On Honey

Who knew: Honey is a food vegans will not eat.

Honey is an animal product? It is “made” by bees, but, is it digested by bees, a product of animal enzymes, etc, as milk is by cows, or eggs by birds?

From honey.com: “Honey starts as flower nectar collected by bees, which gets broken down into simple sugars stored inside the honeycomb. The design of the honeycomb and constant fanning of the bees’ wings causes evaporation, creating sweet liquid honey.” When bees gather nectar, they store it in a separate compartment of their body than their digestive system (ie, not in their stomach). Bees have a bag within their bodies within which they store the nectar they gather. It is not digested, it is not broken down or altered by enzymes or any other “animal, digestive, process” as it were. Honey is purely, and simply, the nectar of flowers processed by bees.

Vegan diets contain all kinds of other plant foods that are processed from a raw state to something else, think of something as simple as “milk” made from soy beans, oats, almonds. That humans might process these raw materials is beside the point. So, why isn’t honey considered suitable for a vegan diet? “Bees are exploited. That’s why. Their honey stolen and replaced with cheap, inferior corn syrup.”

This certainly brings up a serious issue which we will return to many times, of the use of animals by humans. But, the contradictions with regard to honey and bees is the following. What do bees do?

Bees collect the nectar of flowers as food, and as they do, they pollinate plants; the pollen catches on their bodies, as they flit from flower to flower the pollen is transferred and can fertilise the plants they touch. Cross-pollination helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive. Without bees to spread pollen many plants — including food crops humans eat — would die off. (source, and below, nrdc.org)

Every third bite of food you take, thank a bee or other pollinator.
adapted from E.O. Wilson, Forgotten Pollinators, 1996

More than $15 billion a year in U.S. crops are pollinated by bees, including apples, berries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, alfalfa, and almonds.

And, let us not forget all of the flowers, those from Valentine’s Day to condolences; their very existence, shape, perfume, colours, are built to attract bees in order to pollinate, and in return, the flowers feed them.

Without the work of bees, these crops do not exist. These foods are the direct product of the work of animals, the very bees that might be exploited for their honey go on to ensure these crops exist through their work as pollinators. These bees are farmed, they are bred in numbers to satisfy the needs of the farmers, they are transported around from field to field to do their work of pollination and producing honey. Without bees, you do not have these foods, our exploitation of bees (and other pollinators) have allowed us to grow and develop the range, variety and quantity of all of these foods that we produce for human consumption.

Should a vegan eat any of these “plant” foods then? Should a vegan only eat plant foods that do not require the service of any animal to propagate their existence?

And what about the word “exploitation”? Honey has been used by human beings for millennia; there is no evidence that bees suffer from a carefully managed (let us say sustainable) extraction of honey. Recently we have been faced with a truly alarming decline in bee numbers: the “colony collapse disorder”. At the time of writing this is still not understood and is most likely a complex condition of accumulating chemicals (insecticides), small pests – mites, perhaps even over-work or exploitation as they are taken around to pollinate food crops. There is no conclusion or even suggestion that the extraction of honey from the hives causes this; bees would have died out centuries ago if that were the case.

And what of “inferior corn syrup”? Of course, in the USA, with the mid-west’s ever powerful and obscenely over-producing corn business, you have to find a use for that product, and why not feed bees with it? It would appear to be damaging to their health, one of the many compromises and adjustments men have made to “natural lives” for the sake and scale of commercial production.

This is not a reason, per sé, for not eating honey, rather it is a reason to ensure that the honey you do eat is ethically sourced, just as the bees that pollinate your food crops are treated ethically. Is this any different from the choice that confronts you every day when buying fruit and vegetables; organic or otherwise? This is not a question of to eat or not to eat, but rather one of the conditions under which the food was prepared. Tomatoes can be organic, or mass-farmed in hot-houses, sprayed with chemicals, both to fertilise and to protect, held under “ideal growing conditions”, chemically and industrially enhanced. My choice, as a consumer is to decide what conditions I hold acceptable for my tomatoes; in short, do I consume “organic” tomatoes, or tortured ones? It is quite possible to buy properly farmed honey, where not only are the bees not fed corn-syrup, but neither is the honey diluted with it.

Why start this conversation with honey? It encapsulates so much about our relationship with the natural world, with our misconceptions about what the natural world is, of our relationship with that world. This is an increasingly fraught and difficult subject as each generation, increasingly urbanised, moves further and further away from any direct experience or interaction “with nature”. As of 2014 more than 50% of humanity lived in an urban setting (source: UN), for the first time ever in human history and this a trend that will only continue in the coming years.

Honey is a product like so much of what we produce and consume, that is corrupted by the assumption that human beings have a right, with little (what can I get away with!) reservation or concern, to assert their needs over, to alter and coerce, to dominate, the natural world. And so, instead of finding what is a sustainable use, we feed bees corn-syrup to further their productivity, to cheapen their products. We blend honey, cheating, with alternatives to increase profit margins; China is a very worrying constant source of this kind of product corruption.

Pollination is not an off-shoot, a by-product of bees, it is the primary role they perform for us, far more than their production of honey. It asks us questions about what is animal and what is plant, questions that arise due to our own conceptualisation, our compartmentalisation, of the natural world, a world that in reality exists due to profound inter-dependence; a world that makes no distinction between those organisms we divide into these kingdoms.

Bee keepers make money off honey sales, they do not make enough off crop pollination to survive, and so depend on honey sales to survive. This is a cost offset, if they were paid properly for pollination services by food producers, the food they service would dramatically increase in price. If they do not get enough from honey sales, they lessen the numbers of bees in production, which puts crops in danger (as Robert Costa outlines as Australian bee-keepers have responded to adulterated honey coming in to the Australian market.

It is the same kind of economics that Vegans often quote about the use and costs of food production for meat, the scale is not that different, particularly if we continue to increase our food production, and therefore our need and dependencies on bee-farming. As no less a personage than Albert Einstein put it: “Man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man”.

It is one example amongst many of the contradictions that lies beneath the apparently simple assertion of Vegan ideology. To deny the eating of honey, as it is an “animal product” (robbing bees of their food) while we require the bees to be farmed, to be managed, to be bred, to pollinate our food plants, our flowers. Through denial, Vegans generally seek to absolved themselves of responsibility. “I don’t eat honey and you do, your are ethically responsible, morally reprehensible and repugnant, for the wilful mis-treatment and abuse of bees” is how we might characterise their position here: shallow, intentionally ignorant and simplistic as it fails to truly grasp the nature of the world we live in.

As with anything with which our lives deal, it begs us to ask questions about our role within this world, and the nature of that world, a world we label as ours, its owners. It is a world that is far more complex, and entwined than any of our ideologies have or are able to acknowledge. It is from this basis that we begin an exploration of what we might call a natural ethics.

Return to: Veganism, An Unnatural Ideology

An incomplete list of plants dependent on the pollinating activity of bees (source: wikipedia). It excludes flowers:

  • Apples
  • Mangos
  • Rambutan
  • Kiwi Fruit
  • Plums
  • Peaches
  • Nectarines
  • Guava
  • Rose Hips
  • Pomegranites
  • Pears
  • Black and Red Currants
  • Alfalfa
  • Okra
  • Strawberries
  • Onions
  • Cashews
  • Cactus
  • Prickly Pear
  • Apricots
  • Allspice
  • Avocados
  • Passion Fruit
  • Lima Beans
  • Kidney Beans
  • Adzuki Beans
  • Green Beans
  • Orchid Plants
  • Custard Apples
  • Cherries
  • Celery
  • Coffee
  • Walnut
  • Cotton
  • Lychee
  • Flax
  • Acerola – used in Vitamin C supplements
  • Macadamia Nuts
  • Sunflower Oil
  • Goa beans
  • Lemons
  • Buckwheat
  • Figs
  • Fennel
  • Limes
  • Quince
  • Carrots
  • Persimmons
  • Palm Oil
  • Loquat
  • Durian
  • Cucumber
  • Hazelnut
  • Cantaloupe
  • Tangelos
  • Coriander
  • Caraway
  • Chestnut
  • Watermelon
  • Star Apples
  • Coconut
  • Tangerines
  • Boysenberries
  • Starfruit
  • Brazil Nuts
  • Beets
  • Mustard Seed
  • Rapeseed
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Cabbage
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Bok Choy (Chinese Cabbage)
  • Turnips
  • Congo Beans
  • Sword beans
  • Chili peppers, red peppers, bell peppers, green peppers
  • Papaya
  • Safflower
  • Sesame
  • Eggplant
  • Raspberries
  • Elderberries
  • Blackberries
  • Clover
  • Tamarind
  • Cocoa
  • Black Eyed Peas
  • Vanilla
  • Cranberries
  • Tomatoes
  • Grapes

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