Honey: a sticky subject

I have a confession. Despite having been vegan for about a year and a half now, I have recently started to eat honey.

Now, I know this might mean a Scott Pilgrim style removal of my vegan powers, I know that bees give a life for every teaspoon of honey I drizzle on my breakfast bagel, but I can explain, I promise!

The honey debate has always interested me because my father has kept bees for as long as I can remember, and he keeps them for environmental reasons. When I first went vegan, I cut out honey entirely, feeling that it was wrong to steal the bees winter food store. I explained it to my, slightly offended, father – taking honey from bees and replacing it with sugar is like watching someone painstakingly cook up a nutritious meal from scratch, each ingredient carefully selected and prepared, and then, just as they are serving it onto plates, replacing it with a cheap, artificial ready meal.

It’s only later in my veganism that I began to re-evaluate this – we’re often told that we need to ‘save the bees’ and growing flowering cacti in my university room didn’t really seem to cut it. I researched the ins and outs of the breeding of bees and their introduction to the UK. I concluded that I would eat certain honeys, and still call myself vegan.

Imported Honey

It shocked me to find that 95% of honey consumed in the UK is imported, largely from China. This didn’t seem to line up with the shelves of my local Tesco. I delved further: the issues arise in the filtration process. If honey is filtered and processed abroad the pollen is removed, and it is therefore very difficult to trace the honey’s actual origin – huge controversy has surrounded the authenticity of many country of origin labels, as well as there being evidence that the imported honeys can be diluted with other sugars and water, contain additives used to lighten colour, and, crucially, are highly likely to have been factory farmed.

Factory farmed bees

If you’ve read this far, chances are that the phrase ‘factory farming’ rings a few alarm bells. Like any factory farmed animal, factory farmed bees are intensely farmed using unnatural and inhumane processes. When using the phrase ‘farmed bees’ it is not only the production of honey that is referred to, but the other practices of bee-farming such as those used, largely overseas, to pollinate products such as almonds. Farmers transport bees for pollination hundreds if not thousands of miles. This is incredibly stressful for the bees, who are hugely sensitive to changes in their environment and are often not allowed to hibernate over winter as they naturally would. If they are not transported through the winter, the hives are usually culled as soon as their autumn honey has been harvested, or left with only sugar water to feed on, where as more ethical keepers will use sugar water simply to top up the autumn honey to ensure a bountiful winter store.

Traditional farming?

Today’s Beekeeping is not the traditional industry painted by big brands. It surprised me to find that the honey bee as we know it is not actually native to the UK. Instead our native bee, known as the ‘black bee’, was thought to have been made extinct very recently, its gene pool saturated by farmed bees. The honey bee as we now know it in the UK was imported from Italy and Greece, selected for its more placid nature and production of greater quantities of honey. As always seems to happen when humans try to mess with ecosystems for their own gain, it did not all go to plan. These bees struggled to cope with the unreliable British weather as well as ever increasing diseases and pests. This means that they are reliant upon humans for support such as antibiotics and the supplementing low honey stores when it has been too cold for them to fly. Worse, studies suggest that colonies in which the queen has mated at least seven times are almost three times more likely to survive the winter.

Greenwashing?

Those on the pro-honey side of the fence argue that honey is the lowest carbon method of producing sugar. This is true – more common sugars such as fructose corn syrup take a huge amount of energy to process. Even transporting goods like honey from places as far away as China has a relatively low carbon impact. A more common argument is that by buying even factory farmed honey, we give vital support to the dwindling bee population, meaning that though the factory farmed hives themselves may suffer, the surrounding environment benefits. However, the debate surrounding this in the scientific community is far more complex and nuanced.

Jonas Geldmann of the University of Cambridge points out that as the commercial honey bee was introduced to the UK from mainland Europe, it can never contribute to ecological conservation, as it is an invader to the ecosystem we should be striving to protect. He even goes as far as to argue that in huge populations, bees can have a domineering, negative effect upon their local environment. 

On the other hand, others take perhaps a more realistic perspective. Many scientists have rebuked this claim, referring to the UN’s science-policy researchers who have found that farmed bees can be vital contributors to an ecosystem, providing “globally significant” pollination, alongside wild bees. It is argued that with “mindful management”, farmed bees can benefit not only humans, but their environment too. They accept that wild bees must be better protected but recognise that farmed bees are necessary in providing enough pollinators to grow enough crops to feed our ever-growing population.

The problems are greater whether of not to farm or not farm bees. Now, it is valid to see honey bees as an artificial top up to our endangered population of wild pollinators. Due to modern methods of countryside management which have allowed for huge swathes of formerly diverse areas of land to become chemical monocultures of often imported crops. Take oilseed rape, the pretty fields of yellow we see from our car windows, for example. Like most in the brassica family, this plant was originally cultivated in Asia. brassicas are very useful to us in the UK, and, they produce lots of pollen and nectar that flows at lower temperatures than most local plans, so good for the bees too, right? But if a hive is situated next to one of these fields, the bees will eagerly use its flowers to make its spring honey. However, when the bees come to use this hefty store, they find solidified, hard, too hard for them to break into. Our Southern European bees are not adapted to make honey from our Asian crops, and due to the desolate lack of flora diversity in the surrounding trimmed hedge rows, vast grass deserts for livestock, or crops too chemically treated or foreign in shape to be harvested from at all, the bees have few types of honey, and so, without intervention, will starve.

As domestic consumers there isn’t a great deal that we can do about this deep-seated diversity in pollination problem. All we can do is give over whatever land we have to native and pollinator friendly plants. If you are interested in the more political side, I would recommend having a read of the ‘Ten Policies for Pollinators’ in sciencemag.org It covers some the things that we should be pressuring our governments to enforce (it was written in 2016, so may not be the most up to date, but it’s a nice place to start).

So, to conclude should I eat honey?

Well…it depends. I wish there was a hard and fast conclusion to this, but honey remains a sticky subject (budoom tshhh). I hear many ardent vegans dismiss honey out of hand, and yet are very happy to put almonds pollinated by farmed bees on their oatmeal every morning. Many brands promote honey as a wonder product, cutesy and ethical, and yet their goods are shipped in from a factory farm in China and mixed with corn syrup to increase profit margins.

My personal decision is to consume honey very carefully. I will not eat honey from companies that I haven’t fully researched. But I believe that supporting small-scale, raw, ethical, and if at all possibly diverse beekeeping is a form of conservation. I believe that in mindfully consuming honey, I am choosing the lesser of two evils. In an ideal world, bees would be kept not for their honey and instead would be given support and a bountiful rainbow of different plants to pollinate, but this is not realistic. We need to buy honey to help beekeepers to maintain their hives, although we can reduce or impact upon the bees by taking spring honey, so that their food store can be replaced in time for winter. Keeping bees on a small scale is an expensive labour of love, that needs funding through the sale of small amounts of honey, and I believe that it is important for the world of green-living to understand that.

Some of my favourite beekeepers:
  • Black Bee Honey – helping to bring the native British bee back from the brink of extinction, Black Bee Honey produces raw honey from three places in the UK. I haven’t gone into the debates about city honey here, but it usually means bees have access to a wide range of plants. https://www.blackbeehoney.com/
  • Croakham Farm Honey – This is oil seed rape spring honey, meaning, as I described above, this honey must be removed from the hive. I have had discussions with the beekeeper, and they do their utmost to maintain a high ethical standard, including rewilding much of his own land (the oilseed rape is grown by the farmer next door). https://www.bakerybits.co.uk/devon-spring-honey.html
My Sources: