In the debate between treatment-free and treating beekeepers, the statement and question has been posed many time before… “The bees you have are not ‘feral’, they are being kept in an unnatural state, their genetics have been affected by man for thousands of years, so why not take care of your ‘animals’ when they are sick, just like any other animal man keeps as stock or pets?”
To address this issue, we need to look at the definitions of both the words “domesticated” and “livestock”, which I’ll address later in this article. In the beekeeping world, domestication is used as way to justify the act of treating bees. Some beekeepers are concerned about the definitions of these words because it could affect subsidies from the government when colony losses are experienced.
As Solomon Parker states on his Treatment Free Beekeeping podcast episode 41, “Bees are different from other livestock in that they are relatively short lived, and aside from our selective breeding, cannot become truly domesticated. What we have seen is bees treated to keep them alive, eventually to the point where they cannot survive even when treated.”
“Treated bees still die in huge numbers every year. By trying to domesticate these animals, we push them to the edge where they can’t really survive at all anymore. Only a return to the bees’ natural state will allow them to survive on their own, the way they were meant to. The fact is this, through thousands of years of natural selection and adaptation, bees… become adapted to their environment through the loss of poor performers and the multiplication of good performers.”
“Furthermore, bees are able to reproduce at a rate that other animals cannot. A queen can become a great-grandmother in a year under the right circumstances. You can’t do that with a cow, a horse or a sheep.”
Now, the discussion might change a little when thought about in the context of the law. There is a lot of misinformation to be dispelled regarding liability in regards to beekeeping. Especially when it comes to deaths caused by stings. A beekeeper whose bees stung someone to death would want to show that they did everything in their power not to negligence their hives. But, as I’ve heard it said before… “Flying bees are God’s bees. A bee sting is an act of God”. Whether this is true or not in the court of law, I’m not sure. One thing is for sure… they would have to prove that the bee in question came from the property owner / beekeeper’s hive, which is many times impossible to determine.
But I digress.
When people use the word “domesticated”, it is more likely than not that what they are really mean is “tame”. Scientifically speaking, tame and domesticated are very different words with different meanings. However, it could be said that honey bees are not necessarily tame, but rather they should be considered domesticated. But the jury is still out on that.
According to a Wikipedia entry, “Domestication is a sustained multi-generational relationship in which one group of organisms assumes a significant degree of influence over the reproduction and care of another group to secure a more predictable supply of resources from that second group.”
And, specifically regarding insects, “Two insects have been domesticated: the silkworm and the western honey bee. Both have been used, often commercially, for over 5,000 years, the silkworm for the silk threads wound around its pupal cocoon, the bee for honey and lately also especially for pollination of crops.”
“Domestication traits are generally fixed within all domesticates, and were selected during the initial episode of domestication of that animal or plant, whereas improvement traits are present only in a proportion of domesticates, though they may be fixed in individual breeds or regional populations.”
“Domestication should not be confused with taming. Taming is the conditioned behavioral modification of a wild-born animal when its natural avoidance of humans is reduced and it accepts the presence of humans, but domestication is the permanent genetic modification of a bred lineage that leads to an inherited predisposition toward humans.”
By this definition, does this mean that hostile, angry bees are not domesticated bees? Many people believe that honey bees have been (or can be) tamed in the sense that they have been selectively bred to be less aggressive than their wild counterparts. This is where the “conditioned behavioral modification” part of the equation comes into play.
Does it really matter if honey bees are “domesticated”? Most beekeepers want their bees to be hardy, gentle and productive. It’s what we all strive for, isn’t it? As one beekeeper commented recently in a jesting manner on a Facebook post, “when I go out to look at my hive and the bees line up to get fed pancake syrup, then yes they are domesticated!” While, others take a different approach to the thought of domestication, saying, “We have domesticated bees. Feeding them, doctoring them, relocating them when they swarm. We have even changed their dimensions.”
Or, as another beekeeper comments, “Domesticated animals change their wild behavior to fit in with humans. There is no evidence the bees have changed to suit us humans. In my opinion they are wild animals that we have manipulated.”
In that same Facebook conversion, Susan Chernak McElroy, a beekeeper and best selling author comments, “I do not think of bees as being domesticated…. it has to do with how quickly a creature can return to it’s fully wild traits. Bees do that in a single generation. They are able to throw off the constraints we’ve placed on them, and their wild abilities reignite quickly. I never will think of them as domestic”. Now, of course, in this situation, we are talking specifically about insects. I’m sure someone could also bring up domesticated hogs as an example of a mammal that can return to being wild and even change in their physical traits, in just a few generations, although they are considered livestock.
The meaning and definition of the word “livestock” has changed over time. Centuries ago, it could have meant “all kinds of movable personal property” which was differentiated from “immovable real estate”. federal legislation in the United States defines the term in ways to define various commodities that are either eligible or ineligible for a particular program or activity.
In a post on the BeeSource forum, one user states: “This page shows Code of Federal Regulations definitions that apply to federal crop loss insurance. While that CFR page does not explicitly define bees as livestock, they are treated very similarly.”
Garrett Brinton makes the argument, “People have been managing bees as livestock for thousands of years. They are still not fully ‘domesticated’ in the sense that some other animals are. That’s because even with all the selection and queen rearing practiced by beekeepers, most queens are still open-mated, and feral drones are still part of the picture. So I think the term ‘semi-domesticated’ would be more accurate than trying to call them domesticated or non-domesticated”.
I tend to agree with this last statement. Because there are so many different ways to use the “livestock” and “domesticated”, I think using the word “semi-domesticated” would definitely make more sense in a conversion about honey bees. Whether you treat your bees or not, you should consider that just because you’ve placed them in a man-made boxes, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are domesticated livestock. Bees will be bees. One day they’re calm, the next day they’re ornery. In my opinion, honey bees would still have been colonizing, reproducing, producing too much honey and defending their hives in the same manner they would have without human intervention. What do you think? Are bees domesticated? Are they tame? Should they be considered as livestock?