By Justin Erickson
The use or consumption of honey and other bee products has become a point of debate within the vegan community. This is likely due to the lack of information regarding the treatment of bees in honey production. However, based on the definition of the word “vegan” as one who follows a plant-based diet and uses no products derived from animals, there is no debate. Bees are animals; furthermore, they are incredibly complex and are capable of feeling, as well as consciously avoiding, pain. To consume honey or any other bee products is blatantly contradictory to the vegan philosophy.
Regardless of this relatively simple explanation, some quasi-vegans continue to consume bee products. Common, although patently false, justifications for using bees include the following:
· Colonies often produce an excess of honey, so taking this honey will not affect the bees.
· Beekeepers are merely helping the colonies to perform to their maximum potential by manipulating their behavior and environment and have the bees’ best interests in mind.
· Bees are free to go where they wish and are not prevented from leaving the colony.
· Beekeeping has existed for thousands of years and respect for the bees has always been central to its methods.
· Without beekeepers, vegans would starve as bees are responsible for pollinating food crops.
· Honey is one of the least environmentally damaging sweeteners available.
All of these arguments are flawed and are used by beekeepers to maintain
an industry which is both immoral and environmentally damaging. That
beekeepers only take the excess honey from bee colonies is a mistruth, as
the majority of beekeepers take all of the honey produced and replace it
with sugar water. This is detrimental to the health of the hive as well as
the individual bees because honey contains small amounts of nutrients
required by bees that sugar does not. Furthermore, it can safely be
assumed that the bees that produced the honey did not do so with their
human captors in mind, rather than their colony.
It is true that beekeepers strive to maintain colonies with the maximum production value, but this is simply not the ultimate goal of the bees. When a colony produces an excess of honey, it is split into two colonies and no honey is wasted. This phenomenon is prevented by beekeepers by methods such as cutting the wings of the queen bee. Moreover, the queen bees, although capable of living up to five years in the wild, are usually killed after no more than two years in order to manipulate the colony. A new queen is then chosen by the beekeeper rather than the reigning queen, who selects her successor in nature. Queens are bred commercially by repeatedly artificially inseminating breeder queens with semen collected from the carcasses of male bees whose heads and thoraxes have been crushed to turn their reproductive organs inside-out.
Thousands of years ago, beekeeping was centered on practices that maintained respect for the bees. As methods have become modernized, this respect has been lost. Today, commercial beekeepers have little regard for the lives of the bees; up to twenty percent of colonies are allowed to die over the winter season either by improper care or a deliberate attempt to save money. It is sometimes less expensive to allow a colony to die and purchase new bees in the spring rather than pay to either transport the bees or maintain the hive over winter with supplemented food and heat.
The aforementioned reasons not to consume bee products are primarily based on the treatment of the bees. However, for those who are indifferent regarding the welfare of the bees, there are significant environmental reasons not to consume bee products. The bee industry often puts forth the argument that, since honeybees are by far the most used insect to deliberately pollinate plants in North America
Honeybees are regarded as ideal pollinators by the bee industry, but, in reality, are poor pollinators for most food crops. Honeybees cannot use buzz pollination, as is required to effectively pollinate plants such as blueberries, eggplants, cranberries, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, and watermelons. They are also extremely inefficient at pollinating alfalfa flowers and cannot live in temperatures low enough to allow them to pollinate the first apple or almond blossoms. Honeybees are very productive at collecting nectar and pollen, but not at pollination. Because honeybees are still used to inefficiently pollinate these plants, the populations of much more able native pollinators, as well as other animals that rely on nectar to survive, are being drastically reduced or, sometimes, eliminated.
Furthermore, wild honeybees are harmed by the bee industry. Commercially raised and imported honeybees often carry parasites and diseases; while commercial bee colonies are carefully regulated and are not significantly harmed by these diseases and parasites, they spread to and devastate feral populations. As a result, honeybees are becoming more reliant on human regulation as new diseases, to which honeybees have not developed a natural defense, are introduced by importation. If this continues, only commercial colonies will be left and the few crops of which honeybees are the main pollinators will only be able to be grown with the use of these rented colonies.
When collected from wild colonies through ancient methods, honey is one of the most environmentally friendly sweeteners. However, this is virtually never the way in which honey is collected. Instead, colonies and bee products are shipped throughout the world by the use of fossil fuels. Combined with the effects on indigenous pollinators and the grazing effect commercial honeybee colonies have on their surroundings, honey is far from environmentally friendly. Also, sugar syrup is used to supplement hives from which the majority or all of the honey has been taken. If this sugar were consumed directly rather than processed into honey by honeybees, far less fossil fuels would be used. Sugar is also as nutritious, or, rather, innutritious, as honey, which contains nutrients in such low concentrations that, though beneficial to the health of bees, absurd amounts would be required by humans to obtain any minute health benefits.
The bee industry forwards many claims regarding honey and other bee products that are simply untrue. The industry also carefully monitors the sale of bee products in comparison to similar products which do not contain bee products. By refusing to buy honey or other bee products, even a single person can send a strong message to the industry. Furthermore, by informing those responsible for stocking health food stores and food cooperatives of the environmental and moral implications of honey, an even greater effect can be had.
There are a number of helpful and informative resources regarding the impacts of the bee industry. Perhaps the most comprehensive resource available can be found at the following link: http://www.vegetus.org/honey/honey.htm. This website also contains a vast list of resources from both vegans as well as the bee industry.