Whatıs with the bees, anyway?
Honey is always on the list of animal foods vegans avoid, but
after 16 years as a vegetarian and years of animal friendly activism, Iıve yet
to meet one strong bee-issue advocate.
The defense of bees is certainly at or near the bottom of the
list of vegan concerns, and I confess itıs one point where Iıve cheated from
time to time.
So low is this priority that when I did a Google search of
or "animal rights," most of
the returned hits were from pro-meat sources or cynical corporate media outlets
ridiculing the animal rights movements' defense of
oppressed worker bees.
So does a bee advocate have a leg (or six) to stand on?
Indeed, routine practices in honey cultivation result in the
death of thousands of bees in every aviary. Hereıs where the bodies pile up.
Beekeepers often begin or renew stock in their hives by mail
order. Pounds of live bees are shipped by mail. According to beemaster.com, when
bees arrive, "a few hundred dead bees is ok."
Every phase of work with bees involves invading the hive.
Stocking bees, moving them, introducing a new queen, and most drastically,
harvest of honey all involve opening the hive and manipulating its supers (those
wooden drawers that make up a man-made, domesticated hive). Bees understand all
such disruptions as attacks and so respond by attacking the invader. The act of
stinging does kill the stinging worker. Bees are "smoked"
to suppress the counter attack, but the smoke often kills some bees and does not
fully subdue the attack. Simply manipulating the hive and its parts results in
numerous bees being crushed.
Winter poses a set of problems. Honey is intended by bees to
serve as their winter food supply. Harvest short-changes the bees, exposing the
colony to risk of hunger. Beekeepers donıt mind some winter kill, as long as
enough of a colony survives to repopulate in spring. Often, when honey is taken,
a cheap sugar solution is used in its place to winter-over a colony. Some
keepers, weighing costs against profits, opt to destroy colonies outright at
harvest and simply restock hives in spring.
So thatıs a lot of dead bees, but should we care? A bee is a
far simper organism than a human or a pig, but, hey, if youıre a bee thatıs all
youıve got. An insect nervous system is far less developed than that of mammals
and birds, but it does exist. Bees almost certainly feel pain on some level.
Individual bee brains may be hard to appreciate, but remember that each one is
capable of navigating miles from the hive to pollen sources,
back home again and relating the route to her find by an elaborate, articulate
I once discussed bees with the groundbreaking animal rights
philosopher, Peter Singer. Much of his argument for animals hangs on sentience -
the recognition of thought and feeling in a being. As sentience goes, Peter
noted, each bee might not amount to much; she may or may not be a sentient
being. When combined with the other members of her colony, the intelligence of
the hive mentality is obviously far more considerable < the collective bee mind
is able to see to its own welfare, maintain a complex social order, and act for
its common defense.
A bee is not a critter into whose eyes one may stare and see
familiarity and intelligence as when meeting a pig. A bee is not the cuddly
fuzz-ball we adore as in baby chicks and ducklings. So they are smaller, more
alien and therefore more easily dismissed than other animals, yet they are still
animals. In the practice of honey cultivation they certainly suffer and die by
the thousands. Whether one is moved by the plight of bees is a question of
individual sensitivity, or perhaps simply a question of consistency with the
rest of oneıs vegan ethic. Me, Iım using more maple syrup these days.