Widely held unsupported assumption used to justify and glorify using bees for human food
Conflating commercial domestic bees with wild bees
A parasitic extravagance
Like dairy, honey consumption is a form of interspecific kleptoparasitism (literally “parasitism by theft”) of food made by/for another species that has been bred and manipulated specifically to be parasitized and exploited by people. Honey is created when bees regurgitate pollination as their own food source – but people take it for human consumption, usually replacing it with glucose (sugar) for the bees to eat.
To give you an idea of how truly extravagant human consumption of honey is, a bee will only produce around 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in their entire lifetime. Imagine how much of their life's work goes into sweetening just a sip of a single cup of tea!
Like exploiting cows for "dairy," bee exploitation is pure exploitation. Under no circumstances do they "need" us to take and eat their personal food supply, including any "extra." There are many ways that bees are harmed, intentionally and unintentionally, throughout the breeding, production, and post-production process, all so we can eat what is literally their vomit.
Exaggerated ecosystem services
To justify the above, which isn't very socially palatable on its own, many people claim that beekeeping for honey is doing the bees and the environment a favor. There are several reasons why this isn't true.
The most common claim made is that beekeeping helps local bee populations. But people are conflating domesticated honeybees with wild pollinators. Since they are completely different (just like a domesticated farmed cow and a wild buffalo are totally different), one doesn't boost the population of the other. So obviously, the only population being boosted by beekeeping is that of domesticated non-native honeybees, which are not found outside of human confinement and control and which are widely distributed and not actually endangered. Human-controlled breeds of species can’t go “extinct” anyway, only species can.
The Wired piece You're Worried About the Wrong Bees explains that it is the wild pollinators we really need to be worried about. Yet since wild native pollinators can't be exploited or controlled, they often get overlooked. However, domesticated honeybees only perform a fraction of the ecosystem services as native pollinators, and not as efficiently since they are not naturally "tailored" to the local ecosystems.
Olivia Norfolk, Lecturer in Conservation Ecology at Anglia Ruskin University and researcher on honeybee-wild bee interactions, elaborates here on these facts and more.
Helping bees, or hurting them?
Not only does beekeeping do nothing to save wild native pollinators, it can actually do the opposite. Domesticated farmed bees can actually can spread diseases to the pollinators who were there first and actually are endangered. They also crowd them out by competing with them for pollen.
But wild pollinators aren't the only ones harmed in the process. Exploiting bees for their honey actually weakens them. Spikenard Farm and Bee Sanctuary co-owners Gunther and Vivian Hauk explain that exploiting honeybees to make a profit from their honey means "they’re worn down and their compromised immune systems now threaten their existence." The weakened immune system of the bees is part of what is causing 30 to 40 percent of bee colonies to collapse. The Hauks now keep domesticated bees in a sanctuary without taking their honey at all, and have noticed their health improve dramatically.
What about vegan food crops pollinated by industrial colonies?
The vegan movement is agitating for an end to animal exploitation – but in a world still largely hell-bent on it, it’s not always practical and/or possible to avoid in the here and now, which is built into the very definition of veganism. One of the less widely known ways animals are systemically exploited today is through the use of pollination services by commercial beekeepers for single-crop monocultures which can include produce like apples, avocados, and more. Recently, this has become a popular anti-vegan “gotcha” of sorts.
As explained by Bees for Development (unfortunately a group that itself exploits bees):
In the past and in the most natural environments there was/is no need to buy in pollination services because the natural environment supports a healthy population of wild pollinators.... Pollination services are required when we have created an environment which no longer supports a large healthy population of wild pollinators.
Therefore, pollination services are an exploitative “solution” that masks the root of the problem. As vegans we should agitate for the wider use of veganic ecological farming methods being practiced today that address the root causes and negate the “need” for commercial pollination services.
As explained by Your Daily Vegan:
Today’s industrial pollinators spend much of their lives in the back of 18-wheelers, subsisting on high-fructose corn syrup, while being shlepped back and forth across the country to pollinate acres upon acres of monoculture crops. This raises ethical questions for vegans, as well as non-vegans, to consider. All animals rely on plants for survival- directly or indirectly, and our food supply is dependent upon the pollination of our crops.
The first step to addressing this concern is to eliminate the consumption of honey and bee products, thereby reducing the number of managed bee colonies in existence.
The next step needs to be addressing the acres and acres of monoculture crops, which could be done by moving towards a plant-based diet. This would eliminate the need to grow millions of pounds of corn and soy to feed to animals, thereby allowing farmers to grow more diverse crops which keystone pollinators could then pollinate. Obviously this is a monumental task and won’t happen overnight. But eliminating honey and bee products from the equation is the first, important step.
How can we really help the bees?
We can help the bees by decreasing collective demand for their food (honey) by not purchasing it. Luckily many vegan alternatives can be made or purchased instead.
Encourage wild pollinators with low-cost measures to improve nesting habitat and the availability of non-crop food resources.
Fill your garden with a variety of large flowerbeds with flowering plants that are rich in pollen and nectar vs. ornamental hybrids low in nectar or too many impenetrable surfaces that prevent nesting.
Build a bee hotel.
Don't use or spray pesticides, especially while bees are looking for nectar.
Leave at least a portion of your yard un-mowed to encourage dandelion and clover, and scatter wildflower seeds.
Support honeybee sanctuaries that, rather than taking away the bees' food and weakening them, allow them to consume their own honey and therefore thrive.
Support and promote veganic farmers and advocate for the wider adoption of veganic farming.
Keeping honeybees doesn’t save bees – or the environment (The Conversation)
Is Honey Vegan? Should We Take Honey From Bees? (Your Daily Vegan)
How to create a honeybee sanctuary (TSC Tractor Supply)