Many people who understand the cruelty involved in factory farming and are morally opposed to eating meat find it less obvious that the lowly honeybee should also be of ethical concern. Just who are these honeybees, anyway? And what’s the big deal about sharing a bit of their honey in a symbiotic relationship that gives them free access to billions of flowers, full of the nectar they so like to collect?
Beekeeping is big business, to be sure: 15 to 30 percent of all food crops depend on bees for pollination. Like all factory farming, beekeeping has morphed into an industrial process which puts profits ahead of animal concerns. Commercial beekeepers truck some 2.4 million hives all over the country to track seasonal crops. These journeys clobber the bees with physiological stress, pesticides, diseases, and related disorders. Even small outfits and hobbyists subject their bees to cruelty, such as cutting off the queen’s wings so that she can’t swarm. Honeybees are thought to have originated in the tropics; winter mortality in temperate zones remains a serious issue. And recently, colonies across the world have been decimated by colony collapse disorder (CCD), a result of the abuses that we have wrought against these fascinating creatures. The range of pesticides, fungicides, and invasive procedures it takes to make bee hives profitable is staggering, and it is not yet clear what combination of these offenses is exterminating so many bees.
But so what: A bee is just an insect, a miniature biological robot, is it not? Who cares, as long as the crops are pollinated and there’s honey on the table? And how else could we pollinate all those plants, anyway–by hand, with a tiny paintbrush? Actually, there are 20,000 to 30,000 other native bee species who are quite up to the task, without factory farming them. To let nature take her course, however, we must stop destroying the diversity of ecological systems.
These marvelous creatures are famous for their sophisticated cognitive feats. Many other insects are similarly talented, of course, but they haven’t been as well studied. We know that honeybees process massive amounts of information about flowers, locations, and the behavior and physiological status of other bees in the hive, not to mention their ages, weather, and the seasons. As they mature, young worker bees progress through a series of nest-keeping chores before graduating to the task of foraging for nectar outside the hive. Consider for a moment the decisions that a foraging bee makes as he or she visits a number of different places and flowers on a trip from the nest. Where are the best flowers in relation to the hive, which individual flower to visit next, how to harvest the nectar from that particular flower, how long to stay in that patch, where to search next, how much nectar to load up with before returning to the hive, and oh, yeah, what direction is the hive from that location and how far is it?
When they do find good flowers, bees advertise them to everyone else in the hive with their famous waggle dance. In route, they use landmarks to guide their flights; they can recall their surroundings and remember visual images. For years, researchers have thought that honeybees must have some sort of “cognitive map”–a mental representation of local geography–to navigate by, because their bearings and routes to and from the nest are so nuanced and accurate. Recent work has brought the notion of cognitive maps up for reconsideration, but the bottom line remains: The mental life of bees includes decision-making that would indicate conscious awareness if performed by vertebrate animals. This is not hard-wired robotic behavior. Honeybees change their minds when conditions change. When looking for a new nest location, for example, scouts report back to the hive and spread the word to their sisters. The scouts will then visit the sites recommended by others, and if they are convinced that the suggested location is better than their previous choice, they change their vote and spread the word to the rest of the hive about the better site. Let that sink in for a moment. Do honeybees think? I leave that question open for comments.
Do bees suffer as a result of agricultural manipulation? Of course they do. And whether or not honeybees are consciously aware of the insults that we inflict upon them, they are so very alive and engaging that I could not bring it upon myself to kill one just because I can, or just for some honey. Nor would I want to invade their nest, cut off their wings, relocate them, and subject them to toxic pesticides, environmental stress, diseases, infections, and all the rest that beekeeping bestows upon them. Live and let others live. Be free and allow others to be free.
That’s why I don’t eat honey, but please pass me the maple syrup and agave nectar!