Honeybee-the insect for human food chain


Maneka Gandhi


(Bihar Times) Some weeks ago, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, a person who makes a lifer in a mental asylum look reasonably normal, had a public meeting in Lucknow. During the meeting the podium was invaded by a few bees who buzzed and flew away. No one was bitten. That didn’t stop her from announcing that it was a plot against her life, instituting a police inquiry into bee terrorism and smashing every beehive in the city. This was followed by her supporters smashing beehives elsewhere in the state and, not to be outdone, supporters of other parties breaking beehives when their leaders came by for a speech. This will ensure that no pollination takes place in Uttar Pradesh and the crops and fruit grow even scantier. It certainly will stop all the marijuana ( bhang) grown all over. This week bees are topmost on my mind.

 As the main pollinator of food crops, nuts, flowers, vegetables and fruits, the  honeybee  is the single  most important insect for the human food chain . Four years ago scientists became alarmed when honeybees started to disappear. No explanation has yet been found for whole colonies continuing to vanish. Scientists blame genetically modified plants and pesticides, global warming and even mobile phone radiation. My opinion is that these intelligent and industrious creatures are fed up of working so hard only to have humans plunder all they produce. I refer here not to honey, but to something they toil even harder to make: beeswax.

Typically a bee colony consists of 20,000-80,000 bees , a majority of which are worker bees. Workers are all female and the smallest bees in the colony.  They build and repair the hive, collect nectar and pollen, produce wax and honey, feed the queen and larvae and protect the hive against enemies.

Honeybees  must  fly 55,000 miles and visit 2 million flowers to produce one pound of honey. In one trip, a worker will visit between 50 and 100 flowers. She will return to the hive carrying over half her weight in pollen and nectar, producing a total of  about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in the course of her lifetime.  Not only must these females fetch and make food but also find a way to store it for the whole hive for the whole year round.  But creating storage proves even more arduous than producing honey.

Around the 10th day of their lives, worker bees develop special wax-producing glands in their abdomens. For a whole week thereon, they cluster in large numbers and eat lots of honey to raise their body temperature. The glands convert the sugar in the honey into wax, which seeps through small pores in the bee's body leaving tiny white flakes about the size of a pinhead on her abdomen. Other worker bees ‘harvest’ these tiny transparent wax scales and chew them until they turn opaque. It takes 1100 of these flecks to make one gram of wax. The wax is then moulded into honeycombs to store honey. Honeycombs consist of six-sided tubes which are filled with honey and sealed off with more wax. Mathematicians have figured out this hexagonal shape is the most efficient – using less wax for the volume of honey held than any other design. The hive temperature which stays at around 35 degrees Celsius as a result of the cluster of bees, keeps the wax at just the right consistency-- not too hot to drip and not too cold to be brittle.

It takes about 8 to10 lbs of honey to produce 1lb of wax. It is estimated that bees fly 150,000 miles or roughly six times around the earth to yield one pound of beeswax. That means 530,000 km per kg !

After all this work, humans take the wax.

Beeswax is the purified wax obtained  from melting the honeycomb of the bee, Apis mellifera, with boiling water, straining it, and cooling it. But first the bees have to be driven out of their home. So smoke is blown into the hives. Then, a “bee brush” is used to crudely sweep away the bees who rush out from the hive. In sweeping them aside, the wire fibres break their legs and wings. Bee farmers then remove the honey and the honeycomb, which is, of course, the hive’s main source of nourishment. Larvae and eggs are of course destroyed in the process.

Having wrecked their home and robbed something they've worked hard for and are willing to defend with their lives, what do we do with beeswax ? Is it critical to our lives?   No, the principal use to which we put this precious substance is candles and cosmetics! In fact , you would never guess the mighty effort put in by bees to produce beeswax from the way  it is so cheaply and widely used by humans.

As the bees vanish, take a look at the irrelevant uses of beeswax and the many alternatives available.

The use of beeswax is not new. Early Romans fashioned coins from beeswax to pay their taxes. Egyptians used it to protect the surface of painting in their tombs. The Greeks made dolls from it while the Persians embalmed their dead with it.  Today beeswax (or cera alba as it is listed on ingredients labels) is used as an emulsifier and thickener for cleansing creams, cold creams and lotions, emollient and barrier creams , depilatories, lipsticks and lip balms, nail creams, sun protection products, eye and face make up, foundation creams, moustache wax and hair pomades. Other uses include  golf club grip wax, leather softeners, polishing materials particularly shoe  and furniture polish, modeling waxes, and filling the screw holes and seams in pool tables.

Cosmetics account for 60% of the use of beeswax. However after millions of bees have been killed skincare manufacturers have found beeswax to be harmful as it does not permit the skin to breathe. Beeswax in lipstick, for instance, clogs your lips causing them to crack.  It is equally harmful for hair as wax neither gets absorbed nor does it moisturize it. Instead it does nothing but cause a buildup of dirt and breakage. It seals the hair preventing any absorption of moisture. For people with bee allergies, products containing beeswax can pose a serious health hazard.

Alternatives to beeswax in cosmetics include Ceresin, Ceresine, Earth Wax, made from the mineral ozokerite. It can also be used to wax paper, to make polishing cloths, in dentistry for taking wax impressions and in candle-making.  Carnauba wax from the Brazilian palm tree is already used in many cosmetics, including lipstick and  rarely causes allergic reactions. Similarly  Candelilla wax from Candelilla plants is  used in many cosmetics, including lipstick and has no known toxicity. It can also be used in the manufacture of rubber, phonograph records, in waterproofing and writing inks. Plus there is Japan wax/tallow obtained from  the fruit of a tree grown in Japan and China. Other products like cocoa butter or shea butter also make effective substitutes.  The second major use of beeswax is for candles. While the candle dates back to about 400 B.C., beeswax candles didn't emerge until the Middle Ages. The reason:    the Catholic Church, required all religious candles to be 100% beeswax since it was produced by virgin bees which typified the flesh of Jesus Christ born of a virgin mother!

There are decorative and practical household candles that are made from soy and plant and sugar waxes instead of beeswax , ingredients that are kind to the environment, as well as to your health, and which do not depend on killing and stealing from animals.

With so many alternatives to bee-products on the market these days  there is no justification for threatening the survival of these wondrous creatures. Einstein predicted that if bees disappear from our planet, mankind will perish soon after . The choice seems clear : do we want facecream or life itself?

To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in


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