Why Honey Is Not Vegan

Why Honey Is Not Vegan
Bees and Honey

Honey is made by bees for bees, and their health can be sacrificed when it is harvested by humans. Importantly, harvesting honey does not correlate with The Vegan Society's definition of veganism, which seeks to exclude not just cruelty, but exploitation.

By Definition

The easiest reason to explain why honey isn't vegan is by definition. Although the vegan diet was defined in 1944, it was in 1949 when Leslie J Cross pointed out that veganism lacked a definition, the original definition changed and adapted over the course of a few years until we now have the current definition which is as follows:

"A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals."

We don't, however, need to go back to 1944 to define honey as not vegan. Any definition of veganism would talk about not exploiting animals, and honeybees (Apis mellifera) are, without a doubt, animals. Honeybees are in the phylum Arthropoda - the same as lobsters and crabs. So in addition to crustaceans, if honeybees don't merit respect, that would also leave earthworms vulnerable to dissection in biology classes. Similarly, iscallops, snails, and oysters would be fair game - they are not as "high up" on the evolutionary scale as bees. James and Carol Gould (respectively, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton and a full-time science writer) point out that "Honey bees are at the top of their part of the evolutionary tree, whereas humans are the most highly evolves species on our branch. To look at honeybees, then, is to see one of the two most elegant solutions to the challenges of life on our planet. More interesting, perhaps, than the many differences are the countless eerie parallels--convergent evolutionary answers to similar problems"

So... Are Bees Intelligent?

Bees may have tiny brains, but they are surprisingly intelligent. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have conducted an experiment showing that bees can learn from their environment to gain a reward, and then teach other bees to do the same. But that’s not all they can do.

“I think the most important result in our case was that bumblebees can not just copy others but they can improve upon what they are learning,” said Olli Loukola, the first author on the study published in Science. “This is of course amazing for small-brained insects - even for us, it’s difficult to improve on something when we are copying others.”

In the experiment, the bees had to move a yellow ball into the center of a platform after the scientists demonstrated to the bees how to do it. Some bugs saw the ball move as though on its own, with researchers secretly moving it from below with a magnet. For other bees, the scientists moved the ball with a plastic bee on a stick. When the ball reached the center, the scientists added sugar water to reward the subjects.

Once the bees learned that the rewards arrived when the ball was situated in the right place, the bugs began to move the balls by themselves in subsequent trials.

The team then placed the trained bees on a platform with naïve bees. After observing the trained bees once, the untrained ones started to carry out the task, too. And not only did they copy the behavior, but the new recruits also improved on the action: They chose balls closer to themselves, even if the demonstrator bee picked a ball that was farther away.

“These are, high, high, highly intelligent creatures. They use their neurons in their brain as efficiently as any other animal on the globe,” said conservation biologist Reese Halter, who wasn’t involved in the study. “There’s little under a million neurons in a bee brain, which is approximately the number of neurons in one human retina.”

Halter explained that bees communicate through head-butting, jostling each other and dancing.

Behavioral ecologist Lars Chittka, who runs the lab where the research took place, authored a study in 2009 on the brain networks of bees, called “Are Bigger Brains Better?” The paper concluded that even small brains can be highly complex. Researchers in Chittka’s lab have also shown that bees are smart enough to pull artificial flowers out of narrow slots by strings in order to access the sugar in them.

Loukola explains that, in the past, the scientific community has sometimes assumed that the smaller the brain, the less intelligent the species. But, he said, “This study is the nail in the coffin that that idea is old-fashioned.”

Other research supports the notion of advanced bee intelligence. A 2014 study in the journal Animal Cognition found that bees could learn increasingly difficult tasks to access sugar. For example, the bees can learn to slide or lift caps, then subsequently push balls of escalating weight to access the reward. When the researchers put the bees who knew how to solve the puzzle in a hive with naïve bees, they somehow went on to communicate the solution to their unlearned kinfolk.

Do Bees Feel Pain?

Most complex animals feel pain, but what about insects? Does the buzzing fly feel the crunch of a swatter? Does the pesky mosquito recoil in agony when stung by a bug zapper? Do experiments on fruit fly gladiators constitute torture?

Seeing as how research on insect pain is scant, those questions still remain unanswered. But it really doesn't matter anyway, does it? Vegans typically don't judge species based on their intelligence. A bee's nervous system If it were ok to eat someone because he's dumb, a lot of humans would be in trouble. It must be because bees can't feel pain. But why wouldn't bees feel pain? They are animals with a large nervous system (Snodgrass, 254) capable of transmitting pain signals. And unlike in the case of plants, pain as we know it would be a useful evolutionary feature since bees are capable of moving to avoid it. Which, as far as I'm concerned, is all that matters. Pain must be unpleasant or else it wouldn't work. If common sense isn't good enough, we can always resort to scientific studies that indicate that bees feel pain.

The assessment of pain in animals is a moral obligation in deciding on strategies for animal welfare, for domestic animals and those that are hunted in the wild, as well as animals used for experimentation in the laboratory. However, current legislation places no limits on the treatment of invertebrates, based on the assumption that they do not experience pain – without any evidence in favour of this notion. This means, for example, that lobsters can be cooked alive in restaurants, or that tethered insects can be subject to invasive neurobiological treatments in the laboratory without anaesthesia or analgesia or indeed without the need to apply for a permit to ensure that the research is conducted with due consideration of numbers of animals that are used, severity of treatment or the possible benefits to science or humanity. It is thus imperative that a study is conducted that provides conclusive evidence whether insects are indeed incapable of the kind of suffering that would necessitate amendment of the laws governing animal welfare to include insects and other invertebrates.

Despite urban legends such as that “one can hold a lighter to a bee’s abdomen without her noticing, while she is busy sucking nectar on a flower” it is already clear that insects have basic nociception – i.e. the sensation of, and direct responses to, harmful or potentially harmful stimuli. Anyone witnessing a grasshopper being impaled on a fishing hook will testify that it resists the treatment with all the vigour that one might expect of a mammal subjected to a similar treatment. It is therefore convenient but delusionary to claim that invertebrates are incapable of nociception. The effects of pain outlast nociception and are more difficult to diagnose, since pain is in its very nature subjective, but a variety of criteria are now largely agreed upon in the vertebrate literature about how one might diagnose pain in ways that are informative for animal welfare and the application of analgesia for invasive treatments (see e.g. Sneddon et al 2014 Anim Behav 97: 2001-2012)

The Enslavement of Bees

The simple fact is that the bees are enslaved. What? Bees slaves? Yes, bees are slaves. Or it's dominionism, exploitation of nature, human superiority, whatever you like to call it. It's the idea that humans are justified in using all other life forms instrumentally, for their own benefit. As Alice Walker said, "The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men."

When manipulating the bees, most beekeepers use a smoker to maintain control and to prevent being stung. The smoke gets the bees to gorge themselves on honey, which calms them down. The smoke probably also masks the alarm pheromone that the guard bees release and prevents the entire colony from becoming agitated.

It is important to realize who is keeping these bees. You may have an image in your mind of a friendly hobby farmer with a few hives out in their back garden. The truth however is in fact that most honey comes from full time factory bee farmers, producing on a massive scale.

During auumn and winter a guard is often placed over the entrance to the hive. Usually, the bees drag their dead out of the hive, but the guard often prevents this from happening. Beekeepers are warned, "it is helpful to remove any pile up of dead bees behind the guard once or twice during the winter"

Stealing Honey

So what do al of these enslaved bees do with their time? In the words of the National Honey Board, "Honey is 'manufactured' in one of the world's most efficient factories, the beehive. Bees may travel as far as 55,000 miles and visit more than two million flowers to gather enough nectar to make just a pound of honey".

Bees gather pollen in sacs and nectar from the flowers. Honey is stored in the hive as winter food for the bees. Yes, sometimes they make more than they can eat, but do the beekeepers only take the extra? No, commercial beekeepers frequently extract [steal] all autumn honey and then feed colonies either sugar syrup or corn syrup in quantities great enough to provide all the winter food the bees would need. (Everyone steals most of the spring-season honey.) Theft of all of the autumn honey is merely the most blatant form of exploitation. Bees are also often fed in autumn in preparation for winter and in the spring and early summer to ensure the hive gets off to a good start. That is, to make the bees start working earlier than they would normally. The sugar that is fed in autumn is turned into honey by the bees, so even if a beekeeper tells you their bees survive on honey over the winter, much of that honey may have simply come from Ziplock bags full of sugar water. A typical hive in the UK uses at least 8 kg of sugar per year. In the US, a typical figure can be 25 lbs. So if by chance a vegan doesn't eat bone char processed cane sugar, but does eat honey, they're not doing a lot of good in terms of reducing the demand for sugar. Some people claim the sugar water is better for the bees than honey, and if this is the case, I don't want to hear any claims about the health benefits of honey or pollen. Sugar water may be better if the bees had particularly poor nectar sources in autumn, but this would not normally be a problem if their spring honey hadn't been stolen. Honey is more than sugars; it contains very small (by human standards) amounts of fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals that bees' bodies might like to use over the winter.

Beekeepers will naturally deny that they are slave owners who steal the products of the bees' labor. They will tell you that they are working with the bees to help them reach their full potential, which just happens to be measured in honey output. In addition to being horribly paternalistic, the beekeeper's perspective makes little sense. Under natural conditions, if the hive were producing a surplus, they would divide into two colonies and there would be none wasted.

Product from the Hives

So how exactly is honey made? The bees swallow nectar into their crop, regurgitate it, add enzymes (spit), chew, swallow and repeat many times. Beekeepers get very defensive about this aspect of honey. One told me "Honey is not a regurgitant. Regurgitation is a digestive process." Ok, well, whatever you call it they still swallow it and spit it back up. And they do partially digest it, so I don't see how it's not a "digestive process." He went on to tell me "If you have a problem with nature's processes perhaps you should stay out of nature," which makes me wonder why he has a problem with me pointing out nature's processes to others. The bottom line is that beekeepers get mad that I mention how honey is made, because it's something they'd rather you not think about.

Of course, honey is not the only product of bee exploitation. The following are other bee products to watch out for:

  • Bee venom is obtained when the bee stings someone or something. The bee dies if she stings someone.
  • Bee pollen is pollen collected by bees in sacs on their legs. It also contains some nectar and bee saliva. It is popular because humans cannot collect such a wide variety of pollen.
  • Royal jelly is the nutritious food (for bees) fed only to the queen. It literally makes workers into queens.
  • Beeswax is secreted by bees to build their hives.
  • Propolis is plant resin collected by bees and mixed with enzymes. It is used around the hive as glue and as an antiseptic.
  • Bee brood are bees that are not fully developed. Not even vegetarian.

Further Information

  • How bees make honey by Claude Needham Ph.D. Did you know each droplet of nectar is swallowed and regurgitated fifty times?
  • The waggle dance explained (The narrator can't get the bees' pronous right--using "it" then "his." She is the appropriate pronoun.)