At the Spiral House, my late husband Tom Gottsleben and I have lived a vegan lifestyle (with very few exceptions). One area where we do break with convention, however, is the use of local honey. The vegan philosophy largely assumes that all use of animal products — including honey — is exploitative and is produced through inhumane practices. With the decline in honey bees and the upsurge in local beekeeping, however, we began to rethink our position, studying beekeeping methods and speaking with people on both sides of the issue.
Vegans rely almost entirely on the vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds of insect-pollinated plants — plants that are predominantly pollinated by bees. It has been said that bees are responsible for at least one out of every three bites of food we eat. As much as 80% of all crop pollination is by the European honey bee.This is not to diminish the help of native pollinators, such as bumble and mason bees, wasps and moths; but they are solitary workers and their numbers are small. By contrast, the honey bee is prolific; their hives are huge.
Where bees are most often mistreated is in large-scale commercial beekeeping. The hives are crated and transported from all over the United States to be placed at monoculture farms such as the huge agribusiness operations in California. There, the bees can pick up parasites, bacteria and diseases, which can then be passed along to our local bees. The trucked bees are also exposed to chemical fertilizers, toxic pesticides and fungicides, and genetically modified crops, all of which affect their health, their larvae, and their honey. At best, these mistreated bees will frequently require medicines to survive. At worst, they are simply considered dispensable and allowed to die. Little care is taken in extracting the honey and they’re fed sugar water to replace it.
By contrast, most small-scale, local beekeepers develop a relationship with their hives that is symbiotic and compassionate. The beekeeper provides housing; constantly checks for mites and diseases; protects the hives from roving predators such as bears; and ensures that there are bee-friendly, pollen-rich plants and trees nearby. Concerned beekeepers also provide teas during lean times, and protection from cold winters. Because that care encourages maximum honey production, and most beehives produce far more honey than the bees can use, the beekeeper can remove some of the honey and still leave enough to ensure a healthy hive. It seems to us to be a fair trade. Each is nourished by the other.The bees are free-ranging; they are in no way imprisoned. Occasionally, a hive becomes overly productive and crowded, causing the queen and many of the bees to swarm and move away to form an additional hive elsewhere. They leave behind a new emerging queen who will rebuild her hive population.
This is not to say that all small scale beekeepers are kind or well-informed. So, if you choose to use local honey, we urge you to visit the bees and see for yourself how they are being treated. Consider also that we have the growing community of local beekeepers to thank for bringing attention to the honey bee decline, and to the toxins used by both agribusiness and home gardeners dependent on weed killers and toxic sprays. By giving voice to the plight of the honeybee, these beekeepers have also given new urgency to the need for more sustainable horticultural practices at every scale.
Just as those of us at the Spiral House have reconsidered our position on beekeeping and the use of honey, we hope that vegans will educate themselves and not take a hard and fast position against it without first considering the implications. If we eat plant-based foods, then it is our responsibility to look at the whole picture, at what it takes to produce them. And at the foundation, at the very beginning, are the pollinators, who allow the fruits of most of those plants to be produced. Whether you buy fruits and vegetables or grow your own (organic or not), you are benefiting from the hard work of someone else’s honey bees, and have no control over whether those bees are being mistreated. There is no avoiding this. Honey bees can have a seven-mile flight range (and sometimes more).
We decided to ensure that our pollinators were treated as kindly as possible. And so we have two hives on our property, maintained with the help of experienced local beekeepers whose practices are in line with our values. We have 35 acres of organic land. Much of it is forest and rocky patches, but we have wildflowers, two large vegetable gardens, many flower gardens, a large sunflower patch, and lawns with lots of clover. We have a peach tree, blueberry and raspberry bushes, kiwi vines, and strawberry barrels. There is variety and abundance. There are busy bees. True compassion comes from both the heart and the mind and relies on us stepping outside of our preconceptions and seeing the interrelatedness of all things.
There is truth to the proverb, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Good intentions without careful thought and an understanding of the wider picture, may make us feel better about ourselves but may, in the end actually cause harm. I hope that this is the beginning of a conversation about beekeeping and compassion, and it will encourage us to step back and examine the impact of our decisions.
You are invited to respond at info@https://www.forgoodnesssakeblog.com. Patty Livingston is the owner of Rafferty Rocks Press, which recently published For Goodness Sake: Plant-Based Recipes from the Spiral House Kitchen, a vegan cookbook that uses a small amount of local honey in a few of its recipes. For vegan recipes, articles on the vegan lifestyle, and information on reducing our environmental footprint, subscribe to https://www.forgoodnesssakeblog.com. Always interesting; always compassionate; always ad-free. NOTE: Two helpful links about bee keeping are: