Whenever I speak to someone for the first time about how veganism effects my dietary choices, they’re often surprised when I say that I avoid honey as well as meat, dairy and eggs. Of course that’s a very simply overview of my eating habits, but often, honey is seen as a harmless, passively collected product which, if anything, benefits our environment by encouraging an increase in the bee population.
When people think of veganism, I think they’re often of the notion that it’s vegetarian without eggs and cheese (close!) and often neglect to even acknowledge honey as an animal product (of course you’ve also got other bee products such as beeswax and bee pollen which is found in a number of food stuffs as well as cosmetics).
Some of what I have to say on this subject will probably upset fellow vegans, so I’m sorry about that.
Let me start by saying, that honey is never, under any circumstances, a vegan product. In the simplest terms, it’s made by animals, not by plants. Even if you’re next door neighbour keeps his own bees who all have SkyHD and a posh coffee maker in their hives and have the papers delivered every Sunday. Even if he extracts the honey by gently singing Irish folk songs to them under a full moon. Honey is made by animals. No bees make honey specifically to feed humans – despite what The Bee Movie would have you believe, they’ve yet to work out that we eat it.
Veganism is defined quite simply as a philosophical lifestyle which seeks to avoid harm to, and exploitation of, all living things. That’s all living things, including other humans, and including insects. Exploitation doesn’t always automatically mean physical suffering. People can be pretty content in life whilst being exploited by someone else, it doesn’t make the exploitation fair. In the case of bees, even bees who are cared for by independent, expert bee keepers, they are still being used for human gain. Vegans try to avoid using animals for their own benefit, and on that basis, every bee should, according to vegan philosophy, be left alone to be a bee. We don’t need honey, and bees don’t consent to us taking their honey, which they produce for their own biological purpose, not as food for other species, so as vegans we reject the idea that it’s “fine” to take it “in small amounts” as much as we object to mass honey production.
Yes, there are animals who eat honey, by literally breaking open wild hives and binging on it. No those animals aren’t vegan. Can we please be clear that just because a bear does something, it doesn’t automatically make it reasonable for humans to do the same. Our ancestors may have managed to gather honey on rare occasions from the same wild hives – but let’s not pretend that’s what we’re doing when we pick up a bottle of the squeezy stuff from the supermarket, or indeed a jar with a handwritten label from the Farmer’s market. We can all live very comfortably without having to exploit bees for honey. We absolutely have the option as to whether we consume honey or not, and of the two choices available (eat it or avoid it), avoiding honey is the kinder option. Veganism is, in simplified terms, about always making the kindest choice available.
However, that being said, I don’t have a strong moral objection to honey consumption. There are many things in life which I personally wouldn’t do for myself, but am at peace with other people doing for themselves. Honey consumed under very certain and potentially unobtainable circumstances falls in to that category, and I appreciate that many vegans will be upset at me for not condemning honey consumption entirely.
Before I talk about my ethical standpoint, let’s first address the idea that honey collection doesn’t harm bees and therefore taking it for human consumption is a cruelty free practice.
Honey production, especially when it’s on a large scale for the companies who fill supermarket shelves, is a long way from being cruelty free.
Bee’s need a Queen in order to, you know, do their bee stuff. On this basis it’s common practice for bee keepers to order in Queen Bee’s to boost production. These Queens are usually artificially inseminated with the semen extracted from male bees who are literally crushed to death to squeeze it out. Of course this is a painful death for the male, who would never choose to die (very few animals would ever choose death given the choice between that and carrying on with their life.) The Queen Bee’s are then transported, on an International scale, to their new homes, a process which is both stressful and dangerous for the Queen’s with a high mortality rate.
When the Queen’s do arrive in good health, their wings are removed to stop them from following their natural urge to fly away and start a new colony. This is obviously not in line with the vegan aim to avoid harm and exploitation, in that someone is modifying an animal to prevent it from natural behaviour so that it might serve humans.
It’s relatively common for beekeepers to kill off their hives for the Winter and start from scratch the next year, meaning that beekeeping for honey production is not only wasteful of life, but contributes to wide spread insecticide use, and causes bees a lot of suffering.
Bees use honey. It’s not a waste product, it’s not a by-product of anything else. Bees literally make honey so that they can use it themselves. It’s used for hive insulation and also food, keeping the colony well fed during Winter months and providing the main source of nutrition for their growing young. The success of a colony is entirely determined by honey production. When we take honey from a hive, those bees have to either go without, or work twice as hard to replenish what has been taken. Which is again, where exploitation comes into play.
Each droplet of nectar that a bee collects, is taken into their stomach, enzymes added before it’s regurgitated, and eaten again, and each droplet is consumed and regurgitated around 50 times until it becomes the honey that we know. Obviously, a bee can only take a couple of droplets on board at a time, before it comes home to vomit 50-100 times before flying off for more. It’s a long process to make even one human-sized jar of honey.
If bees were paid minimum wage (which I realise is a ridiculous notion but I use this to highlight the amount of labour involved in making honey) then each jar would cost £135,000 in order for the producer to break even.
But bees are not rewarded in any way really, unless we are so obnoxious as to say that they’re rewarded by being granted the privilege of existing – and even then, they are often killed once they become a burden and take a break from making honey during colder months.
A lot of the more cruel and unreasonable practices described above do not necessarily apply to smaller operations. However, don’t assume that an independent beekeeper doesn’t order in artificially inseminated females, clip wings, or kill off hives. It does still happen, but isn’t as much of a given as it is on a large scale bee farm.
However, the issue of bees working hard and having the fruits of their labour removed to benefit another species who don’t need it to ensure their survival – still applies, whoever is making the honey. It’s still not fair. It’s that unfairness that makes honey non-vegan.
Back to what I said about the fact that I don’t necessarily object to honey consumption. Obviously, for myself, as a vegan, honey is an identifiable product of animal exploitation and I do not want to contribute to it’s use. It’s not something I would eat or use in non-dietary products such as cosmetics.
As with anything however, I’ll always have people throwing their own unusual circumstances at me, hypothetical or otherwise. Most commonly it’s that a neighbour or friend keeps their own bees, practices gentle beekeeping, is a committed bee conservationist and has offered them some honey. I will say that it’s amazing, when you talk about veganism, how many people are related to one such beekeeper! I meanwhile am yet to meet one. However, if this person did exist, and they used native British bees, and used a gentle practice that didn’t engage with wing clipping or artificial insemination, or smoking the hive to confuse and temporarily sedate the bees when extracting honey etc. then I understand why that might sit comfortably with some people. The fact remains that a hive will not just produce “too much” honey for the sake of it (or with the intention of providing for humans) so, you’re still taking something which the bees deliberately made for themselves, but if you’re not vegan, then I understand that that might not bother you too much.
The important point to make here is that sometimes vegans commit non vegan acts. Technically we do it all day every day. The laptop I’m writing this blog post on won’t be strictly vegan, nor the house I’m living in, nor the mobile phone I just checked for messages, or the tarmac I’ll walk on to take my son to school today. Sometimes vegans knowingly commit non vegan acts too, like choosing to eat honey from their Grandpa’s own bees. That act is never going to be vegan, honey just isn’t vegan, where ever it comes from. But, it’s up to individual human beings to decide what is ethical. There may be a single definition of veganism, but there’s no single definition of what is ethical. If you decide that you have a source of honey which you, personally, deem to be ethical, then that’s on you – but it isn’t, and will never be, vegan.
Not everything which is non-vegan is unethical. There might be ethically produced honey out there, I don’t know.
Because honey production can never be free from exploitation, because bees will never pop in and gift it to us with their consent, it can never be vegan (unfortunately, for the vegan fans of honey!)
A final word on bees…
A lot of people struggle with the leap from animal cruelty inflicted upon mammals, such as farm animals or typical pets like dogs and cats – to insects. It’s just harder to get feels for a bee – I understand. Also, accidentally harming insects is part of human existence – yes it destroys my soul when I stand on a snail – but we’re pretty desensitised to insect death – “insecticide” is just a normal word referring to pest control, we swat flies for our own satisfaction and convenience. The jump from flies to bees isn’t a big one – and don’t get me started on the much-hated wasp.
I think this adds another layer to the lack of understanding of why vegans avoid honey – it’s “only” bees after all. Aside from the fact that life on Earth is entirely dependent on pollinators (remove pollinators from our planet and all other species would move towards extinction at an alarming rate), bees themselves, regardless of what they do for us – are recognised as both highly intelligent, and capable of experiencing pain.
There have been numerous pain studies conducted on bees (not that I condone that, but we might as well acknowledge the data gathered) that demonstrates without doubt that bees feel pain. Given that honey production, particularly on larger scales, is dependent on inflicting harm upon bees, we can be certain that bees suffer pain as a result, and not just “oh that’s just it’s nerves twitching”.
We generally prioritise animals that we acknowledge as intelligent. Humans first, as we have the greatest neurological capabilities, followed closely by dogs, cats, and whales and dolphins. Big mammals typically follow, species such as elephants, rhinos, tigers and after that we move on to a hierarchy of cute and fluffy – koalas and the like. We feel less of an emotional attachment to reptiles, and less again of fish and other marine life such as crabs (with the exception of marine mammals, who we love!) and somewhere right at the bottom are the insects.
Bees are, in some areas, significantly more intelligent than a huge number of mammals. I do think if we spent more time educating people on bees, not just how vital they are to our survival, but also of their incredible capabilities, then people might have more compassion towards them.
Bees are one of the few animals known to effectively use vector calculus for their survival – often used by humans in engineering and physics. Bees perform what we refer to as a “waggle dance”, which sounds cute, but is actually pretty incredible. When a bee finds a good source of food, she flies back to the hive and performs a dance with her abdomen which accurately informs other bees of the whereabouts of the food. This isn’t a rough guide, it’s communicated three dimensionally, providing all of the information that the other bees need to find the food source without difficulty. The direction, distance, and potential obstacles to be navigated are all included in the dance. As if that in itself isn’t impressive, every 4 minutes, the Sun moves 1 degree to the West – and as the bees use the Sun as a reference point when communicating direction, they are able to keep time, know how long it’s been since they found the food source, and account for the movement of the Sun by incorporating it into their dance and adjusting their dance accordingly by 1 degree for every 4 minutes that has passed. We can’t do that. Humans wouldn’t be able to do this. The argument that bees aren’t intelligent is completely ludicrous when you consider their ability to accurately monitor time in minutes, measure angles, distance, and use the Sun to determine direction.
Exploiting animals with this kind of intelligence isn’t the huge leap from exploiting pigs (who in turn have been found to have far greater problem solving skills than dogs) that we tend to think it is.