The Buzz About Harvesting Honey: The Environmental Impacts of the Life Cycle of Honey

Categories: Environmental Issues

Honey is a viscous, sweet substance that is produced by bees from the nectar they collect from plants and is stored in hives as food. This 'liquid gold' has been harvested, consumed, and traded for thousands of years by humans, for nutritional and medicinal purposes (Robin Morris 2009). Honey has many unique and valuable uses as a sweetener, an antibiotic, an antiseptic, improving circulation and digestion, relieving allergies, and lowering cholesterol (Ajibola et al. 2012). Honey is also used to moisturize skin and hair, and is commonly used in baking to make rich breads/cakes (Bogdanov 2008).

The purpose of this essay is to examine the process in which honey from managed bee hives are harvested, packaged, traded, marketed, and consumed along with the impacts that this process has on the economy and ecosystems in the United States. By evaluating these topics, one can better understand the production, economics, and environmental impacts and tradeoffs of this intensive process.


Honey comes from multiple races of the honey bee (Apis mellifera) that collect nectar from flowers within a four mile radius of their hives (Winston 1991).

As shown in the diagram, the bee sucks the nectar out with its tongue and stores it in internal sacs until it returns to the hive. The bee then begins to chew on the nectar as its glands release a special enzyme that mixes with the nectar, and it then passes the honey to another bee to chew on it. The worker bee will chew on the nectar until it loses its water content and becomes viscous, and then it will proceed to store the newly-produced honey into the wax honeycomb and seal it in for storage.

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The honey is used throughout the winter months as a food source for the bees and their larvae when there are no blooming flowers (Robin Morris 2009). Overall, it takes about eight bees their entire life to create a single teaspoon of honey (Engelsdorp 2010). Because of the slow process it takes to create honey, hives typically house about 60,000 worker bees (Winston 1991). The hives are found formed around tree branches in nature; however, humans have domesticated bees and guided colonies to create their hives in man-made boxes. Beekeepers keep hive boxes and tend to one or more colonies of bees in order to to obtain the honey they make. Beekeeping can be a hobby, a source of income for people, or both. Those who keep a large number of bee colonies or have a company whose main product is honey generally have bee hive farms with a large amount of hive boxes and have multiple bee keeping employees to tend to the bees and harvest the honey. To remove the honey from the honeycomb, companies and some hobbyists use a honey extractor, as shown in the diagram. Those who produce a large amount of honey tend to invest in an extractor since it can range from two hundred to six hundred dollars (Judge 2015). To harvest the honey with an extractor, a person must first use a heated knife to remove the sealed caps on the wax honeycomb to expose the honey. Then the exposed honeycomb is placed on the inside of the extractor drum and spins rapidly so the honey is forced out of the honeycomb cells. A cheap alternative for hobbyist beekeepers is to break apart the wax caps and put the crushed up pieces into a fine mesh strainer. This process is not as efficient and does not yield as much honey but it is adequate. The yield of honey for one day of production can be up to seven pounds per hive (USDA 2015). The honey is then filtered to remove any wax or impurities and then stored.

The strained honey is then stored and placed in sterilized jars by hand or through machine. Beekeepers who jar the honey themselves generally print out their own sheets of labels for the jars and put them on by hand. Then the beekeepers will manually pour the strained honey into the jars and seal them. Once they are sealed they are ready to be sold either at their own local businesses or another business with a permit/license. Large honey companies generally use machines to sterilize, label, and fill the jars. This makes the process more efficient and fast allowing more product to be shipped out to businesses to sell them.

Once the honey is jarred, companies with permits/licences who market their product have to go through the process of getting their product graded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA grades the honey product by properties and gives the sample a grade of an A, B, or C (Bogdanov et al. 2015). The product must receive one of those grades to be able to sell the product, and anything below a C is considered substandard and unmarketable. The properties that the honey is graded on include color, clarity, aroma, granulation, source, flavor, acidity, moisture, and the number of pollen grains (Bogdanov et al. 2015). Honey must also be free from smoke, caramelization, fermentation, and chemicals for it to receive an A grade (Bogdanov et al. 2015). Companies also have inspections to make sure the tools they are using are appropriate, that there is no fermentation process, and that the conditions of the factory are acceptable.

The demand for honey is high in many countries with Germany and the United States being the largest importers of honey (Thompson 2012). Honey has many unique and valuable uses but is mainly produced for consumption. Many use it as a sweetener, sauce, to moisten other foods, or to consume alone. Additionally, honey doesn't have a shelf life, which reduces the chances of consumers throwing out unused honey. Although honey doesn't have a shelf life, it still ends up being disposed of, either in the trash or through biological waste from consumers. Many people have the perception that when honey crystallizes, it has been contaminated or 'expired' and end up throwing the jar of honey away. Honey crystallizes because it is in cold temperature or it has a high pollen content. Crystallized honey is not at all contaminated or spoiled, but it is still disposed of regardless. Due to the fact that honey doesn't have a shelf life, disposed honey ends up sitting in a landfill and will not naturally decompose. If the glass jar is recycled, the honey will be washed off before the glass is crushed and melted.


The United States of America ranks fifth in the top honey producing countries and is also the second largest importer of honey (Robin Morris 2009). In 2015, the USA consumed 486 million pounds of honey while 397 million pounds of that were imported and 157 million pounds was locally produced (Robin Morris 2009). This leaves 68 million pounds that were exported. This is actually rather sustainable, although this amount of honey could have prevented the cost shipment for 68 million pounds of this product. The other main importers of honey include China, New Zealand, Argentina, and Mexico (E. Southwick D. Pimentel 1981). The main exporters of honey include Ukraine, Belgium, Hungary, and Canada (E. Southwick D. Pimentel 1981). This data suggests many eastern countries are large importers of honey and many northern countries are large exporters, which is mainly due to the large size of the countries. The demographics of the consumers of honey are quite unique. For the company Glory Bee, a large corporation in the USA, asians are the largest demographic that purchases their honey product (GloryBee 2013). The largest demographic that purchases honey are over the age of 65, have an advanced degree, and have an annual salary of 40-80 thousand dollars (GloryBee 2013). The second largest demographic that purchases honey are African Americans, and are 35-44 years old (GloryBee 2013). This data is similar to the compilation of all United States honey companies demographics. It was found that coupons could help increase the range of the honey consumer demographic in regards to age and salary. Industrial honey accounts for 45% of total consumption in the United States (GloryBee 2013). This is rather interesting as it leaves 55% of total consumption left to local small businesses which is a large amount. Overall, the average person consumes 1.5 pounds of honey per year which is about one pint per person(Vural Karaman. 2009).

The costs of honey production can be quite expensive, but highly rewarding. A beekeeper must account for the costs of operation which include boxes and frames, concrete blocks, labor, extractinators, and storage drums. They must also account for the costs of tools such as bee smokers, uncapping knifes, honey strainers, bee veils, sting resistant gloves and other equipment. Finally beekeepers must account for the cost of the worker and queen bees, pollen supplement, medicine, and feed. Per one year costs can range from just 1,000 dollars for a hobby beekeeper to 300,000 dollars at a commercial level (Vural Karaman. 2009). The average hive can produce 75-200 pounds of honey per year which can produce a salary of $450-$12,00 a year per hive (Vural Karaman. 2009).


Much of human activity has positively and negatively affected bee populations including agriculture, urbanization, and beekeeping. Agriculture has been the main culprit of colony collapse disorder and the death of many bees. Colony collapse disorder is when many worker bees leave the queen and the colony behind due to starvation, malnutrition, or loss of habitat. The bee population relies heavily on habitat, the economics of the honey industry, and the weather. Since the 1950's the bee population has declined more than half, from 6,000 to only 3,000 colonies by 2005 (E. Southwick D. Pimentel 1981). This not only shrinks the honey industry but also negatively affects the agricultural industry since bees pollinate many important crops. Beekeeping has positively affected bee populations due to beekeepers monitoring their bee colonies. Beekeepers have the ability to feed bees if they aren't getting enough nectar, can give them medicine for parasites and pathogens, and watch over the health of the colony. By monitoring bee colonies and their health, beekeepers simultaneously promote the growth of the population of bees and allow collection of population data.

Agriculture has contributed to colony collapse disorder and population decline due to habitat fragmentation where large fields of one type of crop make finding nectar difficult. Urbanization also contributes to habitat fragmentation due to the construction of roads and of urban sprawls. Bees have a five mile radius in which they search for nectar and when this radius has limited amounts of nectar, the bees can starve, leading to the collapse of the colony (E. Southwick D. Pimentel 1981). By planting more bee-friendly plants, allowing more green space in urban areas, and/or creating corridors between habitats, bees can more efficiently and sustainably produce honey.

Most farmers will also spray their crops with insecticide which can either kill the worker bees or reduce the number of offspring they have, which can be detrimental to a colony. These have negatively affected the pollinator population and led to the shrinking of the honey industry. By reducing the amount of insecticide, changing insecticide, or getting rid of insecticide, populations of bees won't suffer and will make pollination and honey production more efficient and sustainable. Glory Bee has made efforts to become more sustainable in their production, processing, and transportation of their honey products. The company uses a solar panel system on their roof which produces 11% of the company's production facilities electricity (GloryBee 2013). The company also used bicycles to deliver products and delivered 61,676 pounds of product by bike to reduce their carbon footprint (GloryBee 2013). By reducing their energy usage or replacing their energy use with renewable resources like kinetic or solar energy, honey companies can become more sustainable.

The overall sustainability of the honey industry can be measured by the carbon emitted throughout the life cycle of one ton of honey that is produced, processed, consumed, and disposed of. The total carbon footprint contribution that honey has in its lifecycle is about 5.11 kg CO2e per one kilogram of, with the majority coming from the manufacturing process (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering 2009). The manufacturing process accounts for 2.28 kg CO2e, just under half of the total CO2 output (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering 2009). The manufacturing process accounts for packaging, electricity, natural gas, and disposable materials. Raw materials are accountable for the second largest amount of CO2 in the lifecycle of honey. Raw materials include extraction, processing, production, and hive management which sums up to 1.5 kg CO2e (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering 2009). Transportation is the third largest c footprint contributor which includes the transportation from the farm to the processing facility to the distribution plant, then to the grocery stores and finally to the consumer's home. Disposal has the smallest carbon footprint in the honey lifecycle. Honey generally is not wasted because it does not have a lifecycle which just leads to the carbon being released from operation of recycling plants. Glory Bee recycles 94% of all waste from productions leading to a more sustainable use of glass and plastics. Overall, the carbon footprint of honey is relatively small in relation to other products such as beef that causes 13.3 kg of CO2 emissions (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering 2009).


The life cycle of honey is intensive as it starts out as nectar and ends up in the homes of consumers. The majority of production is completed almost entirely by bees, though it is processed, packaged, marketed, traded, distributed, consumed, and disposed of by humans. These processes affect the ecosystem and economy within the United States. The processes affect the ecosystem through their carbon footprint, processing other materials such as glass and paper for marketing, thus altering the honeybee population. The industry relies on the population of honeybees and affects the economy through importing and exporting honey and supply and demand. Many fair-trade certified honey companies such as Glory Bee reduce their impact on the environment and meet labour and developmental standards of the USDA (GloryBee 2013). By shifting energy sources and advancing technologically, the honey industry can become more efficient in processing and manufacturing honey and reduce their carbon footprint. By becoming more sustainable and environmentally conscious, the honey industry can maintain and change parts of their story of production.

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The Buzz About Harvesting Honey: The Environmental Impacts of the Life Cycle of Honey. (2021, Oct 31). Retrieved from

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