On being a bad vegan: part three: BEES!

I met my friend Christy 14 or so years ago in college, when I was her TA in a class about nonviolence taught by the amazing Robert Holmes. I keep meaning to write a post about that class, our wonderful professor, and how very far I’ve come from the principles of nonviolence, particularly the Gandhian ideal of nonviolence on the internet (well, he would have had something to say about it, I know that).* I guess I’m just waiting for people to not be so ludicrous and worthy of my non-nonviolent thoughts before I work on purifying the red-hot-poker anger out of me. (I’m sure it won’t be much longer.)

Anyway, I think it’s safe to say that Christy (whom you already know, blogreaders) and I have had a mutual-admiration society going on since college. I’m fascinated by everything she does, particularly because the things she does (help women in prison have safe pregnancies, help women not in prison have babies, have babies herself, run a secondhand shop for baby clothes, are things I will never do. She’s one of those amazing good “breeder” women I’m lucky to know who give me, the exuberant childfree-er, hope for the future of humanity. Her punk rock partner is cute as a button, she just built a clay stove in her backyard, she’s gorgeous and generous and snarky and smart….sigh. Oh, Christy, why do we live on opposite sides of the country? Well, I know the answer: because Christy deeply needs to live in Portland. She’s the personification of everything you think of when you think “man, I should move to Portland.”** Thinking, stylish people with amazing politics.

So when Christy announced she’d become a beekeeper, I never questioned for a minute that she was still an amazing vegan. I waited patiently as she ran her shop, worked as a doula, took care of Little E and gave birth to Little P, and knew that one day she’d write a bit about why her bees and her veganism weren’t mutually exclusive. And, like the good student that she was lo those many years ago, she didn’t disappoint.

I agree with everything she said 100%, though I’m not sure my lifestyle is right for bees right now. Vegans (and, uh, I guess other people, if you must), what’s your take?

Christy makes this clear, but I just want to reiterate: this doesn’t mean that anyone should run out and eat industrial honey (which is what most likely 99.99% of products that contain honey use). Queen bees are still raped, their wings still cut off, the hives still sometimes burned at the end of the season with bees inside (in cold climates, so the keepers don’t have to take care of them throughout the winter), honey isn’t given to the hives for their use, etc. etc. It’s not a natural situation, in short. (Most) honey is still not vegan (my god, I’ve been linking to that page for years and years, which is hilarious because the dude who runs it loathes me! Ah, small vegan world, I loves ya.). Industrial anything, obviously, is bound to have been created in such a way that human/animal/environmentalist concerns are not taken into account (hey look, I just explained modern American capitalism in 23 words!). What we’re talking about is keeping bees yourself, or eating honey from home hives or hives that you know for a fact have been managed well. Again, Christy explains all this, but I just want to make it crystal clear.

And from here we could talk about milk and eggs: you could keep a few chickens too, and eat some eggs. You wouldn’t be vegan, and though I find that personally repellent, as we’ve discussed here before (On Being A Bad Vegan, Part Two, in fact), on the scheme of things is it terrible? Nope. I’ll save my ire for factory farms (and “happy meat” fucks). The point is the point I’m always making (and what Christy’s essay is all about): nuance.

Oh! And now I can take pure joy in Sylvia Plath’s bee poems!

We couldn’t decide on a title for this mini-manifesto, so please choose from: “Vegans Should Be Beekeepers” or “Real Vegans Keep Bees” or “Grown-Up Vegans Keep Bees” or “You Think You’re Better Than Me, But Really, I’m Better Than You.” (Which Christy tossed out as a joke that I probably shouldn’t post, but it’s almost definitely true, so I’m keeping it.)

The Vegan Beekeeper

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

First of all, if you do not eat honey because you are vegan, that makes sense to me. There is an established and indisputable premise from which I am operating; commercial methods of producing honey are not vegan.  In truth, no large-scale industries that prioritize profit above all else are acceptable to the vegan ethic as far as I can see [great minds think alike—see above!].  I mean, lots of consumer goods are produced through the exploitation of one animal that does not fall outside my consideration—humans.

The vegan ethic is complex and nuanced.  Any vegan that says otherwise is itching for a (respectful, intelligent, I hope) fight.  So I may as well be calling this piece, ‘It’s actually impossible to be vegan, but we are all doing our best.’  To me, veganism is about trying to live in harmony with the planet.  My beekeeping is not an exception to my veganism.  It is a well-thought out amendment. It might even make me a better vegan, depending on how much of this you follow along with.

Still, I am a beekeeper and I am a vegan and that is a sticking point for about 50% of the vegans I know.  This is my attempt to explain my position.  I am vegan because I deeply care about animal rights.  I dig the other benefits, but in my heart, I believe eating animals is wrong. My purpose for saying so is that it needs to be clear from the start that I really care about bees. I am not arguing that I think killing bees or treating them with anything but the utmost respect is OK.  I don’t keep bees because they fall outside of my deeply felt consideration.  In fact, I think bees are amazing. Check out this bit from The Melissa Gardens website:

The concept of the “Bien” describes the undividable entity of the hive. The whole is one organism and the hive is more than the sum of the individual parts. Thousands of bees are integrated into a higher-order entity, one whose abilities far transcend those of the individual bee. “The consciousness of the beehive (not of the individual bees) is of a very high nature” (Rudolf Steiner).  Their communication and networking capacities, non-hierarchical decision processes and an understanding of service to the greater web of life, which the individual being (bee) is part of, are pointing to a higher level of development and awareness. And such, the bees are a vital part of human culture and an inspiration to the soul. Being in touch with the “Bien” also means to reach out to the flowering world. As bee-keepers we are becoming “flower-keepers” and stewards of the earth as well.

Whenever I think about the shortcomings of the human species, I always end up being reminded of the near perfection of bees.  Selfless, female-dominated, self-reliant, dancing, mysterious bees.

Human life as we know it is dependant on bees. It is true that there are wild bee populations; but they are dying.  It is a widely held belief within the beekeeping community, and those educated about what commercial beekeeping has done to the world’s bee population, that small-scale “backyard beekeepers” hold the key to preserving disease resistant stock that can survive to pollinate all the foods upon which vegans and non-vegans rely. About 1/3 of the human diet can be traced back to bee pollinated foods.   Entomologists have been talking about this a lot since the whole Colony Collapse Disorder hit, so I won’t go into it too much.  The information is out there.

The point is vegans need plants, and plants need bees.  And bees make honey.

For themselves, you’ll say.  I will emphatically nod in agreement.

In excellent conditions, bees produce excess.  In the spring, members of the colony gather up that excess and off they swarm with a new queen to get established somewhere else. Swarming is the natural method of reproduction for bees. So, you can think of honey harvesting as bee birth control.  They reproduce in direct relation to their available resources.  Harvesting honey reduces the number of swarms, which for a commercial beekeeper necessitates heavy-handed intervention to make more hives including the feeding of sugar water.  As far as I am concerned, the only acceptable form of hive reproduction is the natural swarm and the only thing bees should be eating is their own honey.  If a responsible beekeeper harvests just right, their hive will still swarm seasonally. I ensure the survival of my bees by only taking from the hive much less than they can afford to part with. Greed kills, it always does. But, if you know bees well, and truly care about and see to their wellbeing, you can have some honey.

Sweeteners are notorious for their negative impact on the environment and the people who live where they grow and break their backs producing them. Vegans, tell me what you sweeten your food with and then write me an essay about how good you feel about that sweetener’s back-story.

So, you can see how I came to honey.  All I have to do is glance out my window, and see the quality of life of the ‘workers’ that produce my sweetener. They are out there having a blast in my garden, where I have planted all manner of plants that promote bee health and prosperity.  My neighbors get the benefits when it comes to the production of their plum, fig, and apple trees, not to mention their vegetable gardens. Our healthy hives should swarm 1-3 times each spring and we will happily give away swarms to friends and use the opportunity to teach them all about ethical, responsible beekeeping.

So vegans, as always, be discriminating in where your food comes from and make the best decision you can.  Always consider your source.  Isn’t that what veganism is really all about?

*“We may never be strong enough to be entirely nonviolent in thought, word and deed. But we must keep nonviolence as our goal and make strong progress towards it.” — Mahatma (Mohandas) Gandhi

**Confidential to the AWESOME blogreader gal who called me up the other day to talk about coconut oil and the supremely non-vegan-friendly town she lives in: move to Portland! Take that veggie boyfriend and quit your restaurant job–you won’t be sorry. :)

57 Responses to “On being a bad vegan: part three: BEES!”

  1. Marla

    Beautifully done! I’m not a honey consumer myself, but I could definitely see keeping and managing a hive for ecological reasons and giving the honey to a sweet neighbor. This life should be about interconnectedness and helping one another. This seems like a perfectly symbiotic relationship.

  2. ruby

    Wow! This is really making me think. What happens if I live in freezing Chicago? Can I keep bees here?

    • ruby

      By the way, I wasn’t saying I was entirely sold on honey, but keeping bees sounds cool and “The Price of Sugar” was a damn depressing documentary so, I’m considering it…

  3. Christy H

    People keep bees everywhere, but sometimes you have to take extra precautions like wrapping the hive in quilts, etc. Bees can handle surprisingly low temperatures… but not if they are wet. Moisture control is the big consideration. You don’t want to wrap them up in a quilt so that they can’t breathe well… and then let them mold.
    I recommend looking around for a local beekeeping society and seeing what lengths they go to. Perhaps you could even score a swarm from someone there who has a variety that is somewhat adapted to the climate?
    I can’t believe I didn’t mention this in the article, but I highly recommend checking out http://www.biobees.com for info on ethical beekeeping, (barefoot beekeeping, as they put it.) The dude behind this site keeps bees in England and that surely can be a damp chilly place as well. The hives he uses are the same as mine and i LOVE them. I think they are so good for the bees and simultaneously easy to use.

  4. Reno

    I’m still having a really hard time figuring out how it’s, ethically, any different to take some “extra” honey than to take “extra” eggs from a hen. Isn’t the argument the same? The argument that says “well, they’re not using them and they would just go to waste so what’s wrong with eating them”?

    I’m really not trying to pick a fight, I just really am trying to understand. I’ve been vegan for years and I just don’t see the difference.

    Can’t you keep bees and let them keep their honey also? Like a bee sanctuary?

    • lagusta

      I think that’s a perfectly good question. As you know, veganism is about not using animal products. Thus, some would say Christy isn’t vegan. But I’d say (as she does), that true veganism is impossible and that she’s doing a great job navigating that bumpy terrain. That said, yes, technically I guess there isn’t much of a difference between eating some extra honey and eating some “extra” eggs. I’d feel uncomfortable with someone who eats eggs calling themselves vegan, but I’m not uncomfortable with Christy calling herself vegan. Partly that’s because I personally think eggs are, well, icky. I fully recognize that I’m making a distinction that us vegans can’t stand when meat eaters do it: I viciously make fun of people who don’t eat “red meat” but eat chicken and fish, as if larger animals somehow deserve more compassion. It’s ludicrous, perhaps, but again: veganism is a path, and we’ve all got to draw our lines.

      Hooray for us for thinking about these issues rationally!

      • Chris P

        Just a nitpick, but veganism is not about “not using animal products”, but about not using other animals period.

        On my family’s farm, we completely recognise the need for bees… But we don’t use domesticated bees, nor do we control their lives and reproductive cycles (two of the most troubling aspects of domestication). Instead we plan “bee gardens” to help promote regular and all season food sources for the wild bees (and other pollinators) who live near us.

        While it is nice that Christy is kind to the bees she owns, I find that it is problematic that she owns them in the first place. I don’t think that this is any more vegan than eating “excess” eggs, or buying “pets” from “nice” breeders.

        And for what it is worth, I get my sweetener of choice from local farmers, and no animals are used in the process. Go maple sugar! :)

      • Christythedoulachristy

        I don’t think it is nit-picky… I actually agree with you a lot, but the small space in between the viewpoint you shared and the viewpoint that I have come to is the reason I took up beekeeping in the first place. I wanted to explore it more because I wasn’t exactly sure how I felt. It’s not unlike those carnivores that dabble in slaughtering animals because they think it is more justifiable murder if they can do it with their bare hands. (As if proving that you are capable of brutality somehow excuses you from all of the other questions that must be considered when deciding whether animals should be eaten…) Anyway, perhaps like those people, I felt like I needed more information about beekeeping before I could make my decision and that information wasn’t readily available. The more I learn over time the more gentle my hand has become. I am merely a landlord of my bees, and a pretty benevolent one at that. We harvest VERY lightly (if at all, considering the health of the colony) and we don’t do anything to control breeding or disturb the mysterious life of the colony. I realize that sounds defensive, but or like a justification, but it’s actually just a dispatch from the journey that I am on to figure this all out. I’d love to hear more about your farm! And, I am always appreciative of vegans that engage those they disagree with in order for us all to learn. Sometimes, I think we get a bad reputation for being too dogmatic, but I tend think we’re mostly good folks.

        As an aside, here’s a little something I have been thinking about lately: We have bees on a farm, (alongside the hives of the farmer,) and the farmer’s bees have all died and our seem to be okay. I am thinking about bringing these bees home to the city because the farm life is not good for bees! I think it is partially about the lack of diversity in blooms, but I also think pesticides have a pretty big share of the blame. Those pesticides out there in farming communities are really taking their toll on all the pollinators and probably a lot more of the life on this planet, and I really think that’s a vegan’s issue. I wish I heard more people talking about that in the vegan community.

      • galadrielcrystal

        If the definition of veganism is to not use animal products, not killing animals then…the scientific term Animalia includes humans, insects, bacteria. So it means not using something made by humans, no prebiotic tablets, no antibacterial soap, not even lemon juice or vinegar as ‘natural’ household cleaners. Bacteria is living and dying in our gut all the time, whether we act on it or not. Cells are dying and being renewed so…

        My daughter’s next door neighbour rescued battery farmed hens. It was a choice between those hens being killed or giving them a beautiful, safe home where they can be outside for the first time in thier lives. Their feathers and combs grew back. But what to do with their eggs? She doesn’t have the resources to get a male and let them mate. So to me, eating their eggs is perfectly fine in these hard financial times, low carbon footprint. They could be left for wildlife to eat but it might attract rats.

      • lagusta

        My point is that everyone is doing what they can. What’s your point? That people shouldn’t try? Seems like you’re trying. Good on ya.

  5. Christy H

    I am so glad you brought this up, Reno. I edited out an entire section on chickens because I didn’t want to bore you. I see a huge difference between bees and chickens. It basically comes down to this: humans are evolutionarily bound to both species… but in completely different ways. Chickens, as an entire species, would not exist if not for the humans who keep them. On the other hand, humans would not exist if not for the bees. In my world view, chickens should not exist, but bees must. I have this weird feeling whenever I think about this… i don’t know why. I guess because it seems a little wack-a-doo to dream of a world where chickens are extinct. or rare. but i do.

    I also do not believe that my bees are enslaved in the same way that chickens are. Chickens cannot leave if they do not dig their lives. Bees often do leave if their situation does not allow them to thrive. I also feel that eggs are f’in gross and are not vegan under any circumstances. I mean, what’s next, goat milk? Cow milk if you have your own dairy? Of course not. These animals do not exist in nature and therefore, they probably shouldn’t exist.
    I could go on forever about the backyard chicken thing but I can feel myself starting to ramble. I’ll stop for now. For now.

    • galadrielcrystal

      What do you think about going back to the wildlife that was around, naturally, 10,500 years ago? This was a time before humans had started to breed cows. Modern cows were bred by humans from perhaps just 80 aurochs in Mesopotamia. Organic farmers in the UK are being encouraged to go back to using more ancient breeds, the closest being Long-horned cattle, as Aurochs are extinct (although could do a Jurassic Park and revive them…). Chickens: Red Junglefowl seems to be a naturally occurring species that we domesticated starting from 7,400 years ago.

      • lagusta

        I think….um, good luck with that. It’s not a viable or interesting or useful idea to me.

  6. Brittany

    I really love this and while I’m an evil not-vegan who doesn’t really have any intention of being vegan for pretty selfish reasons, it was still really interesting and warm and cuddly BC this is part of my plan, too, so it makes me happy to see other people doing it.

    I’m obsessed with and completely in love with bees. They are AMAZING, and far superior to people in many ways I think, but they need a bit of help right now. And we really benefit if they get that help, and really bad things happen if they don’t. The bees win, the people win and everybody is very happy.

  7. fenderbenderdetroit

    I completely agree that humans are obligated to be stewards and defenders of bees not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because our very survival as a species depends on it (which isn’t the case with chickens and all other typically farmed animals).

    I’m still just stuck on whether it’s cool to take from them what is not, rightfully, ours. I fully realize that it doesn’t technically do them any harm, it still gives me vegan anxiety to think about taking it.

    I agree that it is a pretty grey area, and that veganism isn’t as linear as we would like to believe it is. I also agree that for whatever reason, it really doesn’t feel *as* wrong to take honey as it does to take eggs (and yes, eggs are fucking disgusting), but still…I have feelings.

    Anyway, I guess it all depends on how you define veganism. If your overarching goal is to do as little harm as possible, I can see how keeping bees and eating honey would comfortable fit within that framework. However, if your main intent is to adhere to rigid philisophical definitions of animal rights and human co-option of other species, eating honey may not be appropriate. Does that make sense?

    Thanks for the discussion. It’s uncomfortable to think about this stuff as “right” or “wrong” because so much of our lives as vegans revolve around an absolute and unwavering confidence in our total “rightness” that there often isn’t any room for us to flesh out some of the nuances of our own beliefs.

    I still don’t eat honey, but I don’t hate you, and although that doesn’t sound like a compliment, it’s actually the highest one I know how to give.

    • Christy H

      Seriously, that discomfort you mention is why I started keeping bees in the first place! I wasn’t sure at the start whether I would ever take any honey. I am still a little uneasy with the idea of it, but as I do it, the whole thing feels so peaceful and sacred. I so carefully care for these bees that I am able, with complete earnestness, to think of “taking” from them as an exchange and not just thievery.
      But because of my serious concern for them, so far I have only harvested from one of my two hives and in total, less than a pint.
      Look at this though:http://www.compassionatespirit.com/is-honey-vegan.htm
      It’s rad. It contains a lot more details than i included in my post for the sake of staying on topic. Still, i do think the vegan ethic can be pretty inconsistent when it comes to insects. Pesticides on your veggies kill bugs en masse. And what about my vermicomposting system? I know I sound snarky… but i do not think even my own pest fighting measures, like slug pubs, in my own veggie garden are nearly as respectful to insects as my beekeeping.

  8. Reno

    That last one was me. So many vegan anarcho-feminist blogs, so little time…

  9. Keith Akers

    Thank you for a very intelligent and thoughtful post. I’m almost tempted to start a bee hive in our back yard and not take the honey.

    There is no satisfactory definition of veganism. This is part of what I cover in my web article “Is Honey Vegan?” (see website link). Every few years this topic is raised and it is never resolved. It is a bit dangerous to talk about in public because some people take it very seriously and will be hurt, angered, or offended if you eat honey or even appear to be defending it. Dr. Greger wrote a celebrated article in which he complained that the prohibition of honey hurts vegan advocacy. But look at the treatment of this article by both the readers of Satya and VegNews in the “letters to the editor.”

    The basic problem is that people want the definition of veganism to do too much. You can be strict about some things (like not eating meat and dairy), but you can’t be strict about everything (like avoiding all uses of animals) or it becomes impossible. It’s hard to convey the “strict about some things but not about others” in a definition. Relatively best is a combination of the two approaches: a global prohibition on some things, and then “do the best you can” for everything else.

    Honey falls in the gray area because any non-arbitrary rationale for veganism which is sufficiently strong to prohibit honey, also prohibits other things (such as non-organic food, probably) which “vegans” typically tolerate. A lot of non-vegans can detect the inconsistency, but as long as vegans talk only to other vegans, they are not exposed to the problems this creates.

    Rather than get tangled up in what veganism is, just sort out what the best thing to do is, and then describe it and categorize it later. But describing and categorizing it is exactly what you have to do when you talk about veganism to newcomers to the concept. It is a serious problem when it comes to advocacy, because newcomers to the concept want to know what they’re buying into. The definitions of the U. K. and U. S. A. vegans have been around for a long time, so they would be politically difficult to change; and it is hard to say what the “common” definition of veganism is, unless it is this: a vegan is someone who is mostly vegan.

    • lagusta

      I hope you stick around, my friend! Your site tells me we won’t agree on everything, but I sure do love your ideas on veganism!!! :)

    • Chris

      Just because it is impossible with our current method of food production (there simply are not enough Veganic farms out there) to obtain food that didn’t use or harm animals in some way doesn’t mean that that shouldn’t be what we aspire to.

      I hope one day to see a world in which all foods are produced veganically. Until then, I will do my best with what is available to me. Since I do not need to consume honey, I don’t.

  10. Sasha

    Great blog post. As a girl that once waxed her legs, I really struggled with the ‘bee’ thing when first becoming vegan.

    What I’ve discovered, as I’ve learned more about veganism, is the notion of animals as property . I don’t believe that animals should be our property (to use as we see fit). Honey is produced specifically for the swarm, not for us. It doesn’t matter how well I try to do the right thing by the swarm…I’m still ‘using’ them to meet my needs.

  11. lagusta

    Also, wow, Christy, your garden looks OFF THE HOOK in that photo–look at that beautiful raven-black soil!! And that bok choy (?) is making my mouth water.

    And of course E is gorgeous as well, and I of course want her outfit.

  12. Christy H

    Sasha… i don’t want to single you out, but I desperately want to hash out some of what has been brought out in the comments section here about where different vegans draw their lines. I consider myself a die-hard vegan, but to you, i must seem sloppy… I truly want to know what is your stance on my vermicomposting? non-organic food? pets? etc.
    and what do you sweeten your food with? Since it is impossible to be a perfect vegan, where are the corners where your veganism gets more nuanced?

    Also, Keith! I love you definition and i am going to start using it! A friend just told me that she stopped calling her diet Vegan and started calling it Humane- though she did not change any behavior.

    Also Lagusta! I am pretty sure it’s collards. And yeah, our dirt rules. I got really into composting (hauling home coffeegrounds from the coffee shop next to the ‘toad and taking leaves from neighbors when they raked their yards, etc) when i was pregnant hoping to not having to import compost from elsewhere this spring and Man Alive! It paid off. It pays to have a slightly obsessive personality.

    • Sasha

      Hi Christy – I don’t feel singled out, I appreciate your response.

      On sweetener, in Australia our sugar isn’t refined using bone char, so along with agave and rice syrup that’s how I sweeten my foods.

      I eat non-organic vegetables, drive a car, ride a bike and walk on pavements – all of which contain or require the use of animals. I am sure that there are ways animals are used in supporting my daily life, that I can’t even appreciate. I recently was made aware of the connection between coffee and animal labour in its production.

      I care for two gorgeous canines, both victims of factory farming, and cruel abuse (the oldest has OCD after repeated bashings as a puppie). Honestly though, I see thier lives as compromised – beacuse they are reliant on me for all their needs. So it isn’t ideal, I try to counter this with the knowledge that they were both death row dogs.

      I know we all make compromises with our veganism, and my comments were about my baselines, and animals as property is one of those.

      • Chris P

        Very much what Sasha just said.

        Most Western legal systems also recognise that there is a difference in how bad a crime is based on the intent of the perpetrator. If you kill someone, it is a terrible thing, but if you hit them while driving, and it was a genuine accident, it is less horrible than if you planned it out in advance. Thus, the legal reprocussions will be different.

        So it also is with animal use. I accidentally stepped on an insect that was in my house yesterday. I felt pretty sad about it — given the chance, I trap and release outside.

        There may be animal products used in the plastic of this computer, the wheels of my car, etc. but a) it is impossible to know for sure right now, and b) these are things that society will change as it moves towards veganism.

        There are things that I can do to minimise my impact to other animals. I grow some of my own food (veganically) and I try to buy from local organic farmers otherwise. But if my choice is limited (such as in the winter), then I will choose conventionally grown plant foods to stay healthy, and hope that this can be something that we address in the future. I also try to reduce my driving, and I don’t drive in the countryside or near the water around dusk, the worst time for bugs being out.

        I think that this can be a complicated issue, but for me, the line is drawn at intent. I will not own another animal with the intent of using them for my own needs — even if I meet theirs in the process.

  13. Edward Peters

    Good info here, I’ve come across a few pages now with similar info. I am currently trying to get debt free, so pages can be a real help.

  14. Ben

    Thanks very much for this post. This is something with which I’ve been wrestling in my own mind, as I am both a vegan and a honey eater, and I don’t consider that the latter precludes the former necessarily. The difference, to me, between commercial honey production that is morally wrong, and small-scale honey gathering that is morally right, is the difference between being a symbiont and being a parasite. It is possible, and necessary, to have a symbiotic relationship with bees – as you rightly point out, they are responsible for the production of many, many fruits and vegetables, and taking a measured amount of honey doesn’t change that. This relationship becomes parasitic when we, as human stewards, abuse our position and take from the hive more than what is healthy for the hive, regardless of the cost to us. Then we become parasites. Part of being vegan, then, is attempting to live symbiotically with not only bees, but with the rest of the natural world.

  15. ayn M

    Found your blog (hooray!) through this article, while looking into the possibilities of bee keeping as a possibility of helping the local bee population in light of “colony collapse disorder”.

    As a vegan household this could be an interesting project — if it could in any small way help the local bee numbers here in the city. The Houston area has a noticeable drop off of bees around the usual hot spots and native plants.

    But what about the honey? Is the harvest a must?

    Helping the local bees also helps pollinate the local plants, crops and flowers. Is it possible to not harvest and leave the honey for the bees, as in nature? Would they outgrow the artificial hive? Any links to recommend?


    • Christy H

      Thanks for the heads up, Lagusta. I will try to help to the best of my ability. First, I would say that there are a lot of ways to help pollinators without becoming a beekeeper. Mason bees are the first thing that comes to mind. You can easily make places for them to nest safely and thus encourage their population to thrive. (http://www.wildlife-gardening.co.uk/OG9.htm)
      But, honeybees are the easiest and most fun pollinators to steward, so I think it is worth consideration as well despite not being too interested in the honey. As I mentioned in the original piece, honey harvest is bee birth-control. Without taking honey, you will almost surely need to deal with more swarms… and a swarm is no small project. You can probably find another beekeeper that would be happy to take those swarms off your hand, (they are VERY valuable to a person that keeps bees for a living… a new “package of bees” costs about 80 bucks.) But, if you turn a swarm over to a beekeeper, you are sentencing them to a honey-producing lifestyle of the beekeepers choosing. And that might not be great for bee health overall depending on the style of beekeeping they do. As a point of reference, we did a very small harvest from only one of our two hives this year… and between the two hives we had five swarms. FIVE!!! It was awesome, but it can be really stressful because it happens with no warning and it must be tended to RIGHT AWAY or the swarm will take off and potentially home up somewhere your neighbors might find very annoying.

      So, no. Harvest is not a must, but they overproduce so that they can breed new hives of bees. Be warned. They may also someday “use up” the space you have provided and abandon it all together. As the comb ages it gets very hard and leathery. They will clean it and reuse it to store honey, but I do not think they will do this indefinitely. The queen will only lay eggs in fresh comb, so she will continue to move down into fresh comb until the bees run out of room to build… at which point, I am pretty sure they will move on to a new home. So, you may need to pull old comb periodically and reorganize boxes to allow them to continue to feel like they are burrowing down, as is their nature. There will almost certainly be some honey in old comb… you don’t have to eat it; leaving it outside of the hive for them to collect would work but can also encourage “robbing” by bees from other hives.

      http://www.biobees.com is a great place to get started. Beekeeping is easy and fun, but like any hobby, requires you to learn a lot and be responsible for what you start. I am available to help if you end up deciding to go for it!

      • ayn M

        Thank you so much for the information and links. We live in an old neighborhood, even though the houses aren’t close together, the non-harvested expanding bee population is probably not an option for now.

        Our street is trying to acquire an large empty lot for a community garden and that may be a better time to look into it… a shared bee box and supply cost, plus some folks who would want the honey and take care of the non-harvest problem!

        I’m interested in the mason bees for now. Thanks again.

      • lagusta

        What did I do to get such a smart and awesome BFF? I have to remember so I keep on doing it.

  16. lagusta

    I am certainly not an expert, but I’m pretty sure you don’t *have* to harvest any honey…I’ll ask Christy to write a comment though, she will know for sure. Thanks for stopping by!

  17. cityville

    i was beginning to contemplate i might possibly end up being the sole woman which cared about this, at the least now i discover im not mad :) i’ll make it a point to find out more about a few additional threads when i get a tad of caffeine in me, cheers :)

  18. Dawn (Vegan Fazool)

    Just found you guys on a search to support the idea of the “welfarist vegan,” which I have just written about.

    Here is part of my definition of the “welfarist vegan” from my recent blog post on supporting Tom Philpott’s proposed Vegan/Omnivore Alliance, “The welfarist vegan still eats a vegan diet and agrees with much of the sentiment, but ideologically supports welfare measures to improve the current lives of farmed animals (and, might also support improvements in slaughterhouse techniques, improved stunning, slowing speed of the line, etc.). It gets in the way of effective, open communication between vegans & omnivores when the argument focuses only on rebuking abolitionist thinking.” Much more in my actual post if anyone is interested. It requires a lot of explaining since it is so sensitive a topic, and the post itself is therefore a lengthy one. http://veganfazool.blogspot.com/2011/03/no-need-for-absolutism-in-defense-of.html

    I think the “welfarist vegan” is more prevalent than most realize, and as a welfarist vegan myself, I absolutely support beekeeping. We need honeybees to pollinate fruits & vegetables and supporting them through beekeeping is very important, especially with the evolution of Colony Collapse Disorder, whether or not we take the honey.

    As far as the difference between bees and chickens, bees are insects, chickens are birds. Vastly different on the evolutionary scale, and with corresponding differences in their own level of perception and cognition. I could go on, but I’ll leave it at that.

    Thanks for a great post, I’ll be keeping up with you guys.

    Dawn (Vegan Fazool)

  19. lagusta

    Hiya Dawn!

    Well, that vegan/flesh-eater alliance is certainly not something I personally support, but to each her own, I suppose. Actually it makes me sort of want to puke in my mouth, but happily I kept away from the ZILLIONS o’ FB discussions happening about it a few days ago so…yay for that.

    Not my cup of tea, that whole thing of getting into bed with people who are fine with abusing animals, but I’m so far from perfect that I’m certainly not going to become an annoying hatery vegan and hate on vegans who feel that’s necessary. (I’ve had some hatery losers recently inform me that I’m not vegan because of this post, so I’m a bit grumpy.)

    The great thing about being vegan is that I get to ignore people who want to eat animals, and I guess I’ll merrily continue to do so.

    And….I definitely definitely definitely would not call myself a welfarist vegan, and am pretty anti the whole idea as I think it’s a slippery slopey thing that I don’t want to be involved in, but the bee thing just simply seems to make sense from an ecological perspective. But if that’s your thing, you’re certainly welcome here–the world is too awful to become one of those people who gets mad when people don’t agree with every little thing they do. Life’s too short. Welcome!

  20. Clayton Clay

    Hi All. I found your website the usage of msn. This is the pretty beautifully created write-up. I’ll be sure to save it and go back to read further of the practical info. Thanks for the publish. I’ll absolutely return.

  21. Why Vegans Never Try to eat Eggs

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  22. Lu

    This is fantastic. How did I luck out and find this post (and the links to Biobees) just as I started getting fascinated by bees and wondering if someday I, a vegan, could keep honey bees? I’ve never been into honey, but I love finding helpful ways to deal with nature and wouldn’t mind eating a bit of what I sponsored them in making. I’ve always felt that it’s just cheap and mean to take the products that bees made through their hard work–it’s like tricking them into living a fake, unnatural life in the service of humans (and they don’t even know it). They are creatures who are so rightly revered for their complex society and industriousness, and then we human-stomp our way into their delicate lives and say, “Honey! Gimme!” ;-) But what you’re doing as a beekeeper, Christy, is different. I get the feeling your primary goal isn’t producing honey; it’s more about being part of an ecological niche. That’s what I’m after. And yeah, I would harvest some honey if it didn’t hurt the hive, sure. Vegan is as vegan does, and we all decide, according to the nuances of our principles, what that means.

  23. Samantha

    many thanks for such an intelligent honest and passionate article. I think what you are doing is amazing in my mind its great to make decisions which do not cause or support the suffering of living creatures. Amazing but to be honest sort of reactive. I think in a time when our natural world is under constant threat we all need to start using our hearts and actually start being proactive. Supporting bees and creating diverse and amazing gardens to support them is such an awesome thing to do. Plants and bees are our allies what ever we can do to support them will help our souls and humanity as a whole. Now is the time do do this before it is too late. Whether it is an organic herb window box, garden or going all out and not only creating an environment where bees can thrive but actually giving them a helping hand by placing them in that lovingly prepared environment. As for harvesting providing you can with knowledge and love in your heart honestly say that the honey taken does not hurt the bees then all is good! I think human beings now have a responsibility to intervene in nature and act proactively in order to try and help redress the balance. Surely if we follow our hearts and act with true compassion and love for the earth we live on, nature and all of the living beings which we are privileged to share our world with the results can only be good. I don’t thin we have time to get lost in the complexities of debate. Naturally intelligent discussion is vital so that we can proceed with complete knowledge and understanding. Its time for action to reconnect with nature before it is too late. Go girl :) I wish you all the best with your adventures in bee stewardship. Can’t remember who has used that term but I borrow it here stewardship an important term which we should all be considering defining within our everyday lives. Just my 2 pence worth…

  24. John Morgan

    Great arty I’m glad I read it. Im on the hunt for information about almonds and other bee pollinated food. I can’t do a lot of my own growin yet. I’m getting there. A little at a time.

    Someone said something about bacteria being in the kingdom Animalia.
    No. Bacteria are their own kingdom. We and other multicells are in Eukarya. Finally Archaea is the third Kingdom and is somewhat similar to Bacteria.


    Mostly, I want to do my best vegan-ing but I heard about CCD and commercial almond production and here I am upset that I love almonds and almond milk. I wanna know my diet is as responsible as possible. Tough search though. Just some thoughts. Maybe someone has some infos??? Thanks bye!

  25. John Morgan

    Sorry. Domain. Not kingdom. That’s Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, and Protists within the Domain Eukarya. Bacteria are in a Domain by themselves. Archaea are the third Domain.

    Bacteria are far less likely than even plants to subjectively experience. But furthermore you are in fact MOSTLY bacterial cells, not animal cells. If we didn’t use bacteria it’d be impossible for us to exist in this form. We inherently get bacteria when we’re born from mom’s milk. Or was that a dig at vegans being too sensitive or something? I didn’t read it thoroughly, I just saw somebody making a case for bacterial use or killing as nonvegan. I gotta draw a line somewhere you know?

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  27. MeShell

    As bee populations seem to be on the decline, I’ve been playing around with the idea of keeping bees or encouraging their proliferation where ever possible. So I was happy to see this result when I looked for “vegan apiary” because it covers a lot of the things I’ve been wondering about.

    Especially with regards to bee keeping and what to do with the resulting honey and how necessary it would be to collect/remove it (and what I could do with it other than sharing it with the beegans in my life – which I’m not especially keen on doing, because I’ve always felt like the honey wasn’t mine to take, but I still want to have a place where bees can do their thing comfortably.)

    Either way, next spring I will have a wonderfully bee friendly garden set up, and a few insect houses around in case anyone wants to hang around. :)

    So thanks for all the answers, it’s been really interesting and educational to read through the discussion in this post as well.

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  30. Robyn

    I’m a transitioning vegan in the UK (sounds rather vampiric). I want to eat honey because to me it seems natural and they do make enough to share if treated well as you say. I’m finding it impossible to source natural/bee centres keepers here to buy honey from. I also can’t quite understand whether smoking bees is cruel or not. Do know of any ‘ethical’ brands?
    My brother lives in Australia and they seem to be really ahead of the game with bee centred honey production.

  31. Miss LC Cayzer

    I’m a vegan beekeeper living in the UK, and came across this post researching a response to some of my own blog readers about veganism & beekeeping.

    I think being a beekeeper is probably one of the most radical vegan things I do. I feel privileged to look after our two hives, keeping them disease free & healthy.

    Our veggie & flower garden, neighbours gardens and nearby farmers definitely benefit from our colonies. As you say, vegans need vegetables and vegetables need bees. I’m still formulating my own post about this and my experience… will let you know once I do!

    x Louise

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