Essex Bees
Mar 20th, 2017
Why Donít Vegans Eat Honey?

I found this article by Aine Carlin from the Guardian and got quite annoyed with it – normally I’m pretty laid back about things but found this misleading, especially as it’s an article in a British paper written for a British readership about supposedly British practices. Inspired to write an ‘angry’ reply I scrolled down and found someone had posted what was effectively my interpretation of the article too.


 


So I’ve included both sides of the article and will let you take a view. I really have no problem with who eats what but do like to see a balanced argument, which is why I ignore most politicians!


 


 


 


 


‘Commercial extraction means that the honey the bees have worked hard to produce for their winter food store is replaced with a sugar solution, leaving the bees vulnerable to infection.’


Of all the things we vegans avoid, honey categorically invites the most eye rolls. For some reason people can wrap their heads around the “no meat, no dairy and no egg” thing, but when it comes to this divisive little sweetener the mind apparently boggles.


But let’s look at the definition of veganism, which put simply is “a person who doesn’t eat or use animal products”. That includes everything that we put both into our bodies and on them – even the surprisingly delicious secretions of a stripy insect. While it may seem unnecessarily dogmatic to eschew something so seemingly innocent, there are a few uncomfortable truths about honey.


Honey, as we all know, is a wondrous natural substance that not only tastes fantastic but has a multitude of health benefits too. It has been used as a medicine for millennia. What’s the problem then? Well let’s look at the very first thing I learned about honey harvesting. Commercial extraction means that the honey the bees have worked so damned hard to produce for their winter food store from the nectar they collect from flowering trees and plants is being replaced with a sugar water solution. This is a well-known (and somewhat controversial) large-scale beekeeping practice that could be avoided if enough honey were left for the bees to consume over the winter period. But the beekeepers needs to make a profit, right?


Because sugar water is devoid of any crucial protective properties, it’s trickery on an insect level. Without the essential antibiotic/antioxidant shield the honey provides the honey bee is ultimately left more susceptible to disease – something that might account for some of our current bee decline crisis and what scientists are referring to as “colony collapse disorder”. That, coupled with exposure to pesticides means they (and ultimately we), are on a hiding to nothing. It’s a scary prospect to envisage a world without bees and buying honey (or beeswax, propolis and royal jelly for that matter) sadly isn’t going to save us.


But we need the honey bees to pollinate our crops, don’t we? Well, yes and no. Honey bees can and do pollinate our crops but they are not necessarily the best for the job. Wild bees are also effective pollinators, but don’t produce honey we can harvest so it’s not worth our time and energy investing in them for honey. On the surface, it appears that honey is merely a by-product of the pollination process, and yet once you dig a little deeper you soon realise that the coveted golden nectar (and the retrieval thereof) is a major concern for commercial beekeepers, along with the lucrative contracts they get from farmers to pollinate their crops.


 ‘I can wholly understand why some self-proclaimed vegans have no issue in purchasing local, raw honey.’


No bees get harmed in the process of honey production though, right? Not exactly. Industrial bee farming has been known to “cull” hives after harvesting because it’s cheaper than feeding the bees throughout the winter. Those farmers who do choose to keep the hives in operation feed the bees that insipid sugar water, which in turn weakens their immune systems and leaves them vulnerable to infection. In the wild, of course, these bees would be using the honey they diligently harvested to keep themselves going throughout the winter months, arming themselves with all the nourishment they need to see them through. Another tactic implemented by large-scale beekeepers is to clip the wings of the queen bee to prevent swarming, thus ensuring there is no decline in honey production. For the same reason the queen is sometimes killed and replaced with a younger model. Comforting to know we humans don’t apply ageism just to our own species, eh?


But what about locally produced honey from small-scale beekeepers? Urban beekeeping is a hugely popular pastime at present and with it come many welcome positives. I tend to think of it as a bit of a grey area – and my approach to veganism fully acknowledges the reality of these “grey areas” in our complex, modern society. Even within this growing movement there are several varieties of small-scale beekeeping, a few of which include “balanced beekeeping” (taking the honey only when it’s in abundance), “natural beekeeping” (little or no interference with the hive) and “conservation beekeeping” (no honey is taken, the bees are left to their own devices), all of which can help restore the relationship we currently have with the honey bee to a more natural balance.


While I personally don’t consume honey and haven’t done for many years, I can wholly understand why some self-proclaimed vegans have no issue in purchasing local, raw honey. Of course, this is a hugely contentious issue that evokes strong emotions but for me this is about making a personal, informed decision not driven simply by the definition of a word.


Are you a significantly lesser vegan if you consume a small amount of honey given to you by a “balanced beekeeper”? I don’t yet have the answer to that. But if you’d rather not risk your hard-won vegan credentials, thankfully there is an array of plant-based sweeteners (maple syrup, date syrup and coconut nectar to name but a few) that will keep you satiated and the honey bee safe. And, more importantly, don’t forget you can keep Britain buzzing by planting a bee-friendly beekeeper yourself to help encourage all bees to thrive. To use a very un-vegan phrase: there’s more than one way to skin a cat – or in this case, more than one way to save the bees.


 


This is the reply I wish I were clever enough to write!


 


I’m a non-vegan vegetarian, a graduate agriculturalist and a small-scale honey producer, though very little of my honey is sold – most is given away. It’s hard to know where to begin with this very lazy article – so many half-truths, misconceptions and errors, linked with a lot of unhelpful anthropomorphism and pejorative language.


 
One frequent source of misunderstanding is the difference between US (where semi-industrial beekeeping and colony collapse disorder both happen) and UK (where neither do). It’s very difficult to construct a credible “big bad farmer” narrative around most European beekeeping, which is predominantly small-scale, semi-commercial and carried out by people who are fascinated by bees, and passionate about their well-being and survival. Nobody becomes a beekeeper to make a fortune.



Let’s deconstruct a little:


 
Even as a beekeeper I would be cautious about claiming health benefits for honey. It’s used topically for the treatment of wounds; eating it is nice, fun and slightly magical; let’s leave it at that.


 
No beekeeper would completely denude a colony of honey before winter; some honey is harvested, some is left; some beekeepers leave more than others; most beekeepers supplement the honey with concentrated sugar solution to make absolutely sure that the colony has enough energy to get it through winter. This is a time-immemorial practice (there was a special ration for it in WWII !) and there is no evidence that it limits the chances of colony survival – if there was it would indeed be highly controversial in beekeeping circles, rather than being taught as one of the basics of sound husbandry.



The links provided by this article to support the “crisis” narrative are US based and evidence free. In UK, and most of Europe, the number of beekeepers and colonies declined in the latter part of the 20th century, for many complex reasons; more recent years have seen a steady resurgence in the number of beekeepers and colonies. Wild bees, and insects in general, are undoubtedly vulnerable to our carefree attitude to farm, home and garden biocides; if there is one category of insects that is probably well-protected, it is honey bees!


 
The article appears to argue both that honey bees are unnecessary for pollination and that fruit farmers will pay handsomely for the service (which they will – though only a small number of beekeepers provide this service). Truth is more nuanced: some crops (and non-crop plants) rely heavily on honey bees, some gain a benefit from having them but would get by, some are pollinated by other species and some do not need insects. The species has been in a symbiotic relationship with many plant species for millions of years – it’s safe to assume there is some benefit in having them around.



We have been known to “cull” colonies, kill queens and clip wings – bad people that we are! Guilty as charged. Small, weak colonies and old queens will not survive a European winter; much better to kill a queen, combine 2 colonies (or replace the old queen) to make one strong one and give the best possible chance of survival. The bee colony itself will often kill a failing queen and breed a replacement if they detect the issue in time; nature is unsentimental. Clipping wings means removing the tip of one wing from the queen (this is painless, wings are nerve-less chitin); it is done (by some) to reduce the risk of a queen leaving the hive, with many of the worker bees, to face an uncertain future as a feral colony. It is objectively little different to clipping your toe nails.



The various “natural” beekeeping methods are themselves controversial among people who understand the issues – they are not universally regarded as benign for the bees, however well-meaning their practitioners. Death and devil-take-the-hindmost are the “natural” order.



If someone regards whether or not they or others regard eating honey (or not) as “a hugely contentious issue that evokes strong emotions”, I wonder if they have too much time on their hands?