Of all the animal products that vegans don’t consume, honey is the one that seems the most confusing. So, why is it that vegans don’t consume honey?
From an ethical perspective, bees have a brain and nervous system, and have been shown to demonstrate emotions and even exhibit pessimism, which is a significant sign of intelligence.
In the commercial honey industry there are numerous unethical practices that are carried out on bees, including instrumental insemination, where typically between 8 to 12 drones are crushed to death and have their semen extracted from them. The queen bee is then restrained and has the semen injected inside of her.
The queen bee will often have either one or both of her wings clipped, which is done as a means of identifying the queen bee and also to prevent swarming, which is where a single bee colony will split into two or more distinct colonies, which is ‘bad for business’ as it reduces the honey production from that hive.
You can even buy queen bees online that have had their wings clipped and have them posted to your house.
When the hives have been harvested for the honey, they are often culled for the winter, as it is cheaper to kill off the entire hive than it is to make sure they have food during the winter months. Bee farmers will also often cull hives who aren’t displaying the ‘right’ temperament.
Culling bee colonies generally involves sealing off the hive and then pouring petrol into the hive, or drowning the bees with soapy water, or gassing them to death with carbon dioxide. Alternatively, some beekeepers will trap the bees in large industrial bin bags, which are then left in the sun to ensure the bees either suffocate to death or die due to the increasingly high temperatures in the bag. Sometimes beekeepers won’t cull the entire hive, but will instead de-populate a certain number of bees, or kill the queen.
But what actually is honey?
Honey is a bee’s food, it is produced by bees by them swallowing nectar, regurgitating it and then repeating this process many times.
“It takes about 12 worker bees an entire lifetime to create a single teaspoon of honey.”
However, because we take the honey, if the bees aren’t culled, they will be given a sugar syrup which is devoid of many of the essential aspects of the honey that the bees require to be healthy.
Couple this with the fact that honey bees are selectively bred, meaning that the population gene pool is narrowed, and they are consequently at a significantly higher risk of diseases and large-scale die offs.
Furthermore, honeybee hives are regularly traded locally and internationally, allowing the rapid spread of diseases and parasites, such as deformed wing virus and Varroa mite. These pathogens can affect wild bumblebee populations and spread between wild bee species when they visit the same flower.
Okay sure, but don’t we need to eat honey because bee populations are in decline?
It’s no secret that bee populations are in decline across the world, but in the past 50 years, the honey bee population has increased by 45%, so is the honey industry actually helping?
The UK, as an example, is home to around 270 bee species. Honey bees, being but one of these species, can actively harm wild bee populations because they compete directly for nectar and pollen, meaning that wild bees can be outcompeted.
Initiatives such as urban beekeeping put more pressure on wild bees and worsen the decline, as it is crucial for natural ecosystems that there are a variety of pollinators, as different pollinators will pollinate different plants.
Honey bees are extremely efficient at collecting pollen and returning it to their hives, but as a consequence they transfer little to the flowers they visit.
They are measurably less effective at pollination than wild bees and when honeybees occur in high numbers they can push wild bees out of an area, making it harder for wild plants to reproduce, which is a huge problem because a lack of wild flowers is one of the main factors behind the decline in bee populations.
“The crisis in global pollinator decline has been associated with one species above all, the western honeybee. Honeybees are artificially-bred agricultural animals similar to livestock such as pigs and cows. But this livestock can roam beyond any enclosures to disrupt local ecosystems through competition and disease.
Keeping honeybees is an extractive activity. It removes pollen and nectar from the environment, which are natural resources needed by many wild species of bee and other pollinators.
Saving the honeybee does not help wildlife. Western honeybees are a commercially managed species that can actually have negative effects on their immediate environment through the massive numbers in which they are introduced.”
Ultimately, the production of honey has serious ethical concerns and from an environmental perspective, is contributing to the very problem that many of us think we are helping by purchasing honey in the first place.
If we really want to protect wild bees, we should focus on creating wild flower meadows and using our outdoor spaces more effectively in order to maximise the pollinator potential of a natural world.
The best way we can do this, is by adopting a vegan lifestyle and repurposing land that is currently used for animal agriculture, as the most comprehensive study ever conducted on farming’s impact on the environment, concluded that we could free up 75% of current agricultural land by switching to a plant based diet.
Now that’s a lot of land for wild bees and pollinators.