I have been an ethical vegetarian since 1995. For years the biggest thing that kept me from meeting the "vegan" definition was honey (I still don't usually call myself a vegan!). It is not that I loved honey, specifically bought it, or ate it by the spoonful, but there were trace amounts of it in the chai that I would drink (I love a Starbuck's iced chai with soy).
I have always been a bit on the fence about honey. However, I felt the pressure from vegans and vegan groups to ditch the trace amounts of honey that I was consuming, and looked for an alternative.
Low and behold, I was finally able to find a vegan chai that was devoid of any honey. And it is great! However, I am still a little on the fence about the honey.
I think it would be wonderful to not use bees at all in a perfect world. But we don't live in a perfect world, and I can't help but to wonder why so many vegan activists and groups focus their attention on honey, but not all the things that bees pollinate. After all, exploiting bees for pollination goes against the definition of a vegan:
According to The Vegan Society, a "Veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose."
Bees are exploited by the millions each year to create many crops around the world. They are trucked into places to help with growing seasons and provide cross pollination.
According to Wikipedia:
The largest managed pollination event in the world is in California almond orchards, where nearly half (about one million hives) of the US honey bees are trucked to the almond orchards each spring. New York's apple crop requires about 30,000 hives; Main's blueberry crop uses about 50,000 hives each year.
I for one, am not going to stop eating all the foods that these bees are used (or exploited) to produce. There are leaders in the vegan community shaking their finger and saying that vegans do not eat honey. But are they giving up, or advising that others give up, all the foods that these exploited bees are producing? How could it be vegan to eat almonds if you know that a MILLION hives were trucked in specifically to make the crop?
Honey has been an ongoing debate in the vegan community for quite some time. Why such a sticky mess? Research has shown that bee populations are drastically dwindling and without them, humans would have a hard time eating, because so many of our foods require bee pollination.
Perhaps bee keepers may be the saving grace in helping to keep the bee population going, if the numbers continue to decline due to climate change and other factors. Even then, it would be exploiting them, which is not vegan by definition (and even then, they can contaminate the ones left in the wild). Bees may very well be the one living creature that we must exploit to survive. Whether it fits the definition of vegan or not.
How about you? Are you willing to give up eating all the foods that these exploited bees are forced to pollinate in order to be 100 percent vegan (or at least actually adhere to the definition, which includes not exploiting)? Here's a brief list of the foods that bees pollinate:
...almonds, blueberries, apples, cucumbers, melons, squash, broccoli, onions, carrots, avocados, etc....
Notice a pattern? It's all vegan food. Quite possibly the "vegan" cannot exist without the exploitation of the bee, which renders the definition of a vegan a bit off.
So why so much focus on just the honey? If honey is not vegan because of bee exploitation, then how can almonds (and the rest of those foods) be vegan? The bottom line is that people who want to be vegan, but find the honey part a bit of a stretch, shouldn't worry about it. Be a vegan who uses honey, because you will still be doing great for the animals! Honey is really an issue that we shouldn't be debating when it comes to veganism. I think Dr. Michael Gregor, from NutritionFacts.org, has a wonderful piece on this issue, which you can read here.
March 2012 - I wrote a follow up post to this, which looks at the vegan honey debate and bee exploitation. Please read it here.