Why don’t vegans eat honey?

This question seems to arise most often in the context of being offered a dessert. A well-intentioned friend will find a cookie or a piece of cake at a grocery store, excitedly bring it over and announce, “I found a treat for you! It’s egg and dairy free!” As a vegan is wont to do, I’ll then flip it over, scan the ingredients, and solemnly return it. “This has honey in it.”

“So?”

“So, most vegans don’t eat honey,” I respond, watching as the cogs turn and anticipating the inevitable.

“Oh… Why not?”

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I find it funny that people already know that I choose not to eat animal products but assume that same logic does not prevent me from consuming insect secretions (who, as a matter of fact, fall within the kingdom Animalia).  Bees, like traditionally farmed animals, are creatures with large nervous systems. They are capable of transmitting pain signals, which means they’re a no-go for me.

Alice Walker, the Pulizter Prize winning author of The Color Purple, once said, “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.” The common cultural notion of dominion over animals, including honeybees, allows us to submit them to unspeakable cruelty in the name of something as shallow as “it tastes good” or “it’s so easy.” I don’t believe that endless forms most beautiful spent millions of years evolving so that, only after a lifetime of misery, they could end up on my plate.

People think of beekeeping as a largely passive effort. The typical image is usually as follows: a person owns a few hives and keeps them in his backyard. He raises the bees as a hobby and takes the extra honey that they produce for himself. No harm done. It sounds strikingly similar to the myth of the idyllic small farm. Indeed, most honey comes from factory farms, just like the majority of chicken comes from factory farms, the majority of pork comes from factory farms, and the majority of beef comes from factory farms. How the bees are treated should come as no surprise.

Just like factory farmed animals, honeybees are the victims of “unnatural living conditions, genetic manipulation, and stressful transportation.” The melding of these factors creates the perfect environment for the proliferation of parasites, some of whom are thought to be at least semi-responsible for colony collapse disorder (CCD).

From Nature World News on the fact that honeybee numbers have dropped over 40% between April 2014 and April 2015: “While the exact cause is unknown, scientists have speculated that pesticides, pathogens, mites, and certain beekeeping practices have all contributed to this decline.”

In January of this year, New England received first reports of a new threat infecting their hives: bees infected with Apocephalus borealis, a parasitic fly that lays its eggs inside of bees, were officially confirmed in beekeeping operations. The homogenization of bee populations, combined with the fact that they are routinely shipped across the country to aid in pollination, makes the spread of this parasite a logical conclusion. Scientists worry that the flies could hatch from dead bees and complete their life cycle inside the hive: “It would be another nail in the coffin for honeybees in the northern hemisphere.”

JB and I have had our own experiences with a possible Apocephalus borealis infestation. On four separate occasions, honeybees have gotten into our bedroom at night when we’ve left the light on. These bees, as if they were intoxicated, launched themselves relentlessly at our light over and over again.  We captured the first three and let them back outside, only to find them dead on our porch the next morning. Since we keep our porch light on at night, we assume they continued their odd behavior until it eventually killed them. Abandoning the hive for a nighttime romp is one of the symptoms of CCD, so citizen scientist groups are actively tracking the spread of Apocephalus borealis. JB did some research and concluded that the way our bees were behaving matched the description of “zombee” behavior. As instructed by ZomBee Watch, we caught the fourth disoriented bee and sealed it within a tupper-ware. Letting it die was incredibly difficult, but whether or not it ends up being infected with Apocephalus borealis, the bee was clearly sick. Now there is nothing to do except wait to see if anything emerges. So far, I’m happy to report that there are no fly larvae or pupae in sight, but we are supposed to keep an eye on it for over a month to see if an adult fly emerges. My fingers are crossed that nothing comes out. This really is the stuff of science fiction.

Confronting the possibility of infected bees in my own home really hit the point home for me: if simply abstaining from eating honey can help give millions of little creatures a healthier, happier life, then why would I continue to use honey?

After all, without our bees, we won’t have these.

Hope you all had a lovely weekend.

xoxo,
sb