People sometimes get a little hostile when I mention that I’m a vegan. I think I understand why, however. I’ve certainly encountered vegans that were a little aggressive in their views and a little obnoxious in their condemnation of those who use animal products. I don’t believe I’m like that, but if someone has had that experience before, it’s not surprising that they react strongly. Most of the time, when I am asked my reasons for the choice, people “get” why I elect not to eat meat. They are frequently not so comfortable themselves with the idea of slaughter or they can see the health benefits of going meat-free. Veganism is a little harder for people to grasp, as no killing is involved. But, at this point, there has been enough media coverage about the conditions in corporate dairy and egg farms that the level of awareness is ok. Bee products are another matter entirely. Most people just do not really understand why vegans choose not to use beeswax and honey. (In fact, as I discussed in a prior post, some companies that advertise themselves as being free of animal products specifically exclude insect products on the basis that insects are not animals at all.) When someone asks me about this, it’s not at all uncommon for them to begin arguing with me about why my choice makes no sense. In this post, I note some of the reasons that I commonly hear about why bee products should be excluded from consideration in what can be considered problematic to animals and my responses to those claims.
Please note that these are my personal views. I do not set them forward as the capital-T Truth, but as my version of reality and my way of understanding what it means to be vegan. I provide this information as an explanation to non-vegans for this choice, and a reference for vegans in their own attempts to explain.
1. Insects aren’t animals. – I disagree (the question is “animal, mineral, or vegetable?” – if bees aren’t animals, are they vegetables or minerals? ; ) ). However, if you want to put insects in a different class than other animals, that’s ok with me. But, I don’t want to assign value to animal classifications. Maybe bees don’t have higher intelligence, but I don’t know that because I can’t speak bee. I know that they have a very complex social structure. I know that they utilize signals to communicate to one another about the location of pollen/nectar. I know that we’ve found out some startling things about the thought capacity of dogs, pigs, dolphins, and chimps (among others) that we would not have believed possible 100 years ago. I know that there is a huge range of variation in human ability to feel emotion or think in complex ways, but I’m not going to decide that some humans aren’t worth being good to because they are “dumber” than others. I just can’t draw a line. I wouldn’t know where. If bees are ok, how about grasshoppers? If grasshoppers are ok, how about birds? If birds are ok, how about cats? etc.
2. No bees are killed in the production of honey/beeswax. – Again, I don’t agree. Corporate beekeeping often involves relocating bees multiple times across a year. This is done in crates, on trucks. Bees die. To reduce costs and effort in the cold seasons, some keepers routinely kill off a significant percentage of the swarms for wintering. And, just the reality of opening and closing artificial hive doors and moving in and out of the bees living area is going to result in some bee death.
3. Only extra honey and beeswax are taken from the hives. – Like most non-human animals, bees are pretty efficient. They do not produce large quantities of excess honeycombs or honey. They make what they need (within reason). And, when we take honey from them, they can’t just produce enough to make up for it. Or, maybe they could if only small amounts were harvested from a colony, but that is not the reality with corporate beekeeping. Much of the bees’ “product” is removed for human consumption. Bees are regularly feed sugar water (or water with corn syrups) to replace the honey that was removed from the hive. As far as the wax goes, worker bees who build the hive only live a little over a month. 3/4 of that month is spent in production of honeycombs for the use of the colony. In my mind, this sounds like “I worked 60 years to build this house and just when it was finished the city took away my land.” I find it disturbing.
4. Without beekeepers the bees would have a worse life. – Ok, maybe; I guess I don’t know. But, based on ideas of evolution and survival of the fittest, things like how the bees regulate their colony size (dividing when production reaches a certain point), the shape of their hives, and how they swarm, etc. seem to be what is ultimately best for them. When humans come in, all of these processes are restructured to accommodate the needs of the keepers. The bees are also smoked and sprinkled with antibiotics (this just doesn’t sound better to me). And, it’s awfully paternalistic of us to think that we know better how bees should live than they do. It actually sounds pretty similar to arguments that have been made about some pretty atrocious treatment of human groups, in fact (and no, I’m not saying the situations are equal – it’s just a like rationale).
5. I know a beekeeper and he/she loves his/her bees and treats them very well. – I am sure that is the case for many individual beekeepers. And I know some people who have cows and chickens and treat them with wonderful kindness. However, the fact remains that much beekeeping is done in mass corporate environments. And, when I go to the store, or the farmers market, and buy a jar of honey, I have no real idea of how those bees were treated. I don’t know if they were corporate bees or kept by a kindly little old beekeeper from Maine. And, since I don’t know, I am not going to make my decisions on that basis (see point 1).
6. You kill thousands of bugs a year without even knowing it. – Absolutely. This is certainly the case. For me, veganism means that I will try to avoid harming other creatures for my own happiness. If my house was suddenly infested with bees, would I pay an exterminator to get them out, even if it meant some death? Yes, I would. Because that, to me, seems like a necessary evil. But, I don’t “need” honey. There are plenty of other sweeteners that are just fine. And I know that I’ll kill some bugs driving to work (can’t help it… need a job and didn’t mean to) or even walking from place to place. But, I won’t do it intentionally and I will avoid it when I can.
Now, all of that having been said, I’m ok if someone else eats honey. Heck, I’m ok if someone else eats bees. Obviously, it would be swell if other people believed what I believe, but don’t we all think that to some degree? In reality, everyone makes choices about this issue. Some people elect to eat cow, but not pig. Some people chose to eat pig, but not dog. Some consume fish, but not mammals. Others won’t eat flesh, but will use by-products. Everyone has to draw the line where they need to and where it is comfortable for them. And, like many vegans, I’ve drawn that line on the other side of honey.