14 February 2011

Why dedicated vegans think that honey is NOT 'the bees knees'

Those on the fringe of veganism typically launch an arsenal of questions in an attempt to understand what the whole lifestyle really entails. Copious amounts of veggies? Sure…that makes sense. Plowing through legumes, nuts and protein-laden grains like there’s no tomorrow? A vegan’s gotta eat. Soy and wheat gluten meat-substitutes? Right-e-o…who doesn’t crave dietary diversity?

And then, when you inform them that you also steer clear of honey, that innocuous little statement stops them dead in their tracks. “Honey.” Momentary pause. “Say what?” Stunned look on their face. “The stuff from bees?!?!” Building crescendo of contemplation. “Hmmm.” They scratch their head and then suddenly, a thought bubble rises to the surface. “Oh…so you’re not ‘allowed’ to eat sugar.” When you calmly explain that it’s not about the glucose and fructose content but rather about the fact that you exclude ALL animal-derived products from your diet, new questions understandably emerge.

“Since when is a bee an animal?” they utter with a what-the-huh? look plastered all over their face. “Go ahead and pass on meat – I get that. And fine, you won’t even eat eggs or drink milk even though it’s kind of like we’re doing them a favor by using those products…but BEES? How in the flip are they being – as you say – ‘exploited’ when it’s in their nature to crank out the sweet stuff?!?!” That’s when you exhale heavily before formulating your Cliff Notes explanation which still inexplicably renders them positively stupefied.

So, here it is…for the entire world to see and digest, at least cerebrally-speaking. The straight scoop on vegans, bees and honey. Yes, it is entirely true that dedicated plant-eaters do not consume honey – and it goes without saying that they share the very same position on all buzz-worthy by-products such as royal jelly, propolis, bee pollen and bee venom, no matter how nutritional or medicinal they may be. Perhaps the very best explanation for this stance is that in order to pursue a truly compassionate lifestyle, one must value the lives of all creatures, whether they are of the bovine, porcine or arthropod persuasion. That means no exploitation or cruelty of any kind toward sentient beings -- and yes, even toward bees (which, by the way, can experience suffering and pain courtesy of their complex nervous systems).

We live in such a strange, strange world. Everything that was once ‘natural’ – including honey production -- has been turned on its end by mankind in order to accommodate our perpetual hunger and incessant consumerism. Bees are diligent honey makers in the same way that people hunt-and-gather at grocery stores to amply stock their kitchen pantries – it just makes good sense to have an edible back up plan when the winter comes around and flower nectar is hard to come by. But leave it to us to figure out how to ‘factory farm’ even bees so they continually crank out the gold for our benefit.

Non-vegans could easily argue that it hardly seems cruel – ahem, ‘factory-farming/slaughterhouse cruel’ – to give bees a home in exchange for their honey. It’s not like they’re getting a bolt through the brain or being bled out and sliced up at the end of their (perceived) useful life. In fact, how tough do they really have it compared to chickens, turkeys and cattle? In the grand scheme of things, all bees have to do is buzz around, do their honey-making thang, and then we reap the benefits. They live for making honey…it makes ‘em happy, even. And with their eensie weensie pea-brains, they probably don’t even realize that they’re cajoled into repeating the process over and over again.

Except that this is how it really goes down. Just as dairy cattle are kept in a permanent state of lactation so that we can harvest their milk day in and day out, bees are tricked into producing honey within man-made, easily removable trays. Instead of allowing them to nosh on their own natural food supply (ahem…honey) for the energy they need to keep on keeping on, we offer them a cheap replacement – sometimes red beet/sugar cane syrup or even high fructose corn syrup -- and prior to snagging the gold that they’ve spun, we douse them with smoke so they give up the goods without a fight.

Casualties almost always end up resulting during the honey removal process, whether bees end up getting inadvertently smushed or in the process of defending themselves (via stinging), they ultimately die. Even more surprising, queens live in a similar manner to factory-farmed female chickens and dairy cows. In order to maintain consistent honey output, they are artificially inseminated via syringe and then culled after one year (despite their natural five year lifespan). If you think that sucks, it’s actually their male donors that truly end up getting the short end of the stick since they are literally milked of their semen while being squeezed inside-out. I know. Talk about a disturbing visual.

So, nothing about the honey gathering process is particularly natural or humane anymore and as it so happens, rented pollinators don’t have it any better than their honey-producing brethren. They’re given the same junky cheap sugar diet and trucked en masse to farm after farm where they either get exposed to toxic pesticides/fungicides, are literally ‘hit’ by oncoming traffic or end up meeting an early fate due to harsh winter weather…or more likely, Colony Collapse Disorder.

Of course, the devil’s advocate could suggest that if vegans are as committed to a cruelty-free lifestyle as they claim, then they’d give up the roughly 100 plant-based foods that rented bee colonies are consistently pimped out to pollinate. That would mean passing altogether on common dietary staples such as avocados, tomatoes, cucumbers, almonds, broccoli, berries and melons – which, let’s be quite honest – would be positively ludicrous. Vegans make a conscious choice to avoid all animal-derived foods, but until a 'certified rented pollinator-free' label becomes the norm, there’s got to be a point where you simply have accept certain flaws in an imperfect mass-produced food system.

Saying ‘no thanks’ to honey may prompt one thousand and one ‘outsider’ eyeballs to roll in unison, however it’s an integral part of the bigger picture. It’s about adhering to vegan convictions, honoring beliefs and doing what feels right. Veganism may be merely just a kooky diet for some, but for the honey-eschewing set, it’s a lifestyle that stays true to the spirit in which it was intended. All creatures great and small deserve equal consideration, respect and the freedom to live their lives without being subjected to human exploitation. Now you know what the buzz is really about!

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/curiouskiwi