Threats to Bees and Honeycomb

Honeybees are a bellwether of our current food and ecological systems.

Honeybees are in trouble, and Pass the Honey is working to understand why. We know that the answer involves complex dynamics that exist in our agricultural system. Our goal is to produce honeycomb that benefits bees, beekeepers, as well as the lands where they forage, in order to reinvent the apiculture system for the better.

Decline in honeybee colony health has three primary culprits: poor nutrition; exposure to agricultural chemicals and pesticides; and parasites, pests, and disease. The combined influence of these challenges creates compounding problems for honeybees. They also underscore the importance of systemic solutions for managing honeybee health. Pass the Honey's unique relationship with its beekeepers allows us to support beekeepers and producers to improve all aspects of honeybee health. Because honeybee health requires a healthy and diverse landscape, our mission to keep honeybees healthy also revitalizes the landscape and the ecosystem.

Challenges to Honeybee Nutrition

Historical changes in United States agriculture have made it harder for honeybees to access a nutritious diet.

According to the USDA, in the last 25 years alone, farm sizes have doubled in the U.S.. In the 1980s the average farm size was around 600 acres. Today’s average farm size is 1,100 acres, and many farms are five to ten times larger. As farms have gotten bigger, they have increasingly adopted monoculture practices, in which only one single crop is grown in a field at any given time. This practice limits a bee's diet to just one type of pollen for extended periods of time. As a result of these monoculture productions, honeybees become malnourished, which weakens their immune systems and makes them more susceptible to various pathogens, parasites, and chemical pesticides.

As such, healthy honeybees need access to diverse plants, to collect enough nectar and pollen for building hives and raising new bees. In the process of collecting nectar, they also transfer pollen from plant-to-plant, pollinating them so the plants can reproduce. Diverse and healthy plant life provides honeybees with a proper diet while also making them more resilient against pests, parasites, diseases, and agricultural chemicals.

Agriculture Chemicals and Pesticides

As we understand the importance of honeybees in agricultural systems, we also need to understand the risks agricultural systems expose them to.

As honeybees perform pollination services, they are often directly exposed to the herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers used in commercial agriculture. At sublethal exposure, agrochemicals can lower honeybee reproduction, immunity, cognition, and overall physiological functions, leading to decreased honey production, and reduced population size. They also compromise bees' ability to communicate with each other, which disrupts their entire existence.

Neonicotinoids, one of the most widely used pesticides, are nerve disruptors that disrupt bees' ability to forage. They also compromise bee strength and their productivity as a colony. Even sub-lethal doses of neonicotinoids can increase rates of honey bee mortality. In lab tests, researchers have found that, in bees, exposure to neonicotinoids impair their learning and memory functions, their ability to reproduce, and their ability to forage effectively. They can also damage bees' nervous systems and weaken their immunity. At large, these pesticides are linked to weakening the hive as a whole, leaving honeybee colonies open to parasitic infection.

Honeybees are directly exposed to neonicotinoids and to other chemicals while foraging in agricultural fields. They bring pesticides into the hive colony, where the chemicals are collected in the liquid honey and the wax.


These chemicals accumulate in higher concentrations in beeswax and pose a risk to consumers, especially because conventional beekeepers often reuse wax, known as a foundation. Using a base layer, called a foundation in beekeeping, makes beekeeping and producing liquid honey a little easier and also gives bees a head start. However, reusing foundation increases the accumulation of pesticides in beeswax, harming bees as well as bee products. 

Pass the Honey believes that agriculture should be designed and managed with an understanding of their effect on bee health and the health of all pollinators.

Parasites, Pests, and Disease

Current scientific research indicates that parasites, and the diseases they carry, are the main threat to the lives of honeybees.

In the United States, honeybee pests and pathogens are widely distributed and affect almost all managed honeybee colonies. Their transmission can happen between honeybees and other insects outside the hive. Inside the hive, pests and diseases pass between worker bees and from the queen to the larvae. They are extremely persistent, difficult to remove, and can cause widespread honeybee mortality and hive loss, putting immense stress on colony health and beekeepers.

One of the most widespread deadly parasites of the honeybee is the varroa mite. Varroa mites are a persistent pest, because they are easily spread from one hive to another by roaming worker bees or drone bees. They reproduce in the hive by laying their eggs in the brood cells of honeybees, where the bees raise their larvae. Mite eggs hatch and feed off bee larvae and pupae and can cause the death or the malformation of developing bees. 

The mites harm bees by feeding off their blood. And, they transmit viruses, like deformed wing virus, which is deadly. (More on this later). When a hive is weak, a varroa mite infestation can wipe it out completely. Other parasites that can wipe out an already precarious bee hive include the tracheal mite, the bee louse, and the hive beetle.

Another especially worrisome pest is the wax moth, an insect that feeds off comb wax. Healthy hives can defend against wax moths before they become a problem, but weak hives are susceptible to moth infestations. Adult moths lay larvae inside the hive, and when the larvae hatch, they feed vigorously off wax comb in the hive. Wax moths can damage comb to the extent that it can no longer be used to store brood or honey.

Distressed hives are also susceptible to pathogens that can cause bacterial, viral, and fungal disease. Common pathogens that affect honeybees include American foulbrood, European foulbrood, chalkbrood, sacbrood, nosema, deformed wing virus, Israeli acute paralysis virus, acute bee paralysis virus, and Kashmir bee virus.

Among those, American foulbrood and deformed wing virus are the most common. American foulbrood feeds off of bee larvae, preventing the larvae from developing into adult bees. Deformed wing virus causes pupae death, deformed wings and other deformations. Infected honeybees stop being able to fly and die. 

Conventional beekeepers commonly combat pests and diseases using synthetic chemicals, including a variety of pesticides, fungicides, and antibiotics, which are applied directly on beehives. While chemical treatments are often efficient and necessary to keep colonies alive, they also have drawbacks. 

First, chemical treatments like pesticides or antibiotics may wind up in all parts of the hive, including products that are harvested, like liquid honey and wax.

Chemicals can also harm honeybees. For example, the pesticides used to combat the common varroa mite also creates metabolic stress for bees, deteriorating their immune systems. Other pesticides and antibiotics that are used to control honeybee pests can also cause stress for bees and cause long term damage to their health. Without careful management, these chemicals can even cause bee death.

In order to protect hives and honeybees, beekeepers must be knowledgeable about hive treatments as well as their proper applications. 

Pass the Honey has put together a list of the current best management practices that encourage beekeepers to:

  • Take an integrated approach to pest management.
  • Be knowledgeable about pests and disease.
  • Prevent pest infestation and their spread.
  • Monitor pests and diseases throughout the season.
  • Treat pests as soon as they are detected 
  • Rotate pest treatments regularly, to avoid chemical resistance to pesticides.
  • Use disease and pest resistant honeybee genetic stock.

When Pass the Honey first began sourcing comb honey, challenges quickly arose. There wasn’t a single supplier in the U.S. that was willing to sell their honeycomb on a commercial scale because of known accumulations of pesticides and other chemicals in their beeswax. If we couldn't source clean honeycomb in the U.S., then where could we source it from? 

To answer the question, we teamed up with Terra Genesis International to run a global study in order to find the best regions to source clean honeycomb. During the search, our company’s mission emerged: Create apiary practices and standards for ecological diversity beyond what anyone thinks is possible. We are committed to co-creating a sustainable world with bees and beekeepers alike. We are committed to compensating beekeepers fairly and educating them on practices that enhance ecological diversity.

Pass the Honey requires our beekeepers to follow these guidelines in order to produce the safest honeycomb for consumption and to keep bees, hives, and ecosystems healthy.

The Complex Problem of Pollination Services

Threats to bee health intersect and compound, creating challenges for sustainable apiculture.

One way that beekeepers earn income is to rent their bees to farms for pollination services, a process in which managed honeybees are moved long distances across the nation to pollinate agricultural fields. Demand for crop pollination services by honeybees has been on a steep rise since the 1980s and currently, the demand for crop pollination is outgrowing the U.S. supply of bees. Pollination services are lucrative but often leave bee populations vulnerable to all of the threats discussed above.

Most of the fields that pollination services are used for are monoculture systems, which means bees are limited in their diet. In between contracts, beekeepers temporarily move their bees to non-agricultural landscapes so their bees can access diverse suitable sources of nutrition to gain strength, support offspring, and produce honey to overwinter. Unfortunately, seasonal foraging areas for bees are becoming less available as more landscapes convert to monoculture farming systems. Less food for bee colonies means decreased honey production and colony health. 

Additionally, moving bees for pollination services exposes them more frequently to the pesticides and agrochemicals that monoculture farms commonly use. As we've discussed in previous sections, these chemicals can accumulate in beeswax and significantly compromise honeybee health. 

Lastly, transportation contributes to honeybee stress, weakening their immune system and leaving them vulnerable to the many parasites and pathogens they encounter as they travel during contracts.

Moving bees isn't inherently a bad thing. In fact, bees are often moved to protect them from harsh weather and to offer them foraging options when there is a dearth at home. Without the income from pollination services, most commercial beekeepers wouldn't be able to make a living. And, without pollination services we would not have many of the nuts, fruits, and vegetables we take for granted in the volumes that we are accustomed to: almonds, orchard fruits, avocados, broccoli, blueberries, and cranberries, to name a few.

However, the popularity of pollination services in combination with pesticide use and the loss of foraging habitat associated with monoculture systems do challenge honeybee health and nutrition, which can lead to sickness and colony decline.

Pass the Honey and our beekeeper partners do not participate in pollination services or contribute to any monoculture farming systems. We believe this encourages a bee-first approach. Healthy bees make for delicious, regenerative honeycomb, and more importantly, a stronger ecosystem.

The Change

Pass the Honey is working toward sustainable apiculture and a better ecosystem for all.

Producing quality honeycomb is both a science and an art. For all the reasons above, ensuring that honeycomb is safe for consumers requires attention to ecological systems and thoughtful pest management. That's why honeycomb is generally produced by small-scale expert beekeepers who dedicate just a portion of their hives to producing honeycomb. Small-scale beekeepers are better suited to produce honeycomb, because they have flexible processes and a greater level of control.

And while robust ecological systems and holistic pest management are crucial for producing honeycomb, there are myriad other aspects of apiary care that beekeepers must be able to manage: high quality honeycomb production, for instance, requires extremely healthy and productive hives that can sufficiently fill the comb. And, a beekeeper must be able to time honeycomb production precisely and understand how to control the bees’ natural tendency to swarm when the hive is full.

Currently, large-scale conventional beekeeping simply cannot incorporate such labor intensive practices into their processes. They rely on methods that are efficient for liquid honey production and pollination services but that are antithetical to honeycomb production. Common practices like moving bee hives regularly, harvesting most (or all) of a hive’s honey, using pesticides and agrochemicals for pest management, and mass queen breeding create direct stressors and risks to honeybee health and the long-term viability of apiculture operations. A strong hive is key for successfully producing honeycomb.

Pass the Honey supports the development of a supply system for comb honey and liquid honey that reduces stressors and creates lasting improvements to the vitality of honeybees, beekeepers, farmers, and consumers. Developing a supply system of producers who practice ecologically sound beekeeping supports the health and vitality of honeybees as well as beekeepers.

Pass the Honey is working towards creating dialogue around how apiculture is inextricable from the ecosystem. Mapping the intimate connections between the health of honeybees, pollinators, the land, humans, and the ecosystem, allows us to identify solutions that support the viability of the whole system. 

We hope to empower beekeepers, the industry, and consumers to engage and identify practices that can transform these interrelated systems in order to improve the world. The answers are straightforward: We need to change the way we grow our food. We need fewer monocultures and more crop diversity. We need fewer pesticides and more thriving soils. We need more mowing and less tilling. And big farm or little farm, everyone can create hedgerows with more diverse floral resources for pollinators, whether they are native bees or honeybees.

Regenerative agriculture is on the rise. We can support it by changing the way we eat: More local and fresh, less processed and from afar. More organic and fewer GMOs. Greater vegetable diversity with more heirloom varieties and less of the same old hybrids.

Take a moment to reflect on what you eat, and how pollinators contribute to your world. The next time you're looking for honey, pick fresh honeycomb over liquid, and pay a premium price for it.

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