Beekeepers and sometimes even their vegan defenders claim that if the bees didn't like the way they are treated, they would just fly away. Unfortunately, this intuitively attractive argument is wrong for numerous reasons.
The idea that bees would leave if they were unhappy gives the bees too much credit. They would have to comprehend the entire situation--that the beekeeper was responsible for what seem like isolated events--the replacement of the queen, the disappearance of half of the hive, the disappearance of their honey. Bees do object on a case-by-case basis when they protect the hive by stinging the beekeeper. Also, the beekeeper abuses the bees by stimulating their natural instincts and working the bees to death--how are the bees to recognize what is normal and what is induced by the human?
While Africanized honeybees will abscond (the entire colony leaves) if things aren't going well (e.g., a bear destroyed the hive or there are no food sources), European honeybees rarely abscond. Swarming, on the other hand, is nothing more than the natural method of reproduction--a new queen is raised and half of the colony will swarm with the old queen while the other half remains behind. And the bees do not just fly away in different directions. They will fly together and remain in one spot for several days while they decide where to build their new hive . This is another important difference between bees and cattle--a lone bee usually cannot make it on her own, she needs the support of a colony. If a lone bee did leave, occasionally a new colony will accept her, but most will kill her.
Perhaps the most important reason why the bees can't just fly away is because the beekeepers won't let them; beekeepers do their best to prevent swarming. Not only would they lose half of their bees, but a lot of preparation goes into swarming during which time the bees do not produce honey. Beekeepers can make sure the colony has enough room, reverse sections, and kill the old queen and replace her with a new one (older queens are much more likely to swarm than younger ones). If part of a colony tries to move to say, a nice hollow tree, they are captured and forced back into their human-made box. Since swarming requires a queen, the queen's wings are often clipped so that she cannot join in the swarm (this practice is much more common in the UK than the US). Additionally, if beekeepers find (or are told) that there is a swarm in the area, they will often go out and capture it. (I guess sometimes money does grow on trees.)
A beekeeper may tell you that they are helping the bees because in the wild, colonies swarm and then both the old and new colonies may die because they are small and ill-prepared for winter. But that is only half the story. Almost all feral colonies swarm in the spring. Then, at the end of the summer, 40% of the new colonies swarm again. It is these colonies that are unlikely to survive. Despite this, there is still a 60% increase in the number of colonies (Winston, 182). I don't understand why this is an issue. Honeybees managed to colonize the entire North American continent--they obviously have no problem reproducing (until recently, of course). A lot of free animals die over winter--it keeps the population in check. Should we start keeping deer because some of them die over the winter?