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This essay explains why vegans do not eat honey.
The simplest reason why honey isn't vegan is by definition. The term vegan was coined by Donald Watson in 1944 and was defined as follows:
Veganism is a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals (Stepaniak).People who follow a vegan diet for health or environmental reasons, please take note.
We don't, however, need to go back to 1944 to define honey as not vegan. Any definition of veganism would talk about not exploiting animals, and honeybees (Apis mellifera) are, without a doubt, animals. Honeybees are in the phylum Arthropoda--the same as lobsters and crabs. So in addition to crustaceans, if honeybees don't merit respect, that would also leave earthworms vulnerable to dissection in biology classes. Similarly, iscallops, snails, and oysters would be fair game--they are not as "high up" on the evolutionary scale as bees. James and Carol Gould (respectively, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton and a full-time science writer) point out that "Honey bees are at the top of their part of the evolutionary tree, whereas humans are the most highly evolves species on our branch. To look at honeybees, then, is to see one of the two most elegant solutions to the challenges of life on our planet. More interesting, perhaps, than the many differences are the countless eerie parallels--convergent evolutionary answers to similar problems" (Gould, x). Of course, all this talk of higher and lower is fiction. Even Darwin reminded himself to "Never use the words higher and lower" (Dunayer, 13).
Before we go any further, please take a moment to meet the honeybees.
So why do people think they can exploit bees without qualms? Is it because they are not intelligent? There is evidence that says they are. People have been studying bee behavior for hundreds of years, and with good reason. But of course, it's just all pheromones and instinct, right? They act in ways that suggest intelligence, but there's a simple biochemical explanation. (And this is different from humans in what way?) Placing all of this aside, what about a possible bee imagination? The most compelling indication of bee smarts follows. (Yes, it's controversial, but I for one like to err on the side of caution.) Two groups of bees (foragers) from the same hive were trained to two food sources, one on the shore and one in the middle of a lake. When the food quality was increased at both feeders, both groups of bees danced in the hive to tell the rest of the bees where to get the good food. The bees watching the shore feeder dance went out and ate at the shore feeder. Perhaps the bees watching the lake feeder dance, thought, "Flowers in the middle of a lake? This gal must be nuts," and very few bees went to the lake feeder. So at this point you're thinking those bees just didn't want to fly out over a smelly lake? Well, the thoughtful researchers decided to try the experiment again and moved the lake feeder close to the opposite shore (although still surrounded by plenty of water). That time, the bees seemed to have thought the food source to be in a more plausible spot and, following the dance, lots of bees went to both feeders (Gould, 222).
But it really doesn't matter anyway, does it? Vegans typically don't judge species based on their intelligence. If it were ok to eat someone because he's dumb, a lot of humans would be in trouble. It must be because bees can't feel pain. But why wouldn't bees feel pain? They are animals with a large nervous system (Snodgrass, 254) capable of transmitting pain signals. And unlike in the case of plants, pain as we know it would be a useful evolutionary feature since bees are capable of moving to avoid it. Which, as far as I'm concerned, is all that matters. Pain must be unpleasant or else it wouldn't work. If common sense isn't good enough, we can always resort to scientific studies that indicate that bees feel pain.
Not being a beekeeper myself, it is hard to say why life would be more painful for kept bees vs. wild bees. The kept bees would seem to have more contact with humans and more bees would die from stinging them. But, again, unless you are a "vegan" who lives on a farm and raises animals with lots of love so you can drink their milk and eat their eggs (??) pain really isn't the issue either.
The simple fact is that the bees are enslaved. What? Bees slaves? Yes, bees as slaves. Or it's dominionism, exploitation of nature, human superiority, whatever you like to call it. It's the idea that humans are justified in using all other life forms instrumentally, for our own benefit. As Alice Walker said, "The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men." (I would also add that plants and the earth were not made for humans either.) What follows is a look at specifically how honeybees are exploited by humans. Note that this follows precisely the same pattern of animal exploitation that vegans seek to end for other species.
It is important to realize who is keeping these bees. You may have an image in your mind of a man (indeed, 5% of US beekeepers are women (Hoff & Schertz Willett, 10)) with a few hives out in his backyard. While that is in fact the proper image of most beekeepers, most honey comes from full-time factory bee farmers; check out some illustrative charts.
A successor queen is selected by a human instead of the reigning queen--both of whom may have been "artificially inseminated." "Queens can live for as long as five years but most commercial beekeepers replace them every two years" (Shimanuki & Sheppard, 181) (and often yearly). "Replace" is a euphemism for killing the old queen. Backyard beekeepers also regularly kill their queens. This is done for numerous reasons that all boil down to exerting control over the hive. For example, it is done to prevent swarming, aggression, mite infestation, and to keep honey production at a maximum. Queens come from commercial queen suppliers. The image to the left is hundreds of queens with a few nursing bees in individual cages waiting to be flown around the country (Beekeeping). Travel can be rough on the queens; according to Eric Mussen, a UC Davis Extension Apiculturist, "Once at the post office or shipping depot, nearly anything can happen. Queens can be over heated, chilled, left out in the sun for hours (desiccated), banged around in baggage compartments, and exposed to insecticides. Often, the post office or shipping hub fails to contact the customer when the queens arrive and they may sit in storage for days. It is surprising that the queens come through as well as they do" (Mussen). Finally, colonies (hives) are routinely split in half according to what the keeper wants, not the queen.
When manipulating the bees, most beekeepers use a smoker to maintain control and to prevent some stings. The smoke gets the bees to gorge themselves on honey, which calms them down. The smoke probably also masks the alarm pheromone that the guard bees release and prevents the entire colony from becoming agitated.
During the fall and winter a mouse guard is often placed over the entrance to the hive. Usually, the bees drag their dead out of the hive, but the mouse guard often prevents this from happening. Beekeepers are warned, "it is helpful to remove any pileup of dead bees behind the mouse guard once or twice during the winter" (Bonney, 116).
Some bees even get to travel all around the country in trucks like the one pictured below or on larger flatbed trailers (Beekeeping). Beekeepers follow the nectar flows to increase honey production, that is, profits.
You may have the impression that since the bees are not fenced in like cattle, they are free to leave if they wanted to. Read about swarming to understand why this common misperception is false.
There is often a lack of regard for the bees' lives. In the US, 10 to 20 percent of colonies are lost over the winter. It is partly by accident and partly on purpose. Some beekeepers kill off their hives before winter. This practice can make economic sense. Unfortunately, it is not the small backyard beekeeper, but rather the large, factory bee farmer, so a lot of bees are killed even if most beekeepers don't use the practice. Also, in the process of checking up on the hive and taking the honey, some bees get squashed by the frames or stepped on. Bees who sting the keeper in defense of their home necessarily die. If two colonies are combined, the queen of the weaker colony is killed. So that the honey can be easily removed from the comb, it is often warmed prior to removal. "Bees brought into the warming room with the supers will fly to a window where they can be trapped to the outside by a wire cone or bee escape. If there are no windows in the room other methods such as an electric grid can be used to dispose of the stray bees" (Root, 121 emphasis added).
So what do the captives do with their time? In the words of the National Honey Board, "Honey is 'manufactured' in one of the world's most efficient factories, the beehive. Bees may travel as far as 55,000 miles and visit more than two million flowers to gather enough nectar to make just a pound of honey" (NHB). Bees gather pollen in sacs and nectar from the flowers. Honey is stored in the hive as winter food for the bees . Yes, sometimes they make more than they can eat, but do the beekeepers only take the extra? No, according to James E. Tew, an Extension Specialist in Apiculture at Ohio State University in Wooster, "Commercial beekeepers frequently extract [steal] all fall-season honey and then feed colonies either sugar syrup or corn syrup in quantities great enough to provide all the winter food the bees would need" (Tew). (Everyone steals most of the spring-season honey.) Theft of all of the fall-season honey is merely the most blatant form of exploitation. Bees are also often fed in the fall in preparation for winter and in the spring and early summer to ensure the hive gets off to a good start (Bonney, 131; Vivian, 101). That is, to make the bees start working earlier than they would normally. The sugar that is fed in the fall is turned into honey by the bees, so even if a beekeeper tells you their bees survive on honey over the winter, much of that honey may have simply come from Ziplock bags full of sugar water. A typical hive in the UK uses at least 8 kg (17.6 lbs.) of sugar per year (Consumers in Europe Group, 21). In the US, a typical figure can be 25 lbs. (So if by chance a vegan doesn't eat bone char processed cane sugar, but does eat honey, they're not doing a lot of good in terms of reducing the demand for sugar.) Some people claim the sugar water is better for the bees than honey, and if this is the case, I don't want to hear any claims about the health benefits of honey or pollen. Sugar water may be better if the bees had particularly poor nectar sources in the fall, but this would not normally be a problem if their spring honey hadn't been stolen. Honey is more than sugars; it contains very small (by human standards) amounts of fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals that bees' bodies might like to use over the winter.
Another thing to keep in mind is the history of beekeeping (Crane). Honeybees are unique in that they are not domesticated despite a very long relationship with humans. For most of human history, honey was gathered from wild hives. Beekeeping began only 10,000 years ago. Bees were kept in logs, baskets, and pots all lying horizontally to the ground. Bees were also kept in trees in forests and by hanging containers in trees. Eventually in Europe and Asia they turned the containers upright. The earliest recorded use of hives with moveable frames was in 1682 where top bar hives were used in Greece. In nature, bees build combs that hang from the roof of their dwelling and everything is stationary . In top bar hives, the bees build their combs on a wooden bar such that individual combs can be removed by pulling up individual bars. The combs retain their natural U shape at the bottom . These top bar hives were not very widespread. It was not until 1851 that the modern Langstroth hive was invented (where else but in the US). Here the combs fill up entire frames (like a window screen) and are rectangular. This makes hives stackable and since the frames are of universal size, they can be interchanged between hives and prepared by humans. Additionally, honey extraction equipment can be built due to the standard size. A queen excluder is generally used to keep the queen from laying eggs in the area where the beekeeper only wants honey stored. Additional frames can be added as necessary to allow for and encourage excess honey production. Needless to say, the Langstroth hive caught on very quickly and is the hive of choice today. New technology is on the horizon that allows even greater efficiency in extracting honey (Lomas). So if a beekeeper tells you that they are only continuing an ancient tradition, keep in mind that the practices they are using are only 100 years old and are radically different from the methods that existed for millennia. They also have nothing in common with non-Western beekeeping methods that emphasize humility, respect, and truly being part of nature, as opposed to managing nature for human gain.
Beekeepers will naturally deny that they are slave owners who steal the products of the bees' labor. They will tell you that they are working with the bees to help them reach their full potential, which just happens to be measured in honey output. (Hmm, remind anyone of recombinant bovine growth hormone?) In addition to being horribly paternalistic, the beekeeper's perspective makes little sense. Under natural conditions, if the hive were producing a surplus, they would divide into two colonies and there would be none wasted. Nonetheless, it is important to regard beekeepers as potential allies. They are often more aware of environmental concerns than other people and may truly care about their bees. A few simple changes in their attitudes would likely make their behavior acceptable to vegans, although making those changes is not a simple thing. They would need to stop regarding themselves as beeKEEPERS. They would also need to recognize that their role is largely temporary, as a stop gap measure until farmers get their act together and facilitate the growth of native pollinator populations. They should immediately switch to top bar hives, discourage surplus honey production and stop stealing honey. Otherwise, there is too much incentive to exploit the bees and the environment. Top bar hives are less high tech than Langstroth hives, result in less surplus honey, and the users generally have a different mindset (Satterfield; Caldeira). Keep these things in mind if you are thinking buying locally grown honey from a small apiary--although they are better than large commercial apiaries, they still may share many of the objectionable philosophies. (How much respect can you have for someone if you are taking advantage of her?) Finally, beekeeping varies due to the different environments in which it occurs. Beekeepers are an opinionated group (like vegans). Just because one beekeeper tells you that one of the practices I've described is crazy and something he would never do, doesn't mean that another beekeeper thinks he is crazy not to.
So how exactly is honey made? The bees swallow nectar into their crop, regurgitate it, add enzymes (spit), chew, swallow and repeat many times. Not a pretty picture, but it does make for a funny cartoon or two. Beekeepers get very defensive about this aspect of honey. One told me "Honey is not a regurgitant. Regurgitation is a digestive process." Ok, well, whatever you call it they still swallow it and spit it back up. And they do partially digest it, so I don't see how it's not a "digestive process." He went on to tell me "If you have a problem with nature's processes perhaps you should stay out of nature," which makes me wonder why he has a problem with me pointing out nature's processes to others. The bottom line is that beekeepers get mad that I mention how honey is made, because it's something they'd rather you not think about. With one exception, this aspect of honey production is not used as a marketing tool. You can't even find out how honey is made at the National Honey Board's website! (OK, after all these years, they finally added a little, vague line--I like to think in response to this website--"bees use their honey stomachs to ingest and process the nectar a number of times.")
Of course, honey is not the only product of bee exploitation. The following are other bee products to watch out for:
The average American consumes 1.1 lb. (0.5 kg) of honey annually (National Honey Board). The average person in the UK consumes 0.3 kg (0.66 lb.) a year (Consumers in Europe Group, 21). Germans consume a whopping 4.3 kg (9.5 lb.) a year (Sue Bee). Honey is the main source of income for beekeepers (Hoff, 4). According to Hachiro Shimanuki and Walter Sheppard of the USDA Agricultural Research Service, "In recent years the honey bee industry in the United States has faced many difficult problems. Foreign honey imports and lower honey prices coupled with increased costs of production have created considerable financial challenge." However, they went on to say that "Fortunately, the demand for one of the direct products of the insect, honey, shows signs of increasing" (Shimanuki & Sheppard, 184).
Just like the "meat" and "dairy" industries, the beekeeper's have their own National Honey Board designed to promote honey using a $3 million dollar budget. Unfortunately, it seems to be working. In addition to the hordes of mainstream products adding honey, say Grey Poupon Honey Mustard, Honey Wheaties, Hidden Valley Honey and Bacon French Dressing, etc., honey dominates the health food market. The National Honey Board is currently on a campaign to increase honey consumption by about 20% in the next four years and one of their main strategies is the following: "Encourage the widespread use of honey in 'healthy lifestyles' by positioning honey as both a healthy food and as an ingredient in products with medicinal value" (NHB). "A shift in strategic focus to position honey as a 'healthy' product that should be used as an ingredient in foods and medicines aimed at health-conscious individuals" (NHB). Their use of the word "healthy" in quotes says it all--it's all a lie, it's just a marketing tool.
Do you think no one will notice if you eat honey? I assure you, they are watching closely! The National Honey Board newsletter always ends with a section listing new products containing honey. They even go so far as to monitor sales of honey products with respect to similar honey-free products. I strongly recommend viewing the National Honey Board Handbook (pdf) for a sampling of their work.
Of course it's not always enough to not eat something. Why not let companies know you're not buying their products because they have honey in them? This is a particularly urgent issue in the "health food" area since there are an increasing number of products containing honey that would otherwise be vegan. You can email companies from the feedback page.
Don't honeybees pollinate agricultural crops and are otherwise good for the environment? Actually, bees are harmful to the environment. That link also covers the comparative environmental impact of honey versus other sweeteners.
But don't you kill other bugs?
What about free range honey? If you want free range honey you would have to go out into the woods and stick your hand in a bees' hive and grab some for yourself. Of course, you probably won't find a colony because they've all been killed off (see the environment section). If you did find one, the theft would destroy their home and you'd get some nice stings. Unless of course, you are part of a culture that has a sustainable (i.e., thousands of years old) tradition of respectfully gathering honey like that found in the Malaysian rainforest where honey hunters climb 100 foot trees to take honey from the giant Apis dorsata (Buchmann & Nabham, 145).
But isn't honey (or pollen or royal jelly) good for you? Doesn't it prevent allergies? Don't bee stings cure MS? Isn't honey more nutritious than sugar? Check out the health aspects of honeybee products.
But what do I eat/wear/burn/floss with instead of honey and beeswax?
Isn't this site biased?