Honey Creates Some Sticky Ethical Questions for Vegans and Locavores
Bees make honey for us, and don’t mind when we collect it from them. Right?
Well, not so much.
One hitch in that argument is that some bees get injured and some die when beekeepers disrupt the hive by removing the honeycomb. Bees who try to protect the hive by stinging the beekeeper die — they only get one sting in their lives.
Those hives are the lucky ones. Fate is even less kind to hives that are rented out to pollinate about 100 different food crops for consumption by humans and livestock, including alfalfa, almonds, avocados, broccoli, canola, cherries, clover, cucumbers, lettuce, peaches, pears, plums, sunflowers and tomatoes. The problem for the bees is that they are trucked in 18-wheelers over long distances from crop to crop, with only high-fructose corn syrup to eat along the way. They may spend half the year traveling that way. They don’t like that.
Why should we care if bees get injured or treated miserably — they’re just insects, they don’t feel anything. Right?
Well, again, not so much. “Bees have a central nervous system, just like humans and other animals, which allows them to feel pain.”
I’m going to speculate here that starving causes pain, and thanks to beekeepers, some entire hives starve to death during the winter. A beekeeper explains why:
Normally, a certain percentage of hives die each year. We expect a 20% loss over winter. Sometimes there is no loss, and sometimes more than 20%. I have around 40 hives going into winter, and I know that 10 are pretty small and light and will probably not make it. It’s not the cold. Bees can survive cold weather just fine. It is because they never built up to be a full size hive before winter arrived; they didn’t store up enough food for winter.
What is the food the bees don’t have enough of? It’s the honey the beekeepers stole from the hives. It is illegal to let cats or dogs starve to death, but because of the widespread mistaken belief that bees don’t suffer from pain, beekeepers get away with starving bees year after year.
Another beekeeper argues that farmers need to change their ways: “Trouble is many American beekeepers take away a significant amount of honey. They rob the honey when bees need it the most, during the fall and winter when there are no flowers bearing nectar, the basis of honey.” This doesn’t have to happen. In the 1800′s beekeepers waited until spring, when nectar was available, to remove “surplus” honey from the hives.
Some ethical vegans, i.e. those who abstain from animal by-products out of compassion and concern for the animals, will eat honey. However, it is an animal product and so should obviously be on the no-no list. Maybe their rationale is based on the misconception that bees don’t suffer for us to have honey.
The reality is that honey does not pass the test for ethical vegans, who do not eat or otherwise use animals or their products. I haven’t met a vegan who would wear silk, which is made by worms — ethically, what’s the difference between bees and worms that confers more protection for the worms?
Locavores are another group that thinks seriously and ethically about their diets. The locavore argument about honey is that if it is local, it is on the menu; if it is from far away, don’t touch it. They are motivated by issues like the health benefits for humans of eating local honey and the impact on the environment of importing honey over long distances.
A summary of one locavore beekeeper’s arguments in favor of local honey, from Culinate.com:
- Fresh, locally produced raw honey has unique flavors.
- Buying local honey supports the beekeeping industry, an integral part of agriculture currently facing a host of challenges.
- If you don’t know where your honey is coming from, chances are it’s imported.
- Buying local honey is better for the environment.
Fortunately for vegans there are lots of plant-based alternatives to honey, like agave nectar. For locavores who don’t know where to get locally-sourced honey, a farmer’s market is a good place to start.
What do you think? Let us know below!
Photo credit: iStockphoto