In Canada and the USA, a lot of people get a day off from work today. Unless your job is in a store, hospital, police station, prison, theatre, restaurant, hotel, airport, the military, or nuclear power plant. Or if you operate a farm or bee business. Otherwise, you may have slept a little later and enjoyed a leisurely coffee this morning. For that you can thank people who lived over a hundred years ago.
It’s an old holiday. In the USA, it was first celebrated 121 years ago. A New York City labour leader visited Toronto and saw workers’ day celebrations. When he returned to the USA, he pushed for a day to honour America’s labourers. Congress anonymously passed the bill making Labor Day a legal holiday in 1894. Since then, the western world has vastly improved working conditions. Once, children as young as six picked coal from fast-moving belts while folks in their 40s and 50s died of fatigue, injury, and emphysema during 80 hour work weeks.
Things have not improved as much for many business owners. One of my brothers works in his greenhouses from 3 each morning until 7 each evening. He keeps this 16-hour workday pace from February through June, then slows down to 12-hour days the rest of the year. Greenhouse chemicals and concrete floors have taken a toll on him – it’s exhausting work. He never takes vacations – he has a business to run. It was similar for me with my bees – I ran a thousand hives for fifteen years, working in a similar way. I was young and didn’t realize that extracting until two in the morning, sleeping on a cot until six, and pulling honey all day were unusual ways to squander one’s youth. And then there are the tireless worker bees.
While conditions for most human labourers have improved, conditions for honey bees are worse than they were a hundred years ago. Although sulphur, DDT, lead arsenic, and cyanide are not encountered on flowers anymore, other chemicals have taken their place with sometimes dire consequences. Equipment is more efficient for the beekeepers, but generally less comfortable for the honey bees. And migratory beekeeping has prevented millions of bees from suffering cold winters, but in place of months of winter-time rest, honey bees bounce along highways to holding yards in warm locations. There they meet billions of other bees. In such places, diseases and pests spread like epidemics.
Although people in advanced countries now earn a minimum wage, honey bees are still receiving the same paltry nothing that they have always been given. What if honey bees were paid?
Bees visit about two million flowers to make 500 grams (about a pound) of honey. This may require 200,000 separate flights and 600,000 kilometres of flying. A really successful colony may make 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of honey for harvest in a year. This production comes from about 250,000 individual workers who have lived and died in the colony during the year.
I’ve done the math and it turns out that about two million bee work-hours are involved in gathering, processing, and storing a season’s honey. This includes the labour of building combs and feeding and educating the young bees that replace their exhausted older sisters. We are getting a sweet deal from our bees. If they were paid a human’s minimum wage for their work, a single pound of honey would cost $120,000 in labour.