Of all the vegan topics omnivores baulk at, I think the avoidance of honey is second (after the avoidance of cheese). I’ve heard every line of reasoning from, “but the bees don’t get hurt,” to “bees love making honey,” and everything in between. For the past several years, I honestly didn’t have a solid answer as to why I avoid honey, other than that it’s an animal product and on principle, I don’t support using animal products. I’m by no means perfect, but I try to avoid exploiting animals whenever I can, and so to make an exception for honey was just that—an exception.
Of all the topics on veganism I write about, rarely do I get all hopped up about animal abuse. Not because it doesn’t make me angry—it surely does! This is perhaps why I don’t write about it. However, last week while visiting my mother’s hippie crunch farm in Newtown, Connecticut, we watched the film Vanishing of the Bees, and it blew me away. I was appalled I didn’t know any of this information about the way we treat bees in our country, and it made me sad, angry and embarrassed! I’m supposed to be an animal advocate! (Self proclaimed, of course…) I should know this!
Many of you may remember when bees started disappearing a few years back. The disappearance is almost eerie, both in its mystery, and in the way it seems to be happening all over the country, in masses. The media ran with the story, blaming it on everything from Russian spies to cell phones. The bizarre thing about the disappearance—which bee keepers have dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)—is that the bees don’t seem to be dying. There are no dead bees in the hives. They just seem to be leaving by the thousands, abandoning their hives and more importantly, their queens! So what, many people think. Who cares about the bees? Well, the bees are responsible for the pollination of our crops. No bees? Say goodbye to fruits and veggies, people!
Bees are a matriarchal society—the queens are their most important asset and normally protected furiously! So to abandon them and take off is astonishing to bee keepers and zoologists alike. Vanishing of the Bees features both commercial and organic beekeepers, and both seem to think that CCD stems from our use of systemic pesticides, which have been banned in other countries solely because of the effect they seem to have on bees. In France, beekeepers rioted until the pesticides were banned!
Unlike pesticides sprayed over crops, systemics are planted with the seeds and grow with the plant, so when bees collect the pollen, they are collecting a poison which runs through their immune system and (ding! ding! ding!) messes up their sense of direction, confusing them and making it difficult for them to locate their homes.
Experts in the film also discussed our farming methods, and how they aren’t conducive to pollination. Farmers used to plant several different crops, so they had something growing every season, and bees always had a task to do. Now, they plant only one or two crops—corn, soy, etc., and this also messes with the bees.
Further aggravating the bees is commercial bee farming, which I had no idea about! Commercial beekeepers, even the ones in the film who seem to love their bees, practice some seriously heinous farming methods. They can have tens of thousands of bee hives, as opposed to smaller organic farmers who may have only10, 20 or 30. Commercial bee queens are stunned, artificially inseminated and inserted into hives already pregnant. After a few months (long before their natural lifespan), they are removed, killed in a brutal manner, and a new queen is implanted in the colony. Because bees don’t like outside bees in their hives, beekeepers have to keep the new queen inside a tiny cage for protection for a few days, until the bees are used to her scent and therefore won’t attack.
Commercial bee farmers ship their bees all over the country, from farm to farm, for use. Not only does this traveling disorient the bees, but the actual physical travel is hard on them. Plus, while bees are traveling in huge trucks, they are often fed sugar water to keep them alive, which is completely unnatural and harmful. Due to the effects of CCD and our monumental loss of bees, we are now also shipping bees from other countries, like Australia, because we don’t have enough bees to support our need for them. Clearly this system is far from sustainable.
An organic beekeeper on the film said that if we really want to save the bees, we would be much better off with thousands of organic beekeepers, each with one hive, than with one commercialized beekeeper with thousands of hives. It makes sense!
While I do believe that pesticides are probably the root of CCD, I can’t help but reflect on the fact that we are terrorizing our planet with all our farming methods. If the bees—arguably nature’s most complex and finely tuned organism—are bailing on us, perhaps we should re-think what we’re doing. I feel bad for the next person who baulks at why I don’t eat honey, and I highly recommend Vanishing of the Bees for anyone who hasn’t already seen it. Check out the film’s website, here, and look for a screening near you! My mom plans to have one at her farm, since we were all so affected by the film. Now, let me wrap up my rant with some awesome bee quotes…
“That which is not good for the bee-hive cannot be good for the bees.” (Marcus Aurelius)
“There are certain pursuits which, if not wholly poetic and true, do at least suggest a nobler and finer relation to nature than we know. The keeping of bees, for instance.” (Henry David Thoreau)
“For so work the honey-bees, creatures that by a rule in nature teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom.” (William Shakespeare)