As a vegan I am proud to say that I do not eat honey or use products which contain beeswax. One of the questions I get asked all the time when I tell somebody about my lifestyle is why I don’t consume or use bee products and it surprises me how little is known about where these substances come from. Most people know about the factory farming of chickens for eggs and meat but did you know that bees are put through a similar experience so that beekeepers can obtain their natural sweetener?
The structure of a hive is a complex and interesting one. Each hive contains thousands of bees with a queen in the centre. Thousands of these are workers which carry out a number of duties, including collecting nectar and building honeycomb. Workers fly from flower to flower, collecting nectar and storing it in their stomachs where is mixed with saliva and other substances. Once back at the hive the nectar is regurgitated so that another bee can drink it and mix it with more secretions from their own stomach. This process is repeated multiple times before the honey is placed in the honeycomb and stored for the winter when they will be short of food. A single worker bee visits thousands of flowers a day but in its life will produce less than a teaspoon of honey. It is therefore a valuable commodity to populations of bees.
Beekeepers harvest the honey in their hives early in the autumn and replace it with sugar supplements for the bees to feed themselves on. This is the equivalent of removing fruit from a child’s diet and replacing it with sugary sweets. They may keep the child alive but it will definitely not be healthy! As a result, there is a higher death rate in manmade bee hives than in the natural alternatives. Viral infections spread by mites are rife in the hive and there is also a condition called “colony collapse disorder” which kills off entire colonies of bees for so far unknown reasons. Add to this the unnatural living conditions of the flat white boxes and it becomes a familiar factory farming environment.
Queen bees live for around seven years in a natural environment. When a new queen is provided by the workers, the current queen and a large number of the colony will “swarm”. They leave the hive and find somewhere new to nest. If this happened in a commercial hive it would cause a decrease in honey production and keepers therefore try their best to prevent it. They usually clip the wings of the queen to prevent her flying and will kill her every year, replacing her with a new queen. They will also add more wax cells to the hive to trick her into laying more eggs than she naturally would.
It is commonly known now that bees are becoming more and more rare. The number of native species have halved in Britain in the past 50 years and many more are close to becoming extinct. If bees disappeared then we would easily lose one third of our diet due to their importance in pollinating plants. It is more important than ever to conserve our current bee populations and do what we can to ensure their survival. The bees which are not kept for honey are threatened by pesticide use, loss of habitat and climate change but we can help populations increase by organically farming and planting wildflowers which bees are attracted to.
While bees are struggling as they are I consider honey to be a luxury which we can not afford to keep taking. As a vegan I will not eat or use any substance which has been created by bees as I object to the exploitation of animals. However I would urge everybody to consider reducing their use of honey or beeswax and helping these vulnerable creatures. Honey is relatively easy to omit from your diet with the use of other sweeteners such as maple syrup or agave and many cosmetic companies have also stopped using beeswax in their lip balms and make up. Are you willing to make a minor change to your life so these creatures can live?
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