Bees, beekeeping and sustainability

Bees, Apoidea and Apis mellifera

When we talk about bees, we often refer to a single species: that is Apis mellifera, also known as the honey bee or, incorrectly, domestic bee. The honey bee is one of the 25,000 species of apiform Apoidea known to date in the world. About 2,000 species are known in Europe, of which 1,000 are in Italy.


The origin of these insects dates back to about  100 million years ago, at the same time as the largest group of plants on earth today, the Magnoliophyta, was appearing. Due to their metabolic particularities, these plants quickly began to produce new species, making the intervention of other organisms necessary for efficient fertilization of the flowers. Bees, or the apiform Apoidea, don’t descend directly from the first pollinating insects but from a group of Hymenoptera that visited flowers to hunt these insects.


The Apoidea, during their evolution, have seen the appearance of solitary, gregarious and social species, each responsible for the pollination of a few or many plant species but all together fundamental for the conservation of plants and therefore of ecosystems and biodiversity.


According to the most recent research, the honey bee separated from its progenitor Asian bee between 9 and 6 million years ago and moved west towards Africa from where it then spread. The native range of Apis mellifera includes most of Europe, all of Africa, the Middle East and a small area of Central Asia. It is this very wide distribution in areas with different climates and vegetation that has made “necessary” to divide this species into subspecies – over 30 – all interfertile. But what are “subspecies”? They are populations present in a specific geographical area and characterized by morphological and ethological aspects.


The birth of Beekeeping

The subspecies native to the Mediterranean area, subjected more than others to the action of the glaciations, for their great tendency to accumulate stocks, would have determined the appearance of beekeeping. This occurred shortly after the settling of the first human societies following the advent of agriculture in the so-called Fertile Crescent.


Today it is thought that bees entered the artefacts that the farmers built to store their food or water supplies, which corresponded to the volume that a swarm of bees seeks to settle (25-50 litres). Beekeeping was therefore born thanks to the biological characteristics of Apis mellifera and its subspecies.


From the Eastern Mediterranean, beekeeping would then extend to the whole of Europe, but only as a movement of techniques and not of animals as for real domestic animals. For millennia, beekeeping was based at a territorial level on bees of the relevant indigenous subspecies: the use of bees well adapted to the environment was a written rule of ancient beekeepers.


The non-domesticity of bees

The honey bee is often called the domestic bee. But can Apis mellifera be considered a domestic animal?


Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) in his famous treatise Variation of Animals and Plants in the Domestic State, addresses in detail the question of the supposed domestication of the honey bee. The result is that the bee cannot be defined as a domestic animal for two main reasons: feeding and reproduction; in fact, man cannot control the feeding of bees or even their fertilization.


Apis mellifera is not a domestic animal and beekeeping, even though it is a peculiar animal production system, cannot therefore be assimilated to a real zootechnical activity.


It follows that beekeeping must be based on the biological characteristics of the honeybee. Beekeepers must become aware of how Apis mellifera is a common heritage, having an essential role in the conservation of biodiversity and agricultural productivity as well as for the actual beekeeping activity.


Sustainable beekeeping

Sustainability is based on 3 pillars: environmental, economic and social, with concern to conserve natural resources for the future and to maintain natural balances.


Sustainable beekeeping must also consider all three aspects and operate with respect for the bee and the environment, offering consumers genuine and healthy products, guaranteeing adequate remuneration to the workers involved in the sector and finally guaranteeing profitability and profit for beekeeping companies. None of these conditions must be missing in order to consider a beekeeping activity with a view to sustainable development.


Environmental responsability

As regards environmental responsibility, beekeeping can only be defined as sustainable if it takes into consideration, for Apis mellifera, both the welfare of individual colonies and the entire species, also as a component of the different ecosystems in which it is raised.


Environmentally sustainable beekeeping can therefore only be based on the principles set out in the San Michele all’Adige Declaration, written and presented in 2018 by top Italian scholars, whose concepts are now shared in much of Europe.


Social responsability


The social responsibility of beekeeping concerns all those aspects that have an impact on society and which range from legal aspects and labor regulations to the safety of food and products obtained through beekeeping. Beekeeping then plays a social role when the beekeeping company also carries out educational and training activities.


Economic responsability

Economic responsibility is fundamental because it serves to guarantee the right reward for the beekeeper’s work and allows the company to pursue the other two objectives, the social and the environmental one. The economic sustainability of the beekeeping company must be based on quality, typicality and territoriality, rather than quantity alone. Valuing bee products, linking them to the territory, to the habitat, to the beekeeper, to the people, to the bees, seems today the right way to guarantee the economic sustainability of the activity.


The relationship between beekeepers, bees and territory is the added value of quality hive products and where the beekeeper guarantees the origin and quality.



Pursuing sustainable beekeeping is possible and means improving, day after day, the various aspects that characterize it. Certifications in the field of sustainable beekeeping (such as Biodiversity Friend Beekeeping, Organic or Biodynamic) can be of great help and guidance to the beekeeper and the beekeeping company which, step by step, tries out increasingly sustainable solutions and identifies the best way to operate with a view to environmental, social and economic responsibility, giving a solid future to one of the most beautiful human activities.




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