The word regenerative likely sparks imagery of cows grazing in green pastures and overall-clad farmers tending to their crops. But what about the bees? After all, we depend on pollinators for over one-third of our food supply and plant biodiversity. (1) Surely beekeeping must be considered a cornerstone of regenerative agriculture.
While there are principles that some experts agree upon, regenerative agriculture does not have a universal definition. (2) Beekeeping is considered an important aspect of regenerative agriculture for some, while other theories cast beekeeping in a negative light.
Among the murky guidelines, one thing is clear: Without defined regenerative standards, it’s impossible to guarantee that harmful and extractive methods aren’t used. It’s also impossible to educate farmers and beekeepers about such standards if they do not exist.
With our mission to responsibly source honeycomb, Pass the Honey sets out to:
- Define regenerative beekeeping standards for our beekeeper partners.
- Study the outcomes of implementing regenerative beekeeping practices to fully understand the benefits of pollinators in various landscapes and globally.
Here’s where we stand today on this journey, and what lies ahead.
When Sustainability is Not Enough
Documentaries likeKiss the Ground and outreach from environmental advocates have brought regenerative agriculture into the spotlight in recent years. Parallel to this, awareness about colony collapse disorder and honey fraud has sparked conversation and controversy about apiculture, our food system, and conventional agricultural practices.
The complexity of these issues collided when we set out to source honeycomb for our snacking honey. While many beekeepers use methods touted as sustainable, it quickly became clear that sustaining the current state of affairs was not a responsible approach. One glaring example of this: Between 2018-2019, US beekeepers lost 40% of their colonies. (3) Imagine if a rancher lost 40% of their cattle in a single year. It’s unacceptable.
Sustainable practices only maintain existing conditions. Improvement is not an objective. Not wanting to support a system that was failing pollinators and threatening our climate and food security, regeneration was the only way forward.
Regenerative: Going Beyond the Buzzword
With the help of the regenerative design experts at Terra Genesis International, Pass the Honey developed a matrix that outlines degenerative, sustainable, and regenerative apiculture practices. Our regenerative standards are based on research on beekeeping, land management, and interconnected systems.
Our beekeeping partners are able to reference these standards. Audits confirm that they have successfully implemented them, with yellow cells indicating current practices.
Here are a few examples of what these standards look like in motion.
Let the Natural Queen Bees Reign
It’s not uncommon for beekeepers to purchase queen bees annually. Although the queen may be accepted by the hive, she could bring along pests that pose a risk to colony health. Additionally, as an outsider, she may possess genetics that aren’t beneficial. (4)
We say let bees be bees and allow them to produce their own queens. At the very least, our beekeepers are permitted to raise bees that produce some queens and acquire queens from local breeders. At the very best, they cultivate wild honey bee colonies in appropriate environments around the world. For now, our beekeeping partners go beyond the baseline requirement and raise all of their own bees over generations.
Pollination as a Service
In the US, beekeepers can often find more financial stability in sending their bees to pollinate almond crops than producing honey. Moving bees from farm to farm exposes them to pests, disease, and agricultural chemicals. As a result, even the most experienced beekeepers have lost bees in massive numbers. (5)
There may be instances where moving honeybee colonies is necessary, such as if their forage zone is depleted in certain seasons. Our standards permit moving hives occasionally if needed. Ideally, bees are situated on a thriving landscape where they can benefit the local ecosystem and organic agriculture. This is the case for our current hives located in Turkey, where the bees have miles of forage zone and conventional agriculture doesn’t pose a risk to bee health or honey quality.
Responsible Honeycomb Harvesting
Customers often ask how we can ensure that our honeycomb harvesting doesn’t harm bees by taking their food supply. While supplemental feeding can provide bees with sugar water when their honey reserves are depleted, this practice jeopardizes bee health and affects the quality of the honey and honeycomb they produce. (6) Instead, our beekeeper partners harvest the excess comb, leaving plenty for the bees.
Pioneering Pollinator Research
Some might look at our regenerative standards and assume our work is done, but we’re just getting started.
Outside of the Regenerative Honeycomb Continuum, the most concrete definition of regenerative agriculture involves loose guidelines that some academics and practitioners agree on. These principles don’t encapsulate the nuances involved in beekeeping, leaving apiarists to fend for themselves. Stack on a changing climate and widespread use of apitoxic chemicals, and the situation for bees and beekeepers has quickly become dire.
There are still many questions to be answered when it comes to clearly defining regenerative apiculture. Through our Regenerative Honeycomb Initiative, we intend to further our understanding of the co-benefits of bees and pollinators on ecosystems and observe our regenerative standards in motion in various environments. This will help us shape regenerative standards that beekeepers can then use to produce high-quality honey and honeycomb in a way that restores nature and bee populations globally.