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But What About Honey? Is It Cruelty-Free?

Posted by at 5:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (15)


bee-2Many 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!

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    Laura says...

    January 15th, 2009, 3:38 pm

    Hi Steve,

    Finally, all the info about why I don’t eat honey in one place! I am going to print this and bookmark it so that next time I get grief about not eating honey, I will have the facts. Thanks for the great blog!

    Honeybees are awesome little creatures. We are lucky to have a natural hive in our yard, which is full of fruit trees and flowers. They pollinate our trees, giving us an abundance of avocados and citrus. When our flowers are in bloom, they look like they are dancing, they are so happily rolling around in the centers. We have very happy bees, and I think it’s because we leave them alone to do their thing, the way nature intended.

    Bobbie says...

    January 16th, 2009, 5:57 pm

    There is great information here about the commercial honey industry. What about conditions for local and/or organic honey? For example, there are people who sell local honey at our farmer’s market. I agree the honey is still being produced for the benefit of the hive and not human consumption, but I am curious about the honey process procedures for small scale distributors.

    Gary says...

    January 18th, 2009, 5:52 pm

    Thank You for this article/editorial, as it contains some good information.
    Not eating honey at all is certainly a choice, however it is not necessarily the best choice for everyone. There are many “Homestead Beekeepers” (referred to as hobbists by commercial beekeepers), and nationwide in the USA, they care for the majority of domisticated bees.
    Homestead Beekeepers do not truck their hives and they interfere with the bees only to provide medicene to protect them from mites. Their bees work in Summer and rest in Winter, and these beekeepers struggle to keep up a grand tradition. If one bothers to search, their honey is seasonally available, and it is an act of kindness to the environment to purchase their products. Commercial beekeepers sell honey as a byproduct, and really don’t need the money from honey to sustain their operation, as they are very well paid by the large agriculture companies that pay for their services. Almonds, for instance, are 100% dependent on bees for polination, and California has 730,000 acres of almond farms. If ine wants to stop eating anything to reduce commercial bee use, stop eating almonds. Basically, Think before just acting.
    One third of the Human diet is derived from pollinated plants, and honeybees are responsible for 80% of that pollination. If one wants to take any action to help the plight of threatened honeybees, take a look at GM foods. Europe is not experiencing the severity of hive decline, which the US is, and the only difference is that they have severe restrictions on GM food cultivation.
    Thank You for reading.
    Gary
    Tampa

    A.B. says...

    February 24th, 2009, 1:11 am

    I agree that in the United States very much of how we rely on animals is a load of crap. But I’ve been to parts of the world where food, of any kind, is a blessing. Even though we have choices on what to buy in our grocery store, not everyone in the world have the same choices we do. You’d be surprised at the things that I’ve seen in this world. Areas with thousands of people with no clean water and nothing to eat. Go try telling them not to eat a chicken. The mass slaughter and captivity of animals is cruel for sure, and I agree with that. But to put a chicken side by side with a human being and saying that there is no difference in the value of their life is bull crap. That’s like saying you would rather shoot a person than a chicken, WOW, that’s nuts to me.

    Roxane says...

    July 10th, 2009, 11:16 am

    I live in a small town where, fortunately, food isn’t considered as money but as a trade. It is quite common to go help pick strawberries and get a home-made meal instead of money.
    I buy my honey in bulk (since it’s the only food that isn’t perishable) from a this family who only owns a few hives and treats them gently. They don’t even use smoke! I think it’s a nice alternative and a good thing to encourage locals, I wouldn’t buy the honey in a bear bottle. Pumpkin honey is very much worth it!

    Jessica says...

    November 25th, 2009, 3:17 am

    As a beekeeper I’m glad that you did include some factual information on bees. However, since most beekeepers like myself and other only have 1 to 10 hives (myself only having 1), it’s misleading to say that we all subject our bees to a variety of insecticides and diseases. In fact my hive was listed and being disease and pest free! I think you should try taking a better look at local beekeepers. Small beekeepers don’t usually cut the wings on the queen that’s a practice retained mostly by commercial beekeepers; and even some of them don’t clip their wings. Instead we do such things as adding another box on the hive to give the bees more room to spread out or we check surrounding areas to see if the bees need help in the way of food and water. If anything for small beekeepers it’s a labor of love. Yes, we do enjoy the occasional jar of honey, but we don’t pull honey from the hive if they bees won’t have enough for themselves. Also, the article mentioned CCD and how european hives don’t have such problems. CCD is caused when a single hive is expirencing multiple stresses at once- i.e. lack of food, mites (varroa and tracheal), wax moths, hive beetles, american foul brood, and chalk brood. With european bees they’re expirencing just as many problems and they now have a new unnamed disease- the difference is that unless you’re a beekeeper you won’t hear about their problems. Futhermore, it wasn’t mentioned that honey is a natural antibacterial, and two other items from the bee hive are also just as good for you (if not a little hard to find). The other two items are propolis (commonly called bee glue) is a natural antibiotic that is collected from the buds of trees by bees, and pollen which bees often collect is naturally high in protein (as well as other vitamin’s and minerals) is gathered from different flowers and can be taken as a dietary supplement in the morning or it can be taken at night if you want to stay up late. If any of you have any questions about bees and beekeeping I would suggest looking up the local beekeeping association near you and attending a meeting or a beekeeping class.

    Zozzie says...

    June 27th, 2010, 5:21 pm

    I agree with Jessica,
    We also keep bees, and would never clip the wings of the queen, she is free to fly out that door anytime she wants. Any of the commercial keepers we know do not clip the wings. There is no point-if the bees are happy, and well provided for in terms of food,water, and location, they will stay. I must focus on the last paragraph of the text- killing bees for honey? the aim of the game is to keep them alive- not kill them.
    All beekeepers are very concious of the use of pesticides, and would NEVER use chemicals around a hive.
    Relocation- needs to be done,otherwise when all the flowers of a particular season are gone to seed the bees will struggle to have enough food- it is HELPING them. you make it sound like beekeepers are out to kill bees, when in fact, we are the only people whose shoulders it falls on to keep the fruit and veg of the world pollinated, and these beautiful and fascinating little critters alive.

    Also, very clever ploy-typical peta tactic, listing the “decisions” a bee will make on her trip-making people feel like she is human,to relate to her on a personal level. Bees are hard wired to be as effecient as possible, and if that means changing a water source for a cleaner or closer one, so be it,it’s not the stuff of a romance novel, just effeciency.When the weather is bad, they don’t go out, because they cannot navigate without the rays of the sun, and also if the thorax falls below a certain temperature, they cannot fly, and so won’t risk getting caught out.

    We don’t EVER take honey the bees need- they need a certain amount to get through the winter, and without that, they won’t survive. It would defeat the porpuse to weaken them like that. Like I said, we’re HELPING them.
    I love my bees, and i will not feel one ounce of guilt when I give a jar of their honey to someone, or have a spoon of it myself.

    izzy says...

    July 16th, 2010, 8:03 pm

    Reading those comments above, it sounds like people don’t believe that bees can live without them! Animals are perfectly capable of surviving without us! Bees can build their own hives wherever they choose just like wasps do, and with nobody stealing their honey etc they will have plenty to feed the hive all year around. Bees with pollinate plants if left to their own devices! What do bee keepers think would happen if their bees were set free? They would do what’s natural to them & build a hive to start their new home! It’s only when people start “keeping” or farming creatures that they see their interference as important and even necessary for the animal! If it was publicised tomorrow that rats gave milk that was “beneficial” to humans then they’d be immediately farmed and exploited, telling people they were free from disease so the farmers were doing them a favour … and of course the milk would be suddenly a vital part of humans’ diets! If people didn’t want to eat honey etc then the bees would live free & healthy … and plants would still be pollinated!

    Samuel Jacobs says...

    September 12th, 2010, 8:34 am

    I see nothing wrong with holistic and respectful beekeeping and it’s certainly the least egregious of all animal farming. My God,PETA would have humans cut ALL ties with the natural world and just exist as islands unto ourselves. Where is the realistic middle ground?

    Harvey says...

    September 27th, 2010, 5:57 pm

    I agree with these comments to an extent. Absolutely without beekeepers, bees will be able to live by themselves… but why not interact with animals more than we already have? The joy of interaction with another breed, humans to insects, or humans to mammals. Its amazing to see that we all can work together, it just takes a little effort. Same goes to the national governments. Obviously, people would not LIE to say that they care about the animals at hand, however, it is also clear to state that their so called “HELP” wouldn’t necessarily be ENOUGH as we would prefer. I’m a home beekeeper, I am a natural enthusiast, and enjoy the above comments! more is welcome!

    Stef says...

    October 5th, 2010, 9:23 pm

    Hello,

    I work for a sustainable local bee keeping company, that sell honey and all bee roducts. They are super sweet people and love their bees. Maybe commercial beekeepers have to work with a massive amount of beehives and give less attention to each one, but just because one company has a certain way of doing things it doesn’t mean it is a general rule practiced by all.

    I was a vegan for a couple of years due to the horrible conditions of factory farming I exposed myself to, but l learned and am learning that there are OTHER ethical ways of doing things, from bees, wild fish, meat, eggs, milk, etc. I am glad I have become flexible and open minded in a positive proactive way. And I love bees, I love having them on me and viewing them up close, I love their intelligence, I love everything about them, and I know they don’t feel like they are in a “factory farm” what ever that is to them, lol.

    Eve A says...

    April 19th, 2012, 2:58 am

    I wish this article had more facts, not just on bee behavior and intelligence, but what are we doing to destroy them? It was said in vauge overgeneralizations but no specific examples. As a vegan, i don’t eat honey, but i doubt i’d eat it even if i was an omnivore. I’d rather eat one of the many other sweet plant syrups: rice syrup, maple syrup, agave. why steal from bees when you don’t have to? I believe it’s better when we don’t f’ck with animals because the vast majority of the time they get abused and exploited.

    Paul says...

    April 19th, 2012, 11:46 am

    Hi Eve,

    The article you’re commenting on is a few years old, but PETA has a great factsheet with a few more details online here.

    Mel says...

    October 9th, 2012, 9:54 am

    I would like to know if they feel pain. To me, that is the defining line. Although I don’t like it that some of them die when the hives are checked (often smoked). If a bee stings, it gives up its own life for the protection of the colony. I sure wouldn’t want to have my house smoked, and to have my resources stolen. So, on this issue, I am currently not a honey-consumer (plus agave nectar and maple syrup are so good, just wish we could get it in ‘whipped’ form), but I am on the fence on this issue.

    Miriam says...

    March 25th, 2013, 4:58 pm

    Isn’t the main issue that nowadays we need the honey bees to pollinate our foods? There simply aren’t enough wild pollinators left (due to pollution, destruction of their natural habitats etc.) to pollinate our food crops. Yes, the wild pollinators need to be supported by all of us (stop using instecticides, plant pollinator-friendly flowers and such, put up insect hotels), but it would take a long time to get the numbers back, so that they could sufficiently do the job. You will only get a fraction of the harvest when there aren’t enough bees, wild bees etc. A good movie to watch besides the already mentioned ‘More than Honey’ is ‘Silence of the Bees.’ As one of the researchers in it points out, without honey bees we would all be left eating corn and bread and foods that do not require bee pollination. All the nutritious foods like apples, pears would become unattainable, because the prices would go sky-high. It also shows the example of a Chinese province where the farmers are actually left to hand-pollinate (!) thousands of pear blossoms on their orchards, since honey bees and wild pollinators were poisoned by overuse of pesticides. Those poor farmers are in a very rough spot!
    Therefore, also I prefer vegan most of the time, I believe we should be grateful for every organic beekeeper that treats his or her bees with kindness and does not use insecticides, wing-clipping, and lets the bees swarm as a natural way of increasing his or her hives.
    In the documentaries they claim that honeybees need a beekeeper’s protection nowadays, because the industrialized world has become so rough for them and they can’t survive well on their own. I tend to believe it, and it seems to me that taking a fraction of their honey in exchange for providing them with protection is a fair deal. By protection I mean for example making sure they are in an undisturbed spot where there are no insecticides or pesticides sprayed, helping out when there is robbing going on by another hive, treating mites and other diseases naturally, and so on.
    I find practices like wing-clipping and killing off a new queen absolutely horrible, but there are always different ways of doing anything, and I think organic beekeepers deserve our thanks.

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