‘Beewashing’ and the business of honey bees

Former quality assurance technician alleges one of the big players in the industry doesn’t live up to their corporate buzz
Photo: Todd Huffman
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For all the justifiable alarm about declining bee populations worldwide, there is precious little public awareness of the business of beekeeping. Many people, for instance, remain unaware of the important differences between native bee species and honey bees — the former play an essential role in plant pollination and are under severe threat, while the latter are kept like livestock.

As concerns about bees have increased, so has a new form of greenwashing. Companies are using “beewashing” for marketing purposes, linking bee-related products and beekeeping services to environmental action, claims that are not necessarily backed by the available science.

One company facing particular scrutiny is Montreal-based Alvéole.

The buzz about Alvéole

Established in 2013 by three friends, Alvéole helps install and manage bee hives for schools and businesses. It operates in more than a dozen cities across Canada and the United States.

The company has set up beekeeping projects at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Port of Vancouver and the Currie residential development in Calgary, as well as the Illinois Science and Technology Park and Walgreens’ corporate headquarters in Chicago. VIA Rail has partnered with Alvéole to install beehives on station roofs in four cities to further “its environmental protection efforts.” Even the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., had two beehives installed on the roof, hoping to “reduce its environmental footprint.”

Screenshot from a VIA Rail press release about its bee program.

Alvéole cultivates an environmental narrative as part of its marketing strategy — one in which encouraging love for bees will ultimately lead to ecological preservation:

We discovered early on that the honey bee is a surprisingly powerful vehicle for connecting people to nature. An experience with a bee hive is a great starting point for a deeper environmental education - and education leads to inspiration, which in turn leads to action.

We’ve always been motivated by a single idea: that caring for bees will lead people to care for their environment. After all, we’re human beings - loving something is what sparks our need to protect it.

But experts say that in reality, the company does not contribute to conservation efforts.

Save the bees

Brought to North America by European colonists in the 1600s, honey bees are an introduced and managed species. “The white man’s fly,” as Indigenous people were said to have called the new animal.

Canada is home to over 800 types of native bees, many on the verge of extinction, with scientists pointing to habitat loss, climate change, pesticides and pathogens. Unlike these native species, honey bees are a managed species that is not actually endangered.

“They are not in trouble,” Janine McGowan, a former Alveolé employee, said. “They will be fine, they are an industrial animal.”

But “save the bees” messaging often doesn’t make this distinction and even actively promotes the idea that honey bees are at risk of disappearing.

Sheila Colla is a conservation biologist at York University who studies the decline in native bee species. She says that companies mislead people into believing that honey bees need to be saved in order to sell their products.

“Companies like Alvéole and others have really taken advantage of these (native) bee declines, and use articles and studies, including mine, to basically promote how important bees are, because their company has a vested interest in people purchasing bee products,” she says.

Clients of Alvéole adopt the company’s rhetoric in explaining the supposed benefits of their bee hives. The Canadian Embassy in Washington, for example, has this to say about its beekeeping project:

By now, most of us have heard about the decline of bee populations around the world and the impact that has for our environment. Studies have shown that one third of the food that we eat depends on pollinators like bees. We want to play our part to ensure that bee populations are healthy and start to make a comeback. Thousands of bees from the Embassy’s hives will fan out across Washington D.C. every day, collecting pollen and playing an important role in our local environment.

Paying for Alvéole’s beekeeping services is an easy way for organizations to associate themselves with environmentalism. Charlotte De Keyzer, a graduate student and pollination ecologist at the University of Toronto, tracks this kind of practice.

“Unfortunately, Alvéole relies heavily on bee-washing to promote their business,” she writes, arguing that the company engages in practices that can harm native bees. “Even if they were to un-bee-wash their online presence, many of their existing clients have already bought into a bogus bee-saving narrative and this will be tough to un-do.”

Researchers have always struggled to compete with industries, meaning bigger companies often overshadow the voice of scientific reasoning, says Jeremy Kerr, a professor and biologist at the University of Ottawa.

“If it comes down to a question about whether or not researchers can compete with a massive industrial public relations campaign, chances are we are just not going to.”

‘Not scientifically qualified’

“Bringing bees to your building requires minimal resources while creating a flood of benefits,” reads one of Alvéole’s marketing claims.

But honey bees are resource-intensive creatures, and their role in the environment may be misunderstood by the public.

Both honey bees and native bees need pollen to feed their young. One study on this competition found that the pollen collected by a single honey bee colony in one month could feed 33,000 native bee progeny. Over three months in the summer then, the researchers calculated, 40 colonies of honey bees could extract “the pollen equivalent of four million wild bees” from the environment.

“Honey bees are the cow of the insect world.”

Honey bees also use up more resources because unlike native bee species, they do not hibernate. “Honey bees are unique in our part of the world for staying active within the hive,” explains Jessica Forrest, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa who studies pollination.

“That’s why they need the honey to get them through the winter.”

Bee-saving campaigns often tout the vital pollination role that bees play in an ecosystem. But Kyle Bobiwash, an assistant professor and Indigenous scholar who researches insects at the University of Manitoba, says the pollination ability of honey bees tends to be overestimated.

“There are many more wild pollinators that are much more effective and efficient,” he explains. “Honey bees are the cow of the insect world.”

In addition to competition for floral resources, scientists have suggested that disease spillover from honey bees may be an important factor in the decline of native species.

When asked about the scientific evidence the company uses to determine sustainable levels of honey bees in a city, effects of disease spillover and general environmental impacts of honey bee colonies, a spokesperson for Alvéole replied by email.

“We aren’t scientifically qualified to answer those questions.”

Quality assurance

Last March, when many people found themselves facing employment difficulties due to COVID-19, Janine McGowan was starting a dream job at Alvéole.

The quality assurance technician is responsible for the overall quality of beekeeping operations. According to the job description, the technician inspects the company’s beekeeping operations and reports on problems and preventative measures while educating beekeeping staff on quality control.

McGowan felt well prepared for the position. She had worked as a technician and instructor for six years at the Honey Bee Research Centre at the University of Guelph and completed a Master of Science degree in Environmental Biology, studying internal gut parasites in honey bees. She had also worked at the Royal Ontario Museum and for several commercial beekeepers.

“I couldn’t wait to rub elbows with my fellow beekeepers and scientists,” she says.

According to McGowan, she brought a level of expertise to her new position that Alvéole was missing. “I was even more knowledgeable than any of the [senior leaders] combined. There was at least a third of the beekeeping team managers that had zero beekeeping experience,” she recounts.

But the employees weren’t the problem, McGowan emphasizes. She says that Alvéole failed to provide adequate training, implement proper beekeeping practices, and follow scientific best practices.

Ricochet has seen correspondence to Alvéole’s beekeeping team director in which McGowan outlines several perceived problems with beekeeping operations.

Pest management

In addition to being responsible for an immense number of bees, “beekeeping staff have minimal training in identifying honey bee parasites and pathogens,” according to McGowan.

She says that bacterial diseases (European and American foulbrood) and an invasive pest (small hive beetle) were found in Alvéole’s Toronto operations, for example, and small hive beetles have been a particular problem for the company’s U.S. operations. While working for the company, she received an image of honey with small hive beetles floating on top, sent by a beekeeping team manager. The honey was thrown out and Alvéole decided to buy honey from another beekeeping operation and bottle it as their own.

Alex Mclean, president and co-founder of Alvéole, says the company was transparent with clients about the purchase of honey from an outside operation, and diseases like foulbrood are a part of beekeeping. He also acknowledges that workers come in with little to no beekeeping experience, but says the company has a “pretty intense training program,” and beekeeping managers tending to hundreds of colonies have a team behind them.

Mclean says they now follow the instructions on the package.

Another concern of McGowan’s focuses on Varroa mites, which have infested honey bee colonies all over the world.

Paul Kozak, a provincial apiarist at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, explained in an email that “Varroa feed by piercing the body of a honey bee with their mouthparts and then suck fluids and fat bodies out of the bee. In doing so the mites will spread pathogens into the honey bee — acting like a dirty syringe.” That’s why “it is important for beekeepers to control the Varroa levels before they become too high.”

Beekeepers treat their colonies with Apivar strips, which slowly release a chemical that kills off the mites. The manufacturer notes that the strips should be removed after six weeks to avoid issues that include the development of resistance.

McGowan says that Alvéole leaves the strips in for five to six months, and she worries that in addition to the mites becoming treatment resistant, the strips could continue to release chemicals that are absorbed by the wax comb, creating residue in the honey that humans consume.

Acknowledging that the company did sometimes leave Apivar strips in for five to six months, Mclean says they now follow the instructions on the package.

Honey extraction and colony density

Apivar strips and other treatments for pests and diseases are typically placed in the brood area of a colony, which is where the queen lays eggs and the young are reared. Beekeepers typically ensure the product is clean by isolating the brood comb and taking honey from other parts of the hive, and usually do not use treatments for pests during times when honey is being produced.

McGowan alleges that Alvéole does not teach employees how to properly isolate brood comb from comb where they harvest their product, resulting in contaminated honey. “This is markedly unhygienic, unappetizing, and likely against several health codes,” McGowan told the company in writing.

In response to Ricochet’s questions about brood comb, Mclean says that it is not a distinct type of comb, and that the same comb is used for honey as for brood. He denies that comb containing brood was used for honey production, saying “it can happen, because you have brood comb and you have honey and they interchange at some points,” but “not at the moment we extract it.”

Another issue outlined by McGowan is that Alvéole does not set a limit on colony density within each city, which she says can lead to crowded hives and then a process known as swarming, where bees break from a colony to start another somewhere else.

“Client colony checks happened on a three-week basis, and there were numerous incidents of swarming,” says McGowan. “The main problem with swarming in the city is that swarms will move into crevasses in homes, trees, sheds, and yes, even vehicles that have been parked for too long.”

Overpopulated honey bee hives can also lead to native bees getting outnumbered on floral patches.

“Honey bees are famous for their waggle and circle dances, so when they find an abundant patch of flowers, they are able to recruit their nest mates to that patch,” says De Keyzer. “Most wild bees are solitary so they are like the single moms out working alone.”

“Managing swarming should be of paramount importance in cities, and was clearly out of control during my time with Alvéole,” McGowan says.

In regards to the company’s policy on colony density, Mclean says there is no cap on hives per city because “it’s very hard to put a number on a city.” Instead, the company allows a maximum of two or three hives per building, which Mclean argues serves the same purpose. While swarming happens “occasionally,” it’s natural and always handled quickly, he says.

An agricultural overthrow

McGowan no longer works at Alvéole.

“They choose to take a whole bunch of shortcuts,” she says. “If people find out what could happen to their honey, people will not want to eat honey, and that will harm individuals who are actually trying to do it right.”

Mclean disputes this characterization, saying the company is “not in the business of saving money. That’s just not true.”

Ultimately, experts say, beekeeping is done for people, not for the environment. Colla says it’s fine “if someone wants to have their own hive because they want to make their own honey, and they understand the risks and the responsibility of it.”

To actually help endangered native bees, one of the best ways is for individuals to plant flowers, which not only provide more food but “can impact how often bees are sharing flowers,” according to De Keyzer. “If you have few flowers, but artificially high levels of bees due to beekeeping, then you’re going to have more interaction and potential for sharing diseases at those hubs.”

Providing habitat, such as undisturbed ground and undisturbed old vegetation, can help create a home for native bees, says Forrest. “One of the things that is really gratifying about putting in a pollinator garden is that you will get rewards right away. It’s not like trying to save some exotic endangered bird.”

On a larger scale though, “if we can get back to more small-scale farming that is less pesticide intensive, less based on corn and soy (which are basically desserts for most bees), that would have a bigger impact,” she says.

“What we really need to do is overthrow the entire way we do agriculture in the Western world.”

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