A Beekeeper's View on Honey - VeggieBoards

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#1 Old 07-10-2017, 12:46 PM
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A Beekeeper's View on Honey

Last night while reading up on agave I came across an older forum on this site about why vegans should eat honey and not agave. I can't link to because I'm a new member and this is my first post, sorry. It cited tumblr as the source and I laughed.

It prompted me to register here because there is a lot that people simply don't know about bees, that I did not know until early this year when I took my beekeeping course.

The tldr of this is,
I am a beekeeper and I do not buy honey, even local. If you want to support bees themselves, plant some native (NATIVE) plants and provide shelter for solitary bee species.

Here is the long answer, and please note that environment-wise, I am obviously typing from the USA, but I feel that the moral issues apply across the world, nonetheless.

Honeybees are not native to the United States. The only be species that produces honey is the European honeybee, which was introduced to the US. While honeybees are not detrimental to our environment here, ie, not invasive, I really find that "saving" them is a moot point in terms of honeybees as a species in the United States. The bees you should try to help are native bee species (bumblebees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, and yes, wasps are in this category, which, by the way, ALL of the female, non-honeybee species can sting as much as they want without dying) because these pollinators are made to, and prefer to, pollinate local plant species. The most important thing you can do for bees is plant some native plants and have a haven in your yard for some bees, either in the form of a solitary bee house or leaving a small unmulched area for burrowing bee species like bumblebees to live. And since local bees cannot be exploited for honey and do not have good PR in the form of a product you can buy and feel good about helping the bees (hint: You aren't) then nobody cares about local bees. I have no illusions that I can make you care, either. But you should, because they are the most important and most threatened, simply because of humans having lawns and non-native landscaping and the mechanization of farming.

Okay, so that is the main thing that people seem to not understand about honeybees in the US. But, I am going to now talk about the honeybee because I am a bee person and I think it is interesting to spread these bee tidbits. In bee class, they told us that CCD, while it exists, is less of a problem than everyone thinks, according to the numbers. They argue that bees are simply losing habitat and that it is not purely CCD. I am still wary of this but that is what they told us. I do agree that a big, if not the main problem is the mechanization of farming itself. Back when farmers used horses to pull plows, they needed to have clover for the horses to eat, fields for grazing and such, which allowed bees to coexist with them. Since the removal of horses, no need for fields, more room for one crop. Monocultures do not allow bees to live in an area where there are plants because they can only pollinate an area for the bloom time of that particular species, all at once. For example, people that grow almonds, the bees will have nectar for only as long as the almonds bloom, then they would starve the rest of the year when the flowers are not blooming. So, essentially, even though it may look like there are lots of trees or lots of crops, it is a dead zone in terms of benefiting the ecosystem. Agriculture is not interested in permaculture or practices that create an ecosystem where nectar is available for bees year-round (or, at least, non-winter months). This is why farmers, even smaller-scale (big enough to be at a farmer's market) hire pollinators.

Pollinators raise lots of bees, pack up their bee boxes, and drive them to the farm so their bees will pollinate the crops for the farmer. This is another problem in itself where the bees die because of pesticides etc and they told us in class there's a Netflix documentary about this but I don't know what it's called, sorry (I think it is about a pollinator who stopped doing it because he kept losing too many bees because the farmers are dumb and use chemicals even though they said they didn't). Anyway, so even our vegan food is killing bees. Don't even give me the "the bees wouldn't exist unless we needed them to pollinate" because the bees are doing nothing for the environment itself; like I said, they are being shipped from place to place, from monoculture to monoculture, in their boxes, creating honey as a byproduct (hey, you know that honey branded as being from a specific plant? That's where this comes from) so, essentially it is bee slavery, and the bees get nothing from this. I can guarantee you that these bees are not having a good time being driven in a truck somewhere, sealed up for hours, put in an unknown area to pollinate, sealed up again, onto the next area.

Okay, I'm going to back on topic and go into my main issue with purchasing honey, even local honey.

I have a single hive in a top-bar hive. A top-bar allows bees to build their own comb and most top bar beekeepers are interested in treatment-free beekeeping. I am one of these people.

I guarantee you that every honey you purchase was created in a Langstroth hive. These are the "bee box" style hives. They allow for (greater exploitation) greater honey production by excluding the queen from laying her eggs in a natural pattern (so the honey can be taken out easily/I understand, before it is ready?) and it prevents bees from building their own honeycomb by using wax or plastic foundation. There are foundationless Langstroth hives, which I suspect are less awful but I still have problems with in terms of management that I won't go into because it's a bee nerd argument you see on the internet and I'm not interested.

Langstroth hives, the hives you get your honey from (because, in order for them to be selling, they have to have a large operation and it's going to be Lang) are nearly impossible to have without treating. In class and in my beekeeper handbook they gave us, it recommends prophylactic treatment with antibiotics for Varroa mites, which are only a problem because the bees are not allowed to make their own wax cells and the tiny millimeter difference increase in cell size allows the mites to develop more easily. This leaves them no choice but to treat, or lose their bees. They will get Varroa, this is not an if, but a when situation.

Oh, and here's a fun vegan fact. Wax moths are in every single bee hive (according to my teachers, but I think they are. I saw one after just a few months of beekeeping). They have a cloaking ability so bees can't know they are there, then they lay eggs in the cells. They stay dormant for long periods of time. So, when you purchase cut-comb honey (honey with the wax comb in it), feeling good that it was from a foundationless hive (or, like, a single foundationless bar in a big evil plastic hive), know that it was placed in the freezer to kill the wax moth larvae, otherwise, they'd hatch out of there into your honey and drown in it. So, you get to eat moth larvae. Lol #notvegan

Also, ironically, the bees in the bee yard we learned in for class, many of them were being treated and I would see pests inside the hives (hive beetles and varroa) and obvious signs of bee disease (hairless bees with bee paralysis). At the time, they were all being treated with Apistan strips (all these treatments, by the way, build up in the foundation combs and, yeah... The honey and everything else... You can google the article for "Acaricide residues in honey, beeswax and propolis").

This brings me to another point about bee exploitation. Again, standard practice among hobby beekeepers and commercial beekeepers alike is to order a package of bees with a certain type of queen. "Re-queening" is standard practice and it was recommended to me to do this yearly, so the queen is young and more productive. They recommended I do this but I'm just going to lie to the inspector (it is regulated and required by law here that you purchase a queen instead of simply adopting/removing a wild hive, like I did). Re-queening is when you order a new queen and kill the old one. Yeah, it's one bee out of 40,000, and when you're talking numbers like that, you can see how it seems to matter very little. And, maybe it doesn't, but the problem is this: weak bee genetics. Ordering bees raised in other parts of the country, or world, and shipping them, needing to treat them because they are not suited for being in this place, should be enough red flags for anyone with any inkling that these are living animals and not a tool to be exploited... Oh yeah, sound familiar?

Some commercial bee operations will destroy hives every year and leave no honey for the bees to maximize honey yields. They didn't recommend this in class because they knew we were not psychotic and I don't think this happens among hobby beekeepers. But this does happen in commercial settings. Again, it's about exploitation. But so is small-scale beekeeping. Again, a standard thing to do to check for Varroa infestation is to pop open a drone brood comb and see if something is on it. Drones do not make honey and are taken care of by the other bees and for this reason, many beekeepers will cut out drone brood comb and dispose of it, which not only kills the bees but also ruins the opportunity for the queen to spread any of her genetics to other, local bee colonies (which is important especially if you live in an Africanized bee area like me). There's also a fun test called an "Ether roll" that they recommended in my book where you scrape bees off of a frame (and, it says, make sure not to get the queen), dump them in a glass jar with ether, then see how many dead mites fall off the dead bees. I thought this was a joke, it's so stupid, but then I saw a photo of them demonstrating this at the last beekeeper's meeting (for small-scale, home beekeepers. What a fun hobby! Go get the ether!)

In class, they told us, "you are going to squish some bees, get over it." In order to close a Langstroth, one has to pick up a box and sit it back on top of the lower half of the bee box, where a good 50 or so bees have now come out to see what's going on. They are all crushed in this process. Oh, we were told we can reduce the body count by putting the box on diagonally and sliding it. Does this bother any of you? If a hobby beekeeper is "going to squish some bees," think how many the commercial ones are! And, sure enough, the extra teachers they brought in, who were commercial beekeeps, kept telling us students to move faster and not worry about killing them. This is farming, people. And, oh yeah, it is literally farming, because now that I have a hive registered in the state of Florida, I am officially a farmer. Gross.

So, who do I buy honey from? My dad's friend is a beekeeper. He uses Langstoth hives. I am suspicious of him now that I know he likely treats his bees but I know he does not kill his bees (intentionally) and has only a couple of hives and is not interested in selling on a large scale. I find it safe to say that if the person you are buying from has more than five beehives, that should be a red flag. Hive inspections become rushed and bees die. For most people, they can manage to exploit bees with a single hive, too. It is all about how much guilt you can deal with, and, as a vegan, for me that is not much.

My ultimate goal is to get some honey from my bee hive. But, if they cannot spare any, I will not be taking any. I buy agave, with a little guilt, but knowing it is not killing (as many?) bees and not using as much water or shipped from as far as cane sugar is. I'm sure it's doing crappy environment things like ruining the habitats for bats, and I don't like that. These are all things we have to deal with as a consequence of our overpopulated world and try to make the right choices. For me, from what I know, this option comes with the least amount of guilt.

I used to think local honey was okay because it just sounded so nice and everyone said it was a good thing. But, now the more I know about beekeeping, the less I trust any of these people. Do I kill bees? Well, not intentionally. When using a top-bar hive, you can get away with zero crushing of bees in your inspections, which I am delighted about. Have I squished bees? Yeah. I feel bad about it. We were told to think of the bee hive as a superorganism, a supercreature with the worker bees as cells and the queen as sort of a brain. I like this, it is interesting, but, yeah, still doesn't take away the guilt of a bee getting squished under the follower board when I scoot it over. But, so far, I do think that my bees are doing well, being from a hive removal down the street from me and not shipped from Georgia or something, and allowed to build their nest naturally instead of on a rectangular plastic foundation.

Also, you know what? It takes 12 bees their entire lives to make a teaspoon of honey. Worker bees live about 40 days or so. If that doesn't give you a crisis, I don't know why you're here.

I know this was a huge, crazy-person post, sorry. I just thought to share my experience and what I have learned as a new beekeeper and how it relates to my being vegan. I will not be checking back in on this forum because I am terrified of confrontation, lol.
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#2 Old 07-19-2017, 12:33 PM
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I agree with you wholeheartedly about the value of native plants for bees. Every vegan who has a house with even a small garden outside it should plant native plants. They're low- or no-maintenance, so that you don't need to have a green thumb to plant and grow them. And the animals who share your yard with you, meaning birds, bees, butterflies, and other insects, not to mention squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs and chipmunks, will be grateful for your native plants, not just as food but also as shelter.

There are excellent resources online to figure out which plants are native to one's region, what kind of soil, water, and sunlight conditions they do well in, and how much maintenance they require. If you don't have a local source of native plants, the Prairie Nursery is a good online source. I have clay soil, and "swamp milkweed" (Asclepias incarnata) and "narrow-leaf mountain mint" (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) do really well in it here in New Jersey. I'm not even a gardener; I hate gardening. But once my native plants are in the ground and have been watered a few times, they become self-sustaining, and I derive great satisfaction from seeing them almost invariably covered with a halo of bees, butterflies, and other insects.

As for honey, my personal opinion is that talking about honey to someone who is not yet vegan is a surefire way to turn them off of veganism. When someone who is still eating cows, pigs, and chickens hears that honey is not vegan, they conclude that veganism is a crazy fringe movement. I've been thinking a lot recently about why none of my friends and acquaintances have gone vegan, and I think that to most people out there, the idea of going vegan seems impossibly difficult. They're disturbed by the idea of animal abuse, but they can't see themselves going vegan, so they either become defensive and hostile, or they go into denial. I'm starting to think that with someone who is still eating animals, the best thing to do is to encourage them to make a small step, like replace pork with a Gardein product, or to eat vegan every time they go out to a restaurant. Once they make that first step and realize how good it feels to reduce animal suffering, they will be much more likely to make further steps. It's only when someone has already successfully cut out all other animal products from their diet that it makes sense to start talking about cutting out honey as well.

Finally, I really think that the vegan movement's obsession with labels hurts animals in the grand scheme. Here we are, as a group of people who have succeeded in reducing our contribution to animal abuse to negligible levels in a world that routinely abuses animals, and instead of working to reduce animal suffering by reducing animal consumption among the general population, we waste our time arguing about whether or not someone who eats honey is vegan. We should always remember that veganism is not about vegans; it's about animals. If we were to let go of our obsession with labels, we would be talking not about honey but about native plants and backyard birdbaths. Honey is a small percentage of the honeybee industry, which makes most of its money by renting honeybees for the pollination of vegetable and fruit plants. Planting native plants, on the other hand, is the most effective way to actively help bees. And yet, you never see a discussion of native plants among vegans. All you see is endless arguing over whether or not honey is vegan, and how this or that person should not call himself or herself vegan because he or she ate some honey.

Bottom line: if you're vegan and you care about bees, feel free to avoid honey, but more importantly, go out and plant some native plants.

Last edited by poivron; 07-19-2017 at 12:45 PM.
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#3 Old 07-21-2017, 01:11 PM
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Interesting read, thanks!
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