7.5 Editor's Pick

Can you be a Vegan Beekeeper? ~ Will Curley

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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editorial dept elephant journal Dec 27, 2018 11:08am

Great comments from my wall:

Sierra: Every vegan I know has a different opinion on this. Food for thought: if it is local wild honey, they’d be making it anyway, it wouldn’t be cultivated. It would be more like foraging than farming.

Waylon: and local beekeepers can 1) help bees survive and thrive and 2) don’t kill them the way commercial bee operations do.

Mike: Some say yes, some say naw. I read an article on how Vegans can eat oysters because of reasons. I’m ambivalent about honey, but I couldn’t get behind the oyster argument.

Mike: There is a vegan “honey” that’s made from apples. I have no idea what it tastes like though. Perhaps if you left an offering for the bees after purchasing the honey. Maybe plant wild flower seeds. Then it’s more of an exchange than a theft (My super power is finding loopholes).

Jesse: The definition of vegan is to abstain from all animal products. You can call yourself V if you want but if you eat/use honey you’re not. It doesn’t matter how sustainable it is. You can be a vegan bee keeper for sure but if you use their honey or wax that V status is not legit. ?

Waylon Lewis: Jesse I think it goes deeper than that. You can avoid animal products, but eat soy or palm oil or other monocrops that destroy animal habitat and directly kill animals.

Being vegan is about cherishing life. Some local beekeepers do that, and supporting bees is vital to both bees and much of life, generally.

Jesse: Waylon I feel ya but it’s not necessary to use animal products at all in order to cherish life. Using bee products does not have to be a part of supporting bees. That’s a choice. You don’t need honey or bees wax. It’s a choice to use it. It’s not vital to our existence…but it is to theirs. It’s literally their whole life. It’s their food and storage system. It’s not ours. I cherish bees absolutely. Without them we would be eating gruel for every meal. They pollinate pretty much everything…but they’re not the only pollinators. Flys, butterflys, beetles, hummingbirds, moths etc…play huge roles in pollination as well and I worship all those creatures just as much as bees. I also avoid soy and palm oil and monocrops as much as possible which can be trickier in certain situations. Avoiding using bee products is way easier for the most part. If it’s about supporting these ethical vegan bee keepers I get that but you can surely donate to them without consuming bee products.
And If you’re including the avoidance of harming or killing animals or any other life forms in any part of your vegan lifestyle then obviously being 100% V is impossible. We all drive cars and have smart phones and eat fruits and vegetables from farms where the harvesting of said foods hurts little critters unintentionally.
All I’m saying ultimately is that if the question is…can you be vegan and consume bee products? I believe the answer is no.
If you are intentionally using or consuming a product from a living creature…that intention is in direct opposition of the core philosophy of veganism.

Waylon Lewis Jesse Manderson you and I both care and differ slightly on this. That said I really appreciate your thoughtfulness–thank you sir.

Angela: Bees are critical for the environment and growing all the vegetables vegans eat. Why would you want to get rid of bees? Also, I think you should ask yourself if as a vegan it’s okay to live in a house and not wonder homeless on the streets due to all the living things killed so your house can be built and continue to exist. Vegans may not be contributing to domestic abuse of certain species, but they are a far cry from not killing things every single day living as a modern human.

You use cell phones, right? Vegans can be hypocritical in their lack of attention to modern life and what they will and will not allow themselves to do to uphold their self righteous badge. I do think we all need to move away from animal products, for sure, it’s the self righteous hypocrisy that gets me. It’s okay to use a MacBook Pro which harms so many but not eat honey? It’s okay to eat almonds but not see the destruction of that industry? Your almonds would not exist without the commercial bee industry. Vegans cherry pick science to fulfill their sense of right. If you don’t want to kill bees, give up almonds, too. You cannot call yourself vegan and eat almonds.

Waylon Lewis I think hypocrisy is a bad word for a good thing, sometimes: “don’t make perfect the enemy of the good.” Try.

Rosella Jan 8, 2016 7:18pm

If we want to feed our massive human population, we need efficient cropping, which in many cases is industrialised monoculture (I am aware that there are also many cases in which ecosystem-based complex permaculture is preferable for certain crops) but I am talking feeding billions of people here on a reasonably diverse plant-based diet… Even if everyone went vegan, so that crops weren't being wasted raising animals which inefficiently convert it into meat for humans to eat, we would still need a LOT of industrialised agriculture. We need bees to pollinate this, and I commend people who raise bees as ethically as possible in a time when bees are in crisis due to their use in large-scale agriculture and the pesticides used on crops. Vegans eating any crops not grown through au naturale permaculture or wild foraging (totally not possible for the world's population size, even if all vegan) are indirectly benefiting from the exploitation of bees. At least some people are keeping bees alive and as healthy as possible (bees have large colony die-offs in natural settings too, while controlled but not over-exploitative beekeeping actually minimises this).

rebekah Nov 12, 2015 11:41am

I want to say this kindly so as not to spark anger (which leads to plugged ears). Using animals isn’t our right. We don’t have the right to keep a queen bee contained. We don’t have the right to meddle in any group of animals’ lives or destinies. There is no universe in which keeping bees this way is vegan. Less cruel? Possibly. This article does nothing to help break the unnatural cycle of human thinking that telling us that animals are ours to do with as we please. And THAT KIND OF THINKING is what has the world treating animals as if they were simply an inanimate package of food product. I’d love for you to re-read this article all these years later and re-write it saying that keeping bees is not vegan or scrapping the vegan part and writing an article about the cruelties of industrial honey and focusing on the lessened cruelty of keeping your own. As a side note, I loved honey and it was the last non-vegan food I gave up. It’s highly valuable as medicine, and I would love to stumble upon an abandoned hive full of honey just waiting to be taken home by a forager!

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