To Bee or Not to Bee: the Truth Behind Honey
For years, I believed that honey was a natural and healthy option to other sweeteners. And I loved beeswax. I even rolled my own sheets to make candles in my late 20s. When I chose to live a vegan life, I dutifully gave up honey and beeswax but I wasn’t really sure why. I would answer: bee exploitation, when people asked, but my vague answer did little to convince me that I really knew why.
Recently I took the opportunity to meet Hilary Kearney, from Girl Next Door Honey (www.girlnextdoorhoney.com) to explore the world of bees and to uncover the truth be(e)hind honey and beeswax.
After suiting up in protective clothing to tour some of her rescue hives — and surviving a bee sting to the forehead from an angry bee who sadly sacrificed her life to protect her hive when she saw me as a threat — I became even more committed to leaving honey for the bees.
Honey, most simply put, is bee food. Bees first draw nectar from flowers. They store the nectar in their honey stomach (one of two) and then return to the hive where a worker bee draws out the nectar, chews it to break down the enzymes, and then spits the liquid into the combs of the hive. Once the water from the nectar liquid evaporates, the fluid left in the comb is the sticky sweet stuff we call honey. Bees then cap the honey with beeswax until they need the food, most often during the winter or during drought.
While this is happening bees are collecting pollen on the hairs of their bodies and flying around which has the effect of scattering the pollen and enabling the growth of all plant life – producing most of the food we eat. This is why bees are essential to our eco system..
Beekeepers like Hilary are critical to the survival of honey bees, a species which, horrifyingly, is currently experiencing Colony Collapse Disorder, putting both the fate of bees and our agricultural system in peril.
Hilary is a local beekeeper, but doesn’t depend on honey sales to sustain her bee-keeping. Hilary is part of a community of beekeepers that practices bee-centric beekeeping, which is a philosophy that puts the needs of the bees before the needs of humans. She focuses instead on education and she rescues unwanted colonies that might otherwise be exterminated. She monitors her colonies’ health and harvests honey only when she judges that the bees have excess. Unlike some larger scale beekeepers, she will forgo harvests when the bees do not have enough honey to share.
Dylan: Hilary, can you break down how most honey is harvested?
Hillary: Honey Bees are very industrious and they will fill whatever size cavity they have. Beekeepers exploit this trait by giving the bees larger cavities to live in than they might choose in nature. Most large-scale beekeeping operations will take too much honey from their hives with the idea that it can be replaced with man-made food: typically high fructose corn syrup or sugar water. Small beekeepers like me recognize that honey is the bees’ food source and only take honey if there is extra. Here in California, because of the lack of rain, there have been fewer flowers for the bees so there is less food. The one exception is when I am called in for a bee rescue. If the honeycomb is stable I will let the bees keep it, but in most cases, as soon as I move the combs, honey will leak. If we don’t harvest the leaky honeycombs, the honey could drown the bees.
Dylan: Let’s talk about veganism and honey.
Hilary: If you’re a vegan for animal ethics then I would definitely say no to honey. And even if you are not a vegan, I would always say no to commercial honey that you buy in the stores because the practices are not sustainable and not kind to bees, just like all modern husbandry practices. I don’t approve of the techniques that are happening in the larger beekeeping operations where the bees are exploited for pollination and honey. Bees are willingly exposed to pesticides/fungicides, subject to poor nutrition and transported all over the country on semi trucks. I think all beekeepers care for and respect the bees, but many of the larger operations care more about meeting their bottom line and the bees suffer for it.
Dylan: And beeswax? Everyone believes this is the organic alternative to soy or petroleum-based wax for candles or soap.
Hilary: If you are opposed to honey then you have to be opposed to beeswax as they are collected hand in hand. You can’t harvest honey without harvesting beeswax. You’re collecting the wax at the same time. Beeswax is produced by the bees to build comb which is used to house their young and store honey. You get very little wax from a single honey harvest or from harvesting the honey from a rescue and by this token, it is difficult to find beeswax from small local suppliers, most beeswax comes from commercial beekeepers.
Dylan: In your opinion, what are some of the reasons bees are in peril?
Hilary: Colony Collapse Disorder is a major concern. Colonies of bees are struggling to survive and this impacts of all our food and of course, the lives of bees and the production of honey for them. In short there are several reasons attributed to the bee crisis: (1) Climate change can be very stressful and destructive for bee colonies. For example, in California the drought means there are not enough flowers blooming for the bees to make honey so the bees have to fly farther and work harder to find what nectar they can. (2) Mono-cropping is very problematic for bees but it is the foundation of our modern agricultural system. Bees are transported around the country to pollinate these single variety crops and this means an extremely limited diet nutritionally. This practice weakens the bees’ immune system and makes them more susceptible to illness and death. They are suffering from a really poor diet. There are miles and miles of the same flower when in a natural setting they would have access to a variety of flowers each with unique nutritional components. (3) A class of pesticide called neonicotinoids which lives inside the plant’s vascular system and weakens the bees’ immune system. When neonicotinoids were introduced into plants and then went into wide-spread use, we started to see the colonies begin to collapse. This is now the number one pesticide in use worldwide even in plants you buy at Home Depot. By itself it doesn’t kill bees, but it weakens their immune system so any other stressor like the ones mentioned earlier, will be dramatically more harmful to the bees and potentially wipe them out.
Dylan: What’s the best way to help bees?
Hilary: The number one way to help bees at home is to plant flowers. When planting for bees make sure you plant from untreated plants. Most plant starts are pre-treated with neonicotinoids. The safest thing is to plant from organic seeds. When shopping for fruits and veggies buy from local organic farms/growers who are growing with permaculture practices in place. This helps show that you support bees because on those farms they aren’t using pesticides or practicing large-scale mono cropping.
Can a vegan live without honey? Absolutely. Maple syrup or pure cane sugar both offer an animal-free alternative sweetener (white sugar is made white by processing the sugar through bone char from animals). And beeswax? If you want to avoid honey then, as Hilary explained, you need to avoid beeswax. Look for soaps and candles made from alternative waxes. My new favorite candle making company is Volupsa (http://www.voluspa.com/). Volupsa uses a coconut and apricot wax blend which they say burns cleaner and holds aroma better. The wax is processed the same way as soy and is ecologically-sound, pesticide-free and sustainably produced. And you don’t have to travel far to support companies like Volupsa. You can find the reasonably-priced candles online and at Nordstrom.
Our homes reflect our values and this winter season let’s make a honey and beeswax-free choice to take a stand for bees!
For more information on bees, please visit Hilary’s blog www.beekeepinglikeagirl.com or Instagram feed @girlnextdoorhoney