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. :)