Does Purchasing Honey Help the Bee Population?

Katy explores the controversial topic of honey. Can the environmental benefits outweigh the ethical issues?

Honey is still causing a buzz. Over the last 120 years, the UK has lost 13 species of bee, and a further 35 are considered under threat of extinction. None are protected by law. Across Europe nearly 1 in 10 wild bee species face extinction.

For the sake of our crops, biodiversity and life itself, we want to save the bees. But is buying honey actually ethical? Is honey production harmful to the environment? How do we actually help our little fuzzy friends?

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Is honey gathering an ethical practice?

Honey production does mean the maintenance and protection of bees. But to an extent. I used to love honey but now I avoid it because it does not align with vegan principles. Honey is not classified as vegan because it is a product that comes from the exploitation of other creatures. After all, what is honey really but bee vomit intended to feed bees and insulate their homes? Beekeeping, especially in large scale production, is cruel and painful for bees:

  • The Queen bee’s wings are often cut off to prevent them from leaving the hive.
  • Similarly to cows, the queens are artificially inseminated with syringes.
  • Bees have their honey (their food) stolen and in the process are crushed and killed.
  • They are fed a cheap corn syrup that makes them sick.
  • Some companies kill the bees, gassing the hive before winter because it is simply cheaper to start a new hive than keep them alive.
  • Did you know that honey is also tested on other animals? (Even I did not realise this before sitting down to write this article.)

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Colony Collapse Disorder

We have established that beekeeping is stressful for honey bees. A problem specific to colony bees is ‘colony collapse disorder’ (CCD). This is where the bees leave their hive with no perceivable reason. Scientists link CCD to ‘bee management stress’, ‘pesticide poisoning’, and ‘inadequate forage/ poor nutrition’.

As well as CCD, bees are dying at an alarming rate. Pesticides are generally believed to be causing the mass die-offs that have occurred around the world in the last 18 months. For some reason we are not talking about scary headlines like, Why have 500m bees died in Brazil in the past three months?

Pesticides make sure farmers have a greater yield. But in the long term, pesticides damage the surrounding environments, oceans and bees. And without bees, it would cost UK farmers £1.8 billion a year to pollinate our crops.

What about purchasing local honey?

It is easy to see that the environmental impact of local honey is small. It hasn’t travelled across the world like a bunch of bananas or honey from America- it was harvested down the road. Clearly, honey is a sustainable, low carbon footprint sweetener, especially when compared with other sweeteners.

Friends of Earth suggests that local honey actually supports bee numbers. However, we can protect the bees without taking their honey. Obviously the beekeeper can’t make a profit this way, so not exactly capitalism friendly, but kinder to the bees. Unfortunately that’s generally how the world works.

Honey bees aren’t the only species of bee. If you want to help the bees, to buy or not to buy honey should not be the biggest question here.

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So how do I help the bees?

We have seen that collecting honey can cause unnecessary stress and fatigue for honey bees, which is not ideal in our bees current population state. It is unkind and exploitative.

But all being said, honey bees as a subspecies are probably going to be fine. And in fact, they’re quite bad at pollinating. To help the other 250 species of bee in the UK- a much more pressing matter – you can:

  • Lobby governments to stop using harmful pesticides.
  • Buy organic (although it is difficult on a budget).
  • If you’re a keen gardener, grow bee friendly flowers like bluebells, foxgloves and clover.
  • Leave patches of land to grow wild; cut grass less often.
  • Don’t use synthetic chemicals and pesticides.
  • Make a bee house.
  • Leave a small bowl of water covered in pebbles outside so they can have a drink.
  • Support bee sanctuaries that do not take or sell honey.

It is difficult to say exactly whether buying honey is good or not. Honey is considered more sustainable a product than agave nectar or maple syrup. But then we can return to the argument that honey belongs to bees and we need bees to prosper. We end up having to prioritise either animal welfare or environmental impact.

So, if you do buy honey, buy it local. It is environmentally friendly. It isn’t watered down honey from big companies who only see bees as a commodity. And if you are more concerned with ethics, here are some honey alternatives.

  • Maple syrup
  • Coconut nectar
  • Agave nectar
  • Date paste
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Molasses
  • Bee-free ‘honee’

And if you can, grow more flowers!

For anyone wanting a more comprehensive analysis of veganism and honey, there is a great resource at Your Daily Vegan: ‘Is Honey Vegan?‘.

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About the author: Katy is an English Literature Masters student at York. She loves reading, badminton and her two guinea-pigs.

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