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Honey, Bees, and Pollination

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This is the approved revision of this page, as well as being the most recent.

Context

This article addresses several aspects of honey as it relates to veganism and animal rights, including whether honey is vegan and how we might handle the topic in conversations.

Is Honey Vegan?

The question of whether honey is vegan is frequently brought up by those new to or considering veganism. According to the most widely accepted definition of veganism, and the definition embraced by JFA, honey is implicitly proscribed.

The definition is "Veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose."[1]

Considering the information presented below, it would be hard to deny that bees are exploited and harmed when the honey they have made for themselves is taken from their hives for human consumption, or when they are used for pollination. In addition, honey provides no essential nutrients that can't easily be found elsewhere.

Advocacy

Less clear and more nuanced than the question of whether honey is vegan, is how we should respond to inquiries about honey. Discussions about honey should be done with a sensitivity to these facts:

  1. Insects rank low, if they register at all, on society's hierarchy of concern for animals.
  2. Commercial bees may have been used to pollinate some of the fruits and vegetables that we eat.

In light of this awareness, one way to respond is as follows:

  • State that vegans avoid honey because it involves harming bees, then briefly describe how bees are harmed (see below).
  • Explain that commercial bees are not necessary for pollination, and may actually be harmful to sustainability (see below).
  • Invite your interlocuter to research both sides of the issue then decide for themselves.
  • Point out that if they still feel after researching the topic that it's OK to eat honey, it would be illogical to use that as a justification for eating other animal products, or as a justification to dismiss other aspects of veganism as invalid.
  • If called for, explain that avoiding honey is not inconsistent or hypocritical just because we may be eating plant-based foods that have been pollinated with commercial bees. We avoid animal products as far as "possible and practicable." Just because we can't be perfect does not mean we should not do what can easily be done—avoiding honey.

Fact Sheet

Harm to Bees

  • Farmed bees die in the production of honey and as a result of being used for pollination. One national survey conducted in the United States showed that "the nation’s beekeepers lost 40% of their commercial honey bee colonies" to parasites, pests, and diseases in one 12 month period.[2] On the other hand, wild bees are doing well.[3]
  • An article in Scientific American suggests that commercial bees live a hard life and are prone to disease because they are treated with chemicals, exposed to pesticides, endure harsh transportation, and suffer nutritional deficiencies as a result of being shipped to mono-crop areas.[4]
  • Queen bees are often killed and replaced after living half of their natural lifespan to "prevent swarming, aggression, mite infestation, and to keep honey production at a maximum."[5]
  • Queens are artificially inseminated in a process that kills the male.[6]
  • Much of the bees' honey is replaced by sugar water which lacks the nutritional richness of their natural diet.[7]

Sustainability of Beekeeping

  • Jonas Geldmann from Cambridge University states that "honeybee hives aren't natural, and they don't help the environment. In fact, they may harm it." He adds that "the way we're managing honeybees, in these hives, has nothing to do with nature conservation[8]
  • Commercial honeybees, which have high rates of parasitic disease, are killing[9]wild honeybees.
  • Rachael Winfree, an associate professor of entomology at Rutgers University, concludes that 90% of the farms in the area she studied would be OK without commercial honeybees, "because wild bees serve as a backup plan from the ecosystem.”[10]
  • The use of the single-species imported honeybee is competing for pollen with and crowding out the over 4,000 species of wild bees just in the United States.[11] This creates an ever-increasing dependence on commercial bees which are more susceptible to disease than wild bees, making the sustainability of commercial bees questionable.

Bee Sentience and Cognition

  • The wiggle dance of bees involves highly complex cognitive tasks[12], and is so sophisticated it requires vector calculus to model.[13] In addition, bees adjust their flight pattern in real time to accommodate the change in the sun's angle of one degree every four minutes.[13]
  • Bees also have cognitive abilities not associated with their wiggle dance. Bees can be taught how to perform tasks and can improve on the tasks they have learned by making generalizations. As one researcher put it, "The old-fashioned view is if an animal has a small brain, it’s not intelligent or smart…our study shows it’s not true that small brains are not capable of this kind of cognitive flexibility.”[14]
  • Studies show that bees feel pain.[15][16] The one study that did not conclude bees feel pain depended on injured bees choosing bitter-tasting morphine over sugar water, as if the bees had pharmacological knowledge that even a human would not have without a label.[17]

General Information

  • Honey is not vegan according to the most popular definition[18] of veganism, because it involves exploitation and harm to animals, and honey can easily be avoided.
  • In the United States, there are about 30 billion managed bees in 2.7 million colonies, with more than half of the colonies shipped to the Central Valley to pollinate almond trees, which have only a five-day pollination window.[3]
  • Bees are hard workers. "A bee visits 50 to 100 flowers per trip to take nectar and pollen to the hive. In her lifetime, about six to eight weeks, a worker bee will produce 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey. Thousands of bees in a hive fly more than 55,000 miles and visit about 2 million flowers to make one pound of honey—about the amount one American will consume in a year."[19]

See Also

Plain Text

Footnotes

  1. “Definition of Veganism.” The Vegan Society. Accessed March 31, 2019. https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism.
  2. “US Beekeepers Lose Four of Every 10 Managed Colonies in 2017-18.” Auburn University. Accessed March 31, 2019. http://ocm.auburn.edu//.htm.
  3. 3.0 3.1 “It Turns Out Bees Are, Quite Literally, Worrying Themselves to Death.” Intelligencer, June 17, 2015. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/06/bees-are-literally-worrying-themselves-to-death.html.
  4. Sunshine, Wendy Lyons. “Is Life Too Hard for Honeybees?” Scientific American. Accessed March 31, 2019. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-life-too-hard-for-honeybees/.
  5. “Why Honey Is Not Vegan.” Accessed March 31, 2019. http://www.vegetus.org/honey/honey.htm.
  6. “Artificial Insemination of Queen Honeybees.” Accessed March 31, 2019. http://www.vegetus.org/honey/art.htm.
  7. “Honey Bee Nutrition and Supplemental Feeding | Beesource Beekeeping.” Accessed March 31, 2019. https://beesource.com/resources/usda/honey-bee-nutrition-and-supplemental-feeding/
  8. “Honeybees Help Farmers, But They Don’t Help The Environment.” NPR.org. Accessed March 31, 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/01/27/581007165/honeybees-help-farmers-but-they-dont-help-the-environment.
  9. Clark, Laura. “Commercial Hives Might Be Saving Crops, But They’re Killing Wild Bees.” Smithsonian. Accessed March 31, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/commercial-hives-might-be-saving-crops-theyre-killing-wild-bees-180953934/.
  10. Sunshine, Wendy Lyons. “Is Life Too Hard for Honeybees?” Scientific American. Accessed March 31, 2019. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-life-too-hard-for-honeybees/.
  11. Keim, Brandon. “Forget the Ordinary Honeybee; Look at the Beautiful Bees They’re Crowding Out.” Nautilus, April 24, 2015. http://nautil.us/blog/forget-the-ordinary-honeybee-look-at-the-beautiful-bees-theyre-crowding-out.
  12. Landgraf, Tim, Raúl Rojas, Hai Nguyen, Fabian Kriegel, and Katja Stettin. “Analysis of the Waggle Dance Motion of Honeybees for the Design of a Biomimetic Honeybee Robot.” PLoS ONE 6, no. 8 (August 3, 2011). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0021354.
  13. 13.0 13.1 “The Science of Bees: How They Communicate & Influence Biotechnology.” North 40 Life, July 3, 2016. https://north40.com/life/the-science-of-bees-how-they-communicate-influence-biotechnology.
  14. Loukola, Olli J., Clint J. Perry, Louie Coscos, and Lars Chittka. “Bumblebees Show Cognitive Flexibility by Improving on an Observed Complex Behavior.” Science 355, no. 6327 (February 24, 2017): 833–36. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aag2360.
  15. Balderrama, N. et al. (biologists) (1987). Behavioral and Pharmacological Analysis of the Stinging Response in Africanized and Italian Bees. Neurobiology and Behavior of Honeybees. R. Menzel & A. Mercer (eds.). New York: Springer-Verlag.
  16. Núñez, J. A., Almeida L., Balderrama N. and Giurfa M. (1997). Alarm Pheromone Induces Stress Analgesia via an Opioid System in the Honeybee. Physiology & Behaviour 63 (1), 75-80
  17. Groening, Julia, Dustin Venini, and Mandyam V. Srinivasan. “In Search of Evidence for the Experience of Pain in Honeybees: A Self-Administration Study.” Scientific Reports 7 (April 4, 2017): 45825. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep45825..
  18. “Definition of Veganism.” The Vegan Society. Accessed March 31, 2019. https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism.
  19. View, Joann Marmolejo/The Forward. “Thank You, Hard-Working Honeybees.” Lompoc Record. Accessed March 31, 2019. https://lompocrecord.com/news/opinion/editorial/commentary/forward-view/thank-you-hard-working-honeybees/article_278fef46-f256-11e1-8ced-001a4bcf887a.html.

Meta

The page was originally authored by Greg.Fuller but may have been edited since.