As somebody who is working towards a more plant-based diet, I was perplexed when I discovered The Vegan Society’s stance on honey. So I checked out the Society’s website (The Vegan Society) and was surprised by the mixture of half-truths, mis-understandings and even mild hypocrisy I found there.
Whilst many of the Society’s assertions maybe true of the worst practices in World-wide commercial bee-farming, they cannot be fairly applied to the majority of UK honey production.
The Vegan Society insists on using the term ‘Conventional Beekeeper’ and states that ‘conventional’ beekeepers aim to harvest the maximum amount of honey.
But what is a ‘conventional’ beekeeper? In the UK, the ‘conventional’ beekeeper is in fact a hobbyist. Of the estimated 290,000 hives in the UK only approximately 65,000 are commercially farmed.
In a good season, a colony of bees will produce more honey than they require to maintain them through the winter. It is this surplus beekeepers aim to harvest. Most UK beekeepers do aim to harvest a crop of honey but for them, the welfare of their bees is much more important. Most UK beekeepers measure their success not primarily by how much honey they harvest, but by whether or not they manage to successfully over-winter their bees.
Harvesting honey is one of the rewards of keeping bees, but most beekeepers will leave ample honey on the hive to sustain their bees through the winter. If poor weather prevents the bees from producing a surplus, any honey is left on the hive for the bees. Fondant is placed on the hive as a precaution against winter starvation and beekeepers will feed their colonies at other times if the bees need it.
Whilst it is acknowledged that there are commercial practises in some places around the World that are less focused on bee welfare and more on maximising profit, a responsible person should always obtain honey, like any other food, from a sustainable source.
On their website, The Vegan Society states that “harvesting honey does not correlate with the society’s definition of veganism which seeks to include exploitation.”
This is a more difficult area. In an ideal world in which our environment was undamaged and mankind and nature lived in perfect harmony, the Vegans would have a point. The hard fact is however, environmental degradation, the loss of habitats and disease, mean that honeybees are largely dependent on the efforts of beekeepers for their survival. The relationship between beekeepers and bees is therefore more reciprocal than exploitative.
Managed honey bees adversely affecting wild pollinators?
Honey bees pollinate approximately a third of the food we eat, including many of the foods vegans depend on. In the UK, this is down from approximately 70% in 1984 partly due to a decline in the number of UK hives.
The Vegan Society says it’s a myth that honey production is good for the environment and that the breeding of honey bees adversely affects the populations of competing nectar-foraging insects. The Vegan’s previously linked their web article to a piece of research they cited as evidence to support this assertion.
I wrote to them and pointed out that the research actually concluded that ‘the UK faces a food security catastrophe because of its very low numbers of honeybee colonies’.
The society has at least removed the link but I would have preferred, having now read the research, they used it to revise their thinking, instead of pretending the report no longer exists.
The scientists at Reading University (and others) revealed that honeybees now provide just a quarter of the pollination needed in the UK, the second lowest level among 41 European countries. (University of Reading, 2017). Here is a link to the University’s research. https://research.reading.ac.uk/bees/research/
In fact, rather than competing with each other, most pollinating insects work on different forage or the same forage at different times. In Europe there is currently a deficit of pollinating insects due to intensive farming practises, environmental degradation and a decline in honeybees.
The Vegan Society states that bees are specifically bred to increase productivity thereby narrowing the gene pool. Productivity is indeed one of the many qualities beekeepers aim to encourage; as is gentleness, resistance to disease, robustness, low propensity to swarming, frugality with winter stores and others. In fact, current best-practise on the British beekeeping landscape states that the most-desirable bees are those raised in the beekeeper’s neighbourhood because they are the best adapted to local conditions.
In reality, most beekeepers only have limited ability to affect their bees’ genetic composition because queen bees and drones (male bees) mate in mysterious and largely unexplained drone congregation areas. The queen mates with multiple, competing drones from different colonies in a process in which natural selection is the star of the show. Also, although not yet fully understood, the semen from the different drones with whom the queen mates is somehow ‘quality-graded’ within the queen’s body to ensure the best genetic mix.
The Vegans also expressed concern that many beekeepers clip the wing of the queen bee. However, contrary to the society’s assertion, this doesn’t prevent the swarm leaving the hive; it’s just means that it doesn’t go far from it, allowing the beekeeper to collect the swarm and put it a hive. In this way, the beekeeper doesn’t lose half the bees, the bees are still able to reproduce naturally but without the inconvenience and distress often caused to the public by swarming bees.
Sadly, these days, if a colony does swarm naturally and makes a nest in a tree trunk or similar they are unlikely to survive for very long.
Decline in pollinators and the affect on vegans
The number of honeybee hives has declined from over 1 million in 1945 to around 290,000 now. Analysis of hive numbers indicates that current UK honeybee populations are only capable of supplying 34% of our pollination needs, falling from 70% in 1984.
In spite of this decline, insect-pollinated crop yields have risen by an average of 54% since 1984. This shows that in the UK, we are increasingly dependent on wild bees and this is problematic because much less is known about their health and wellbeing.
The most recent research states that in order to maintain our food security, we need more managed honey bee colonies, not fewer.
And so to the mild hypocrisy. The Vegan Society states that buying imported honey increases our carbon footprint. This is absolutely true of course, but in the very next sentence, the society’s website conveniently ignores that same argument as it applies to the date syrup, maple syrup and molasses they suggest as alternatives to honey! Not to mention the nuts and exotic fruit and vegetables they so often promote in their recipe books!
Imported food does increase our carbon footprint but buying honey from your local beekeeper is in fact very low impact.
Overall, the Vegan Society’s arguments against honey have some truth in relation to intensively farmed foreign supplies but have little to do with most British produced honey.
The important thing about honey, just like any other food, is that it’s important to obtain it responsibly from sustainable sources.
This article is written by Howard for the Members’ blog page and represents my personal opinions and not necessarily the views of Meridian Beekeepers’ Association or it’s members.