Bee products and skin care

by Marion O’Leary

Is it unethical to use bee products in skin care products?

At Mokosh we frequently receive queries asking whether we make a vegan lip balm – that is, a lip balm containing no beeswax. We currently produce three lip balms, each containing certified organic beeswax. We love the quality that beeswax brings to the lip balms – it is extremely protective, and gives the balm a quality of elasticity that allows it to melt smoothly onto the lips.

Despite our attachment to beeswax, however, the question of whether the use of bee products is ethical deserves close examination. At first glance, it would seem a fairly clear-cut answer for those who hold the view that animal farming of any kind is unethical – since bee products like beeswax come from farmed bees, they would argue that their use should be avoided.

However, in the case of farmed bees, there is more to consider than simply the products that are harvested from bee hives.  We should also consider the role that farmed bees play in pollinating our food crops.

Farmed bees and food crops

It has been estimated that about one third of the world’s food crops depend to some extent on farmed honey bees for pollination. The remaining crops are either self-pollinators, wind pollinated, or depend on other animals for pollination. Crops that require farmed bees for pollination include many nuts and fruits, and some vegetables.  See the table on this link for the degree of reliance of Australian food crops on farmed bees.

The current diversity of food available for human consumption is therefore dependent on the presence of farmed bees. Without them, we’d have either reduced or no crops of some fruits and vegetables. This means that even those who avoid consuming animal products of any kind are currently dependent on farmed bees for some of their food. Therefore, we could ask the question:

If we take the stance that it’s unethical to consume products obtained from farmed bees, is it also unethical to consume foods pollinated by farmed bees?

Some people might argue that the human population’s reliance on honey bees for pollination is a symptom of poor farming practices. After all, other insects are capable of pollinating many of our food crops – the honey bee is required exclusively for only a few. See this link for a list of food crops and their potential pollinators.

Alternative species of pollinator, which include bumblebees, solitary bees, flies, beetles and wasps, need to be recruited to agricultural crops from the surrounding environment, since they are not farmed. Because agriculture has become ever more intensive over the past century, with an increasing prevalence of monocultures and clearing of native vegetation combined with pesticide use, the population of alternative pollinators is unreliable. In Europe and the USA, increased reliance on farmed honey bees has coincided with Colony Collapse Disorder – a massive drop in the population of the honey bee, now thought to be caused by a combination of poor bee husbandry, exposure to certain pesticides, parasitic infestations, a monoculture diet, and stress from a variety of causes. See this article for a summary.

It seems that with existing agricultural practices, it will be difficult to move away from our reliance on the farmed honey bee if we wish to maintain the abundance and variety of food crops we currently enjoy.  However, considering the devastation that mainstream agricultural practices can reap on our environment – and some people believe that Colony Collapse Disorder is one of the symptoms of this – perhaps we need to consider how we can use our consumer dollar to promote a more sustainable method of agriculture, namely through purchasing certified organic food.

Bee welfare and organic farming

Organically farmed bees are permitted to feed only on organically farmed crops for food.  Because certified organic crops are farmed without synthetic inputs and pest control is managed partially through biodiversity, rather than synthetic pesticides, bees farmed under certified organic conditions will have a more natural, varied diet and will be exposed to fewer synthetic toxins. Many people believe that hives managed under certified organic conditions are less vulnerable to Colony Collapse Disorder because of these superior husbandry practices.

Further, organically farmed bees have strict welfare standards that are not imposed on non certified organic hives.  For example, the following practices are sometimes carried out in commercial hives:

–          Clipping the wings of the queen bee so she cannot leave the hive

–          Feeding of artificial pollen and artificial honey (e.g. corn syrup)

–          Use of synthetic insecticides and antibiotics to manage bee diseases

–          Destruction of the male brood during harvest

–          Killing of bees in the comb when harvesting bee products

The case is different for bees farmed under certified organic conditions. Practices for management of certified organic bees include the following, summarised from The Biological Farmers of Australia website.

–          Wing clipping of the queen bee is prohibited

–          Destruction of the male brood during harvest is prohibited

–          Destruction of bees in a comb during harvest is prohibited

–          Combs containing broods may not be harvested

–          At the end of the season, hives shall be left with sufficient reserves of honey and pollen to survive the dormant period

–          Supplementary feeding of bee pollen from a certified organic source is permitted

–          Sugar and sugar syrup from certified organic sources, if starvation is imminent, is permitted. Honey shall be used as the major feed source, whilst feeding of sugar during any honey flow is prohibited.

–          Synthetic antibiotics, miticides and synthetic veterinary treatments are prohibited.

–          Hives may not be constructed from particleboard or toxic wood preservatives and coatings.

Management of hives under certified organic conditions promotes sustainable farming practices

It is clear that certified organic bee products provide a guarantee of a minimum standard of welfare for bees that is not provided with non certified bee products.  Further, because certified organic hives are permitted to range only on certified organic crops, there is an interdependence between organic hives and sustainable organic farming – one cannot exist without the other, at least with respect to the crops that rely on bees for pollination. If one believes that organic farming is the way to sustainable agriculture and long term food security, certified organic beekeeping must be an integral part of it.

Where does Mokosh stand on the consumption of bee products?

As a result of the many queries we have received regarding vegan lip balms, we spent many months working to produce a beeswax-free balm. We found that the quality of the lip balm made with plant waxes was far inferior to what we achieved using certified organic beeswax. After thinking about it, we felt that not using beeswax meant a vote against certified organic agriculture. If we no longer purchase certified organic beeswax, we are saying ‘yes’ to fruit and vegetables pollinated by conventionally raised bees – which is also a vote for lower welfare standards for bees, and ‘yes’ to less sustainable agriculture. Furthermore, one less customer for certified organic beehives means less support for the whole organic industry.

That’s how we came to the decision to continue to produce lip balms containing certified organic beeswax. Failure to support certified organic bee products is a vote of no-confidence for both the humane treatment of farmed bees and for sustainable agriculture.

We’d be interested to hear what you consider to be the ethical stance on bee products. Should the ethical consumer be promoting the consumption of certified bee products, rather than avoiding them – thereby increasing demand for certified organic hives and thereby certified organic agriculture? Or would the ethical stance be to remove the list of bee-pollinated foods from the diet (no more almonds, apples, cucumbers or broccoli, to name a few)? Or should we say it’s OK to farm certified organic bees, but not collect the products from their hives?