Can you be a Vegan Beekeeper? ~ Will Curley

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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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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.

anonymous 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).

anonymous 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!

anonymous Nov 2, 2015 9:50pm

Some of you go too far, I cannot believe that you think people will ever live that way. I don't want to hurt animals and I work in a place where I treat their illnesses, but to draw such strict lines is something that only humans understand. Its more about you than what is natural. It does not feel right, it is too artificial.

anonymous May 15, 2015 8:33am

I could be wrong, but it sounds to me like Will would need to occasional smoke the hive to ensure the bees' health. If you had a dog in pain, wouldn't it be ethical to sedate him to find out what was wrong and help him get better? I don't know yet where I stand on the act of removing the honey from the hive, but if he isn't simply smoking them whenever he needs honey and rather only when the hive is due for a "check-up", then at least that part of it seems ethical to me.

anonymous Sep 12, 2014 11:09am

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.

anonymous Aug 24, 2014 4:43am

**** 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.

anonymous May 28, 2014 8:12pm

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.

anonymous Dec 23, 2013 6:47pm

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!

anonymous Sep 30, 2013 5:21am

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

anonymous Feb 13, 2013 2:44pm

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.

anonymous Jan 23, 2013 11:56am

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.

anonymous Jul 13, 2012 5:40am

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

anonymous Jun 30, 2012 6:43pm

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

anonymous Apr 14, 2012 5:37am

[…] 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 ……/beekeeping-and-the-ethical-vega… […]

anonymous Mar 20, 2012 5:20am

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

    anonymous Jun 8, 2012 10:30am

    Ha. thanks. I'll tell the bees you send your regards.

anonymous Mar 19, 2012 12:49pm

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

anonymous Feb 17, 2012 10:28pm

[…] […]

anonymous Feb 17, 2012 7:59pm

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.

anonymous Feb 16, 2012 4:01pm

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!

anonymous Jan 30, 2012 4:11am

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

anonymous Jan 20, 2012 8:45am

[…] […]

anonymous Jan 19, 2012 1:45pm

[…] 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 […]

Yasica Jan 16, 2012 12:49pm

Posted on EJ Health & Wellness Facebook

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

Yasica Jan 13, 2012 10:54pm

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.

anonymous Jan 11, 2012 12:28am

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.

    anonymous Jan 11, 2012 5:38pm

    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 ; )

      anonymous Jan 12, 2012 4:07am

      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.

        anonymous Jan 13, 2012 5:31am

        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.

          anonymous Jan 23, 2013 11:55am

          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.

anonymous Jan 9, 2012 7:18pm

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

    anonymous Jan 27, 2012 6:38pm

    Ha! thanks. I'll do my best.

    – Will

anonymous Jan 7, 2012 8:35pm

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

anonymous Jan 6, 2012 10:55pm

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

    anonymous Jan 7, 2012 9:40am

    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.

anonymous Jan 5, 2012 5:34pm

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.

    anonymous Jan 7, 2012 9:41am

    Check your local farmers market. Or, if you have a back yard, or some free roof space….

      anonymous Feb 6, 2014 9:53pm

      How is honey not vegan, but all of the vegetables that are only available because of pollination by bees are vegan?

anonymous Jan 5, 2012 2:37pm

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

    anonymous Jan 6, 2012 10:49am

    Aw shucks. I'm flattered, Lorin.

    – Will

anonymous Jan 5, 2012 9:06am

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

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

Kate Bartolotta Jan 5, 2012 8:41am

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

    anonymous Jan 6, 2012 10:50am

    I'd love to. Let me know if you ever want a full explanation of why bees are the coolest animals in the world.

    – Will

      Kate Bartolotta Jan 6, 2012 11:01am

      Oh I do & you aren't that far from me! Any chance of beekeeping 101 in the future?

anonymous Jan 14, 2012 4:45pm

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

anonymous Jan 16, 2012 2:17am

what a delightfully passive aggressive exchange! Lol

anonymous Jan 17, 2012 10:06pm

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

Joshua Milks Apr 17, 2018 5:55pm

Honey is a miracle and has been used by humans for many thousands of years. Apple syrup and sugar does not have nearly the nutritional or antibacterial value of honey. Honey is great for so many different things. A few of which are listed in this article. FYI, most cane sugar is processed with bones. You may want to check the specific sugar you use to make sure it's processed with charcoal instead of bones.

Joshua Milks Apr 17, 2018 5:50pm

The queen bee doesn't leave the hive. You're actually protecting the Queen Bee.

Carolyn Foot Mar 21, 2018 7:29pm

Elephant Journal, you have absolutely piqued my interest and I would like to learn more about keeping my own hive in the future. Could you tell me how you got your materials or point me to a good resource on the basic dos and donts on how to start beekeeping responsibly?

Carolyn Foot Mar 21, 2018 7:27pm

I'd eat fly vomit if it was as delicious and nutritional as honey, what are you smoking lol

Angela McManus Jan 5, 2018 4:20pm

even if you enjoy your friends leftovers and arent being cruel to them, eating bee vomit does not sound delicious to me when i can make a sweet honey like syrup from apples and sugar. i wouldnt eat fly vomit, either for example. ew

Jan Ooms Jul 11, 2017 6:55pm

I am semi-vegan. Those that exist on plant foods alone should be aware that in the production of their food plants, chemicals are being used and the victims are animals including bees. To grow the vegans' food large areas of land need to be cleared for monoculture crops intensively cultivated, and animals and their habitats are the victims in supplying food for vegans and vegetarians. Bee keepers might be providing a home that might not otherwise exist for the bees and given the rates of animal extinctions bees might not exist except in captivity. A system of standards could be devised among national beekeeping associations with regards to organic methods, ethics, sustainability. etc. Unfortunately, 'commercial' bees are needed to pollinate the fruits and nuts that vegans eat.

Veerle Daelman Nov 25, 2016 2:47pm

One thing that is holding me back about honey, is that you always have to meddle a bit with the queen bee. You keep her in a seperate room, others clip the queen bee's wings. Because if queen bees would be free to do whatever they want, they'll probably fly away with their bees to keep their hive safe from the hands that take away (part of) their honey, and from the hands that keep their queen trapped. We can't know for sure how they feel of course, so I find it tricky. A big thumbs up for your work tough, taking the excess honey isn't harming them as much as none-bio honeybee farmers do :)

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