After a late start and an easy pace, Tyler and I arrived later than most of the rest of the Green Riders to Grand Valley State University’s campus farm where students and professors work and learn. A talk about bees was scheduled, and I was more worried I missed that than I was worried about missing the potluck the generous students of the household had provided for us. Bees, bee keeping, honey and its relationship to veganism has not only been a popular subject along this trip, but in my life for the past couple of years.
Since starting my vegan journey three and a half years ago, I had firmly decided that I supported bee keeping and supported my local bee keepers by buying their honey. After all, the honey bee population is depleting and we need bees to pollinate all of our food, right? Totally right. Though I wasn’t so positively sure of this until after our visit on the farm.
I made myself a tortilla wrap completed with greens the students grew, then suited up in protective gear before hanging out with the bees. Anne Marie, a professor, and Kayla, a student, discussed all that goes into bee keeping. I learned about the foundation of the honey comb that bee keepers put in place for the bees, what a swarm is and how to capture one, how colonies survive once the queen bee leaves the colony (it could involve two new queen bees duking it out to the death), and proper care of the colonies. I had many questions that ranged from asking about the ethical issues of bee keeping like “stealing their food” to the necessity of bee keeping and how to tell a good bee keeper from a bad one. I received plentiful and in depth answers which allowed me to walk away totally ecstatic and full of new knowledge.
Keeping bees promotes pollination within the region and pretty much keeps us alive because we need them to pollinate our food. Good bee keeping practice involves checking in on the colonies for veromites, making sure the collonies have enough space within the hives, colony, and monitoring proper workings and relationships among the bees. Check-ins are necessary, but should occur less frequently during peak honey producing periods so as not to disturb the bees and the production (every two weeks or so). Only removing the lid during this period to see if the bees have expanded into the top of the hive will tell the bee keeper if they need to add another box so they can keep expanding. If a bee keeper tells you he/she never check on their bees, they are not connected with them enough to help them reach their needs therefore not treating them ethically.
When veromites are detected, organic, naturally occurring treatments should be applied as opposed to synthetic, toxic substances, and the types of treatment depend on the season when the veromites show up. Good bee keepers also make sure to leave more than enough honey during extraction so that the bees still have food for themselves. If a bee keeper takes too much or all of the honey, they have to supplement their hives with sugar water as a replacement food sourcd, which then turns into a cruel practice of stealing all of their food they worked so hard to create. I also learned that bees collect pollen early in the season to provide a protein source for their developing larvae, and collect nectar later in the season to provide carbohydrates for themselves to keep them working during the summer and so they will have reserved food for the winter.
Finally, Anne Marie and I discussed the vegan debate. She says the only valid explanation she’ll accept from vegans is that eating honey is actually eating an animal product since they ingest the nectar, break it down with special enzymes, then regurgitate the nectar AND the enzymes (animal product) to create the honey. She disagrees that there is anything unethical or harmful from keeping bees, therefore “harming an animal” is an invalid argument (though there are few incidental deaths from opening and closing the hives). She also reminded me that if following a certain lifestyle is upsetting to me (i.e. not eating honey because “it’s not vegan” even though I flippin’ LOVE honey), then I am not being very fair or nice to myself. I would make the argument that eating animal products in general is not being nice to myself, but I don’t feel this way about honey.
I feel that the proper way to eat honey is by personally knowing the bee keeper. At home, I know my bee keeper and have even met the bees! It is a little harder while traveling, but I will keep my eyes open for farmers markets or on-site honey sales where I would have the opportunity to meet the bee keeper so I can ask the important questions. I hope this helps anyone else on the fence about ethically eating honey, and whether that means you will or you will not eat, I care not!
Tomorrow we will be headed to Peter Bane’s and Keith Johnson’s Permaculture homestead in Montague, MI. I am extra excited as these two (plus Rhonda Baird) were my Permaculture Design Course instructors. We are staying two nights at their house, and I am so looking forward to the abundance of knowledge from them that will spread like wild fire within this group. From taking the PDC, I know every Green Rider is bound to walk away with a unique piece of information they will cherish forever.