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Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, Inc.
38 East Market Street, Rhinebeck, New York 12572 USA -  845-876-2626
Vegetarian - Vegan - Animal Rights - Health - Nutrition - Environment

The mission of the Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, Inc. is to promote the vegetarian ethic in the Mid-Hudson (New York) region, educate the community and aid anyone in the pursuit of a totally vegetarian (vegan) cruelty-free and healthful lifestyle.

From Spring Issue - 2004

Bees and Honey ­ and the Vegan Ethic
by James Van Alstine

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 "bees" and "animal welfare" 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 dance.

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.

Return to Newsletters - Spring Issue - 2004

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