  2. Gold, M. (July 2009). What is Sustainable Agriculture?. United States Department of Agriculture, Alternative Farming Systems Information Center.
  3. Sustainability in BeekeepingL J Connor American Bee Journal Nov. 2013
  4. Agricultural SustainabilityDepartment for International Development (DFID)(UK) 2004
  5. David Heaf Towards Sustainable Beekeeping
  6. Philip Chandler Towards Sustainable Beekeeping

Author: Des Cannon