Bee Welfare – towards a more integrated conception of health

Bee Welfare – towards a more integrated conception of health

During this month’s series, we have talked a lot about bee health. We have seen how management influences honey bee health and I tried to explain how this affects also the health of non-managed bee species. During this process, I thought a lot about if the whole picture gets out of sight while we focus on the details. And that I would prefer speaking about “bee welfare” instead of health. Let me explain why.

Health is more than the absence of disease

When we talk about health, independent of the organism we refer to, we usually mean that there are no clinical symptoms of pathogens or any pain. On the other hand, even with a cold or a headache, I would say that I am “healthy”. There is much more to this term. In the preamble of the consititution of WHO (1946) there is a definition of health I like very much:

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

The reason I like this is that it is a more integrated, a more general view of health. For humans in this case. However, we may apply the same concept also for animals. And there is such a concept: it’s called “animal welfare“. The corresponding organisation to the WHO for animals is the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health, formerly Office International des Epizooties). This organisation defines animal welfare by “five freedoms”, which means freedom from:

  • Hunger, thirst and malnutrition.
  • Fear and distress.
  • Physical and thermal discomfort.
  • Pain, injury and disease.
  • And the freedom to express the normal patterns of behaviour.

The OIE has developed standards for Animal Welfare, first for domesticated mammals and birds, later on also for fish. Those for reptiles are in progress. All this is important, no doubt. But there is a big gap in here: invertebrates. The majority of animals doesn’t have a spine. Bees don’t and they’re not considered at all. Because they are insects and despite the fact honey bees are managed and all the recognition  pollination got in the past years.

Connection between managed and non-managed bee welfare

Taking the concept of Animal Welfare seriously, we should include all managed animals. Managed honey bees aren’t able to display the full pattern of their behaviour (they are hindered to swarm, for instance). They suffer malnutrition by foraging often in a very homogeneous landscape (oilseed rape, maize and nothing else) and there are first data showing that management practices like migration are a physical discomfort and distress. Honey bees are the most managed bee species, but there are also others, like bumblebees and some solitary bees (mason bees, leafcutter bees).

During this series, we have also seen that the welfare of managed species affects the health of non-managed bee species. They’re infected with new pathogens (DWV, Nosema ceranae and others), like the managed bees they don’t find enough flowers to forage on and they’re restricted in their habitat. This affects the display of their natural behaviour. So even if most bee species are not managed, humans and their managed cousins affect them. Therefore, we should include them in the pursuit of achieving bee welfare. Also, to give a human-driven reason, because their welfare, their health directly interferes with our food safety.

I was very proud of this thought. But, of course, people much wiser than me had already developed it and given it a name. The concept of “One Health“, again according to OIE, means that

… human health and animal health are interdependent and bound to the health of the ecosystems in which they exist.

Bee Welfare and “One Health”

Which already goes into the right direction. But, as far as I was able to understand from the OIE site, this concept focusses more on the first two (though including wildlife in the animal health part) and less in the health of the ecosystem. And it’s here where bees and other pollinators come in. Many problems in human and (managed) animal health may be mitigated by a healthy environment. Focussing on the ecosystems and the “services” they provide would mean better nutrition (pollination, healthy soils etc.), clean water, medicinal resources and so much more. Bees and their welfare are a part of this.

WHO (human health), OIE (animal health) and FAO (human nutrition) already work together on this topic. The FAO does a lot of work concerning pollination and food safety. I’d wish that bees (and, of course, other pollinators) and bee welfare also had a more prominent position in this One Health work.


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