Can you be a Vegan Beekeeper? ~ Will Curley

Via on Jan 4, 2012

Beekeeping and the Ethical Vegan.

“Can a vegan keep bees?”

 

I haven’t eaten meat since 2007.

In 2009, I stopped eating eggs and cheese.

I don’t wear leather or wool.

I read at least 100 words of small print on ingredient lists every day.

I make annoyingly complex orders whenever I eat out.

However, depending on whom you ask:

I may or may not be vegan. 

 

This is because I work with tens of thousands of animals, and I thoroughly enjoy their products.

In fact, I think they produce the coolest substance currently on the planet: honey.

I keep bees in upstate New York, and will have more hives in New York City this year, yet I don’t feel as though I am in violation of my own moral code. I was discussing veganism and beekeeping recently, and a friend asked me, “As a beekeeper, how can you call yourself a vegan?” I had to think about it. Surely there are plenty of hard-liners who would say that playing with bees disqualifies me from the vegan club.

The distinction I draw is this: I did not start keeping bees because I plan on getting rich off honey sales or wax dividends. I started keeping bees because they fascinate me. Even more important from an ecological standpoint, the commercial use of bees as pollinators is causing bees to die off by the billions. Providing a home for bees where they will not be mistreated, shipped across country on the backs of giant trucks or given genetically modified crops to eat doesn’t sound exploitative to me.

It sounds like the right thing to do.

My primary goal is to help my two hives to flourish. I haven’t harvested anything from my bees so far. This might change in the future. If it did, I wouldn’t be taking anything that the bees would miss. Bees naturally produce more honey, wax and propolis than they need each year.

{Everything you wanted to know about beekeeping but were afraid to ask!}

An amateur apiarist collects honey from his or her hives differently than a commercial beekeeper does. To understand this significant difference, you must understand the structure of the hive.

Starting at the bottom, you have one or two “deep boxes” which are roughly 12 inches in height. Above the deep boxes, you have a queen excluder – a metal grate that allows smaller bees through, but keeps the queen in the deep box. Above the queen excluder you have smaller versions of the deep box called “honey supers.” These are between 5 and 8 inches in height. The honey supers are where the beekeeper can harvest honey safely. The queen is unable to reach these boxes, so they remain free of eggs and larvae.

When honey is harvested in a commercial setting, there is usually one deep box, and as many honey supers stacked on top as gravity will allow. This causes the already busy bees to work overtime.When the hive is that big, bees assume they need enough honey to fill it in order to survive the winter. The worker bees literally work themselves to death to fill these supers. The commercial beekeeper then swoops in and takes all the supers, and replaces their food with sugar water to feed them over the winter. That doesn’t seem fair to me. It is not a healthy diet for the bees, either.

In my hives, there are 2 deep boxes with one small super on top. This means the bees can store as much as 160 pounds of honey per hive all for themselves, while I take between 10 and thirty pounds as rent. This leaves both me and my bees with more honey than we know what to do with.

Another issue raised in the “vegan beekeeper” controversy was smoking. During hive inspections (necessary to ensure healthy hives) smoke is blown into the hive and at the bees to keep them distracted while the beekeeper looks around inside their home. Surely, my friend said, this constitutes cruelty on a massive level.

There are two reasons why beekeepers smoke the hive:

The first is that when bees smell smoke, they begin to wonder if a forest fire is approaching. To play it safe, they stop doing their normal job of protecting the hive and begin filling a special gland they have called a honey stomach with all the honey they can. They do this so that if their home burns down, they can begin searching for a new home on a full stomach.

The second reason that we smoke our hives is to calm the bees.  One of the main ways bees communicate is through pheromones. If, in opening the hive, we spook a single bee, she might release her panic pheromone. This would cause all the bees to panic, and many of them would die in the chaos. Blowing cool burlap smoke over them overwhelms their sense of smell without overheating them. As the smoke dissipates, so too does their worry, and before long they go on doing whatever they were doing before the inspection.  I don’t think of smoking my bees as any different than a dog owner bribing their companion with a treat. Both humans get their desired result and both pets get to pig out.

I believe beekeeping is not only a fascinating way to explore the natural world, but also an important step in protecting and maintaining a healthy environment.  This holds whether you live out in the country or in a big city.  In fact, city honey tends to be purer and less full of fertilizers and pesticides than honey produced out in “greener” areas.

As with all things, there are shades of grey in the morality of producing and eating honey. Not all honey is cruelly produced, nor is all honey ethically produced. The important thing is that some beekeepers consistently put their bees and the health of the environment first. If you are interested in helping bees to survive, and if you want to ensure that more honey is ethically produced, then support support your local apiary. Or better yet, start your own!

~

Will Curley was born and raised in New York City.  After spending 4 wonderful years in Boulder attending Naropa University, he has returned home to New York. He was trained in the art of beekeeping by Andrew Cote, founder of Bees Without Borders.  When Will is not busy with work or the bees, he can usually be found making vegan soap, or missing the mountain sun.

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43 Responses to “Can you be a Vegan Beekeeper? ~ Will Curley”

  1. Love this Will & hope you'll write more for elephant about your bees!

  2. Jill Barth Jill Barth says:

    I posted this to the Elephant Green Facebook page. Thanks for sharing!

    Jill Barth, Green Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Green on Facebook

  3. Lorin Arnold Lorin says:

    If I was going to keep bees, I think I would want to learn from you!
    Thanks, Will.

    Posted to Elephant Food Facebook and Twitter.

    Lorin Arnold
    Blogger at The VeganAsana
    Associate Editor for Elephant Food
    Co-Editor for Elephant Family

  4. deleted3199113 says:

    Very cool post. I avoid honey because I do not think it is vegan. But I would consider adding honey back into my diet if I could find a local source who raises bees as you do and collected the honey ethically.

  5. Jamie Ginsberg drunkandfull says:

    Thanks, very educational and engaging. I love honey and appreciate the medicinal qualities of it. Can your ethical treatment of Bees scale to support more people enjoying honey ethically? Meaning is it a question of what amount of profit is ethical vs. whether harvesting is abusive? Jamie

    • Will says:

      I think the best way for more people to enjoy honey would be to have more beekeepers. In scaling up production, i think it goes without saying that the more hives you have, the less individual attention / care each hive gets. I'm sure there are people who have dozens of hives who try their best to do good by their bees, but i think I'll be happy with just a few hives to play with.

  6. Katya Nova says:

    so interesting… thank you so much for sharing!!!

  7. cujosie says:

    Thank you for being so Awesome!! Keep (…) up the good work :D

  8. Quibble@dibble.net says:

    It’s called an eco-system, it’s all integrated like, you know? That’s how it works.

    It just so happens that life on this planet evolved in such a way that the structures swallowed each-other to survive.

    Veganism, as an ethical method, can be noble, in it’s way, but it must be understood as being contrary to the fundamentals of how the eco-system functions.

    So, apiary away.

    Also, screw veganism, fruitarianism seems much more enlightened to me.

    • Aardvark says:

      I can sympathise with veganism for predators being contrary to eco systems. But for humans? All other primates are vegan (or fruitarian) and we are not any more designed for hunting than they are. I can see how husbandry has become an integral and important part of our present day eco system but that is not the same as saying that veganism is in any way unnatural, surely? I'd say it is far more unnatural for us to eat meat. We have to cook it for starters.

      Fruitarianism was espoused by She, one of the most enlightened fictive people ever. So how can it not be good ; )

      • Ina says:

        Well, they aren't. Our closest cousin, chimpanzee, eats meat and insects, and hunts in packs. We're omnivorous -not eating meat is more a concious ethical choice than anything else. Patching it up with "back to the nature" slogans is harmful, I think.

        • laurieanne says:

          Thank you. I have always thought of eating as an individual choice and I am tired of vegans vegetarians and pescaterians making me feel bad for my occasional cheeseburger.

          • Live, Love, Laugh says:

            Maybe you should take a visit to a slotterhouse where animals are chained and dragged upside down before being brutally murdered, and this is only after a pathetic existance of a life in a crowded barn, where their pumped full of hormones (not to mention the natural stress hormones released during this whole process)… that you are then consuming… maybe then you will re-think the next time you decide to chow down on that cheeseburger.

  9. Yasica greenbless says:

    Thank you for your beautifully written and eloquent article. It's nice to hear some words from a vegan who actually walks the path of connection to our environment and doesn't just get on a soapbox of righteousness about their food choices without fully understanding the process of growing food, or the interconnectedness of our natural world.

  10. Yasica greenbless says:

    Posted on EJ Health & Wellness Facebook

    Jessica Stone Baker
    Co-Editor, Elephant Health & Wellness
    The Mindful Body

  11. [...] a Plant Based Diet. There are some obvious tripping points like Honey – unless you have met the Vegan Bee Keeper (even then the hardcore vegans will call you out). Another danger spot is Wine, what could be [...]

  12. [...] winter.  Which reminds me, Hi, Neil,I thought you might enjoy this article on bee keeping:http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/01/beekeeping-and-the-ethical-vegan–will-curley/Best,Helana …and I really did. (For the record, I think it’s absolutely right for [...]

  13. Jess Wallin says:

    I love this! I find it so refreshing when people can reeimagine their lifestyle to meet their personal ethics, labels be damned. I'm a vegan too, and I think what you do is beautiful. Bees are so important. I'm glad you can offer them a good home!

  14. Caroline says:

    Hi will – fully endorse your lifestyle and the use of moveable frames but not the queen excluder. Let them find their ‘size’ naturally , they will only expand to the brood size that will cope with the amount of forage they can gather. I agree they are captivating insects – time stands still when I’m with my bees – I feel connected to nature when I watch them.

  15. Greg Eckard says:

    great article about putting black and white labels on a greyscale situation.

  16. You sir… you are AWESOME! indeed the world of bees are fascinating. Thanks for sharing this article. Keep it up! :)

  17. [...] I believe beekeeping is not only a fascinating way to explore the natural … He was trained in the art of beekeeping by Andrew Cote founder of Bees Without …www.elephantjournal.com/…/beekeeping-and-the-ethical-vega… [...]

  18. Robert Hill says:

    Small time have brain disorder need siut and smokert . I would relly thank you.828-699-0041 61 memorial day lane hendersonville NC

  19. [...] Will Curley houdt zelf bijen, en hij ziet dat niet als in strijd met zijn principes. Zijn post is ook leuk om [...]

  20. Live, Love, Laugh says:

    As a Vegan a main principle is for the love of animals and your article truely speaks to how we can work together with these amazing creatures with compassion so we are able to receive the wonderful health benefits of honey products.

  21. Luiz says:

    Thanks for teaching me about apiary Mr. Curley. I don't see how this is fair.
    Correct me if I'm wrong: You are using smoke so that you can take their excess honey away. If they willingly shared their honey would be a different story. Keep in mind I'm not here to judge. I have faults just like many.

  22. tony walsh says:

    Hi Will, Thank-you for a succinct and informative post. I'm a vegan and would like to keep bees. I now feel comfortable about building a hive with a single small super and having some of their honey. Best Regards, Tony

  23. Mat says:

    I love this. I’m also a vegan who raises chickens and am hopefully going to start beekeeping this coming spring. Any chance you could email me directly? I haves couple questions for you. Thanks!

  24. Mercedes De Windt says:

    Nice article but I still wonder how many bee keepers are as ethical as you are? It is way out of balance a few ethical bee keepers like you cannot provide all the honey needed for the not so ethical consumers. Allthough so much honey was not even produced by bees but by man i still pitty the poor bees. As much as I like your article I would still not recommend others to consume honey because there are too many bee keepers in it for the money and we don't need or miss the honey.

  25. Noexception2freedom says:

    **** hmm but bees don't want to have a keeper***** (rest on that for a bit…)
    oh ok you realize that since you don't get stung that much they must be ok with it…. oh then you just realized that the bees you have are domesticated … enslaved for generations until they evolved out of their natural defenses… well if thats the case then why not keep some other domesticated animals as long as they are fascinating right see its ok :-D!! yay cows are fascinating! you know the indian people see this too oh and its ok to drink the milk because they provide extra that they don't need….. well might as well keep chickens too and eat the eggs all of them won't hatch so its completely ok,…. oh since thats the case lets eat them when they get old so its not a waste, screw burying them, the earth wouldn't mind right? the other life forms that could use the excess honey and eggs like worms or ants who benefit the soil don't matter all that matters is me and my own personal enjoyment yay!!!! ;-D !! ……WRONG . No matter how positive your attitude and reasons are and are justified if you're "owning bees" you are not helping animal liberation, you will always be made an example of the problems of the vegan society. Your article is making it seem like owning bees is ok and you are hurting your own vegan community. well you're not vegan just almost. Like a guy who says he doesn't smoke cigarettes except on holidays, close but no cigar. badumpCH ……. cmon bro become a full fledged vegan,,, that beekeeping you're doing (and all the animal loving 'farmers' that agree with you) it's too late for that. its 2014 if we don't end slavery and our justification for it onto our fellow earthlings then we will fall victim as slaves to our own selves. we need to end this before it gets out of hand. get your head out of the 1800's and start thinking about the 2000 teens. and i really mean that in the most sincere way , i had to be sarcastic to show you how flawed this thinking is. good day sir.

  26. Rowan says:

    Hmm… so no, I don't consider you a vegan.

    I feel like there are just so many ways people want to force themselves to use animal products. Bees produce honey to help feed their children and promote their hives. That's why it's produced. It has never been produced for others to take. All animals produce things for a reason. It's a simple ecological observation, that energy that goes into something must go into helping the fitness (reproduction of the species) or it's negative time spent aka it doesn't help the species or the colony. The bees aren't dumb. Bees are highly intelligent animals who's dances can express the angle of the sun to the degree, the distance of the flowers to the kilometer, and more. I think keeping bees is fine, promoting bees is great. But why steal something they produce for themselves? Imagine if you built your own house and created a garden plot. You have your vegetables and every day someone comes in and steals however an equal of a percentage of the crop you steal of your harvest. Maybe it isn't tragic. Maybe you can't have as many millions of children as you would have and your home isn't as large. The outsider thinks you're doing just fine because there are still so many. But in reality, had those crops been there, even more bees would have existed, this is just common sense. How would that be fair? Honey is used to help feed bee children and every drop of honey you take, decreases the hives carrying capacity. Please think of it that way.

    This is not vegan. It is not vegan to take things that you do not need from animals. Honey is just not your right and it is not a necessity by any means. There is no justification for this. By all means, keep the hive, help keep a home for bees that won't be destroyed, but don't steal from them.

  27. __MikeG__ says:

    Wow, what a really hateful and narrow minded way to start a comment.

  28. d_t says:

    what a delightfully passive aggressive exchange! Lol

  29. Jess says:

    My horse has canine teeth — so clearly he should eat meat? Your logic is faulty, my friend.

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