I get asked if it’s hard being vegan a lot. And my answer is always a resounding NO! Because I really don’t think it is. But there is one thing I have found that I really do miss. And that’s honey. And propolis come to think of it. It is probably one of the aspects of veganism that non-vegans think is truly weird. Why would anyone have a problem with taking something from bees? They’re just bees, right? Well, vegans don’t take anything from sentient beings, which includes insects. But, and I speak for myself and increasingly non-vegans also, there are other reasons for not consuming honey and other bee products. Reasons that aren’t too different from the concerns people have about animal agriculture and the many inhumane and unnatural practises involved with that.
I have a few issues with commercial bee keeping. The most obvious of course is that this is again just another method of farming which is profit driven. The care and natural instinct of the bee is of no real concern to the commercial beekeeper. In every possible way, bees are prevented from any kind of natural behaviours when they are farmed. The hive itself is not formed naturally, instead wax moulds are implemented. Bees are frequently disturbed and are prevented from swarming. The Queen bee often has her wings clipped, which prevents her from leaving with part of the hive as this reduces available honey. In nature, a new Queen would normally take over. A Queen is also artificially inseminated, a process which kills the drone bee. Beekeepers often kill the Queen every few years and replace her to get maximum honey. Culling of hives is a particularly nasty aspect of commercial beekeeping and occurs after honey collection, usually by burning or gassing them. As bees hibernate in winter and don’t produce honey, the cost of keeping them alive ( feeding them ) is avoided by culling instead. In some countries, particularly the US, bees are transported though winter and feed with sugar water ( often HFCS ) to enable them to pollinate crops across the country which also means they are unable to hibernate. And if all this isn’t enough, the addition of the much publicised and hugely controversial pesticide use in commercial beekeeping is highlighting just how much our interference could be affecting bees, and in turn our own survival. Neonicotinoids in particular have caused huge concern. There is a significant amount of evidence regarding the harm these types of pesticides are causing, to the extent that 3 of them have restricted use in the EU. The Ethical Consumer Magazine has a very informative article regarding neonicotinoids, with references and details regarding the companies that make them. In fact they have devoted much of their Nov/Dec issue to honey and bees, you can find here.
There has been massive attention given lately to the plight of our bees, and not just honey bees either. We are seeing problems with wild bees that has led to extinction of many, including 3 species of the British Bumblebee. I was astounded to learn that wild bees have lost 97% of their wildflower meadow habitats. Without bees it would cost farmers close to £2 million a year to pollinate crops by hand. A part of being a conscious consumer includes understanding what is required to supply us with the varied amount of food we need to thrive. Without bees, and that includes wild bees which could not be simply replaced by honey bees, we would have a very plain and nutrient deficient diet. I am pleased to hear that the UK Government have recently announced a Bee Action Plan which will include scientific monitoring of bees and a strategy to reverse the decline of all pollinating insects.
Is there any kind of acceptable alternative to commercial beekeeping? I have written about our wonderful stay at Alpha Farm in Dorset earlier this year, when we stayed in their Eco lodge. The owners are also Natural Beekeepers, a concept I had not heard of until I stayed there. Natural beekeeping is a bee-centred approach to beekeeping. It allows bees to behave naturally, with very little management at all from the beekeeper. They generally only visit the hive a few times a year, and never take honey in winter. They only take excess honey, so there is no real commercial interest in this type of beekeeping. Bees are allowed to swarm and never fed sugar water. There is some good evidence emerging that bees kept this way actually have better resistance to pests and diseases than when compared to commercial bees. However, it is still a process that involves using bees, which is not morally justifiable. You are taking something that isn;t yours to take, however you do it.
So, am I to continue missing honey? Just how far will I personally take this ‘vegan thing’. I can not make an exception when it comes to any use of sentient beings. I am also a long time environmentalist, and it is very clear to me that any negative influence we have on nature is unacceptable and unsustainable. We are only just beginning to understand the impact our commercial beekeeping and our destruction of habitat will have on bees and our own food sources. From a medicinal perspective, honey and propolis ( a wonderful and powerful substance made and used by bees which is a wonderful healer and my most used infection fighter ) are extremely helpful and have been used for medical purposes for thousands of years. Neither honey or propolis are vegan however, and their use can still not be justified simply because humans will benefit from it. Yes, I sometimes miss it, but my personal desires are not more important than the rights of any sentient being.
UPDATE: I don’t miss honey anymore. I got over it, it was actually easy! Medicinally we have many things at our disposal which can replace honey and anything else we take from beings. Honey remains off the menu, out of my medicine cabinet. If I want to add sweetness to a recipe, my first choice is always dates, or if I need a liquid I’ll blend them with water. No need for honey at all.