By Laura Tyler, Colorado
Is honey vegan? And if not, how do you assure people that you’re raising bees with kindness?
I have yet to meet a beekeeper— commercial or hobbyist—who doesn’t adore his or her bees. There is a beauty and a romance to raising honey bees that begins with the sun, and, if you are lucky, ends in a bonanza of the best tasting honey you have ever known. Small-scale beekeepers observe colony life up close over time, an experience that enhances their understanding of the natural world, and perhaps even inspires a sense of wonder about the cause and effect relationships that bind all living things. So it can be jarring to discover—and this can happen when you bring your honey to market—that not only does not everyone share your enthusiasm for bees, but there are people who believe you are harming them by participating in beekeeping.
Since bees don’t have to be slaughtered for a harvest, is honey vegan? As an animal product, honey isn’t part of a strictly vegan diet. Yet many vegans are drawn to honey and seek out conversation with beekeepers at their local farmers market. By relaxing defensive language, redirecting litmus test questions and speaking with confidence, you can engage vegans and non-vegan activists in a productive conversation about bees that will position you as a reliable source of information, and perhaps even earn your honey some new fans.
Relax Your Defenses
Is honey vegan? The Vegetarian Resource Group defines vegans as vegetarians who “do not use other animal products and by-products such as eggs, dairy products, honey, leather, fur, silk, wool, cosmetics, and soaps derived from animal products.” In other words, honey isn’t vegan. Whether or not you think it ought to be is irrelevant. Like any belief system, veganism is defined by what its most loyal adherents hold true and there is an element of faith to it that is inarguable. So don’t argue. Accept it. Honey is not vegan. Period.
Interestingly, not every person who follows a vegan diet eschews honey. Some people seek it out as a healthful alternative to more processed sweeteners like agave nectar. Others simply enjoy it or are interested in bees. Whatever the draw, the main concern vegans have about honey is that its production is exploitative, cruel or somehow harmful to the bees. When vegan customers approach you at the market, this is often what they’re trying to find out: Are you a good beekeeper? Or are you an exploitive one? As a small-scale beekeeper, you are in a good position to allay your vegan friends’ concerns by responding openly rather than defensively to their earnest questions about raw honey, how it is produced and how you treat your bees. Avoid getting caught up in a dead-end conversation about honey not being vegan, which will peg you as an adversary.
It is not unusual for vegans to ask if any bees died in the honey collection process. To answer openly is to answer truthfully. And the truthful answer is probably yes. If a hive is healthy and full of bees, a few will get squished when you pull honey. It is okay to share this information with your vegan customers and allow them to make their own informed decision. Your goal is not to change someone’s belief system, but to leave a door open to their approach. An open, honest answer is likely to beget more questions. It is the conversation as a whole, and your potential customers’ sense of you as a person in general, that will convince them to buy bee products from you (or not).
Redirect Litmus Test Questions
While the questions beekeepers get from honey-curious vegans are often sincere and interesting, there is another kind of question you may hear from a different group of people (not vegan) that comes from a different place. Litmus test questions are pointed and political. Neither curious nor kind, they are about making a point. And they are hard to answer truthfully without sounding wrong or defensive.
“Do you feed your bees?” is a typical litmus test question. “Do you use smoke in your beekeeping supplies?” is another. Their emergence at my local market coincided with the release of a popular documentary about bee decline that showed appalling images of a commercial beekeeper feeding high-fructose corn syrup to bees, a practice associated with honey bee population decline. The images were repellent, and it is no surprise people wanted to talk about them. Unfortunately, they led some to the startlingly wrong conclusion that feeding, in general, is bad for bees.
The problem with litmus test questions, laced with judgment as they are, is that they have a shaming quality that can nudge inexperienced or otherwise uncertain beekeepers into bad decisions. And they can be annoying. There is no need to defend or explain yourself when responding to litmus test questions. If you have the time and desire to engage you might redirect hostile questions back to the questioner, “Yes, I feed bees. What makes you ask?” Or you can simply change the subject or ignore.
Whatever choices you made early in the season about how to care for your bees this year— where to place them, what to feed them, how many to keep—stand by those choices when you bring your honey to market. Speak clearly about them. There is no need to defend.
It is okay to feel challenged by ideas that on the surface appear oppositional to beekeeping. Bees are charismatic creatures. Most people who engage with you about them have their well being at heart even if their ideas about them, and your work as a beekeeper, come off as hostile and ill-informed.
Remember, you are the expert. The marketplace is a two-way street, and beekeeping is an ongoing ever-changing thing. You may find, like the commercial beekeeper who quit feeding high-fructose corn syrup after allowing that practice to be documented on film, that difficult, oppositional questions spur new, constructive ways of thinking about beekeeping.
I have a small backyard. What’s the smallest amount of bees you can raise? — Monica, from Facebook
The smallest unit of honeybees you can raise is a single colony. The population of that colony will range from thousands to tens of thousands of bees depending on its health and the season.
So, what’s it like having a colony teeming with 60,000 bees situated in your backyard? Well, it can be a joy and a pain. There is joy in observing bees daily over time. When they’re calm they add a bustling, all-is-well feeling to your garden. Alas, there is pain in the sting. You’ve heard the word “beeline,” right? Foragers move like darts in and out of the hive and can entangle themselves in whatever is in their way. (Curly haired people, watch out!) When they’re testy, things like a lawnmower’s whirl, or a visitor’s cologne can prompt stings. Curious children and dogs must learn to keep away. And you must prepare yourself to deal with swarms each spring.
Another stingless idea for your backyard: research ways to attract and nurture local pollinators like mason bees.
So is honey vegan? No, but you can still have a productive discussion with vegans about your beekeeping practices.
Originally published in Countryside July/August 2016 and regularly vetted for accuracy.