by Alethea Morrison.
I am a beekeeper and proud of it. The hobby has changed me in ways that I can only understand as positive. I now understand wildflower honey as an ecstasy, a chameleon that changes flavor with every harvest, depending on its composition of nectars. I now respect honey bee colonies as complex civilizations, complete with language, social organization, and fascinating behaviors. With the bees and chickens in our yard and our involvement in community-supported agriculture, I now teach my son that growing food and raising livestock is not inherently cruel to either animals or the environment, but that other realities exist on factory farms.
With the health challenges that my bees suffer season after season, I now see, immediately and tragically, what havoc that chemicals and climate change are wreaking in the natural world. I now make an effort to support a species in crisis — a species that happens to pollinate a third of our food supply. My effort is small and in all probability insignificant. I am like a hummingbird bringing drops of water to a raging fire. Yet I try to convince other hummingbirds to join me. Maybe if there are very many of us, it will be enough. Or perhaps the elephants, who can carry so much more water, will take notice and together we can put out the fires that threaten the future of this planet.
By all rights I should be ideologically aligned with vegans. We share a concern for animal and environmental welfare, a desire for healthy food, and a determination to listen to our conscience at a level that rises to activism. And yet, veganism makes my blood boil.
Reason #1: Evangelical Vegans
To these crusaders, there are vegans, vegan flunkies who are not quite pure, and the rest of us — an immoral, benighted horde who are ripe for conversion to the true faith. Here is my faith. Whether you advocate for local food, organic food, or food that only comes from plants, you are not holier than your neighbor. We are all struggling to understand life in a way that makes sense to us, and everyone deserves respect.
Reason #2: Fundamentalist Vegans
To these hardliners, any product that came from an animal — meat, milk, eggs, honey, silk, and wool included — is taboo. To abstain from meat is a half measure. Even beekeeping is unambiguously, indisputably cruel.
I happen to believe that meat is not murder. Humans and livestock have co-existed for millennia in a mutually supportive relationship. I understand that it is hard to believe that we are supporting animals when we bring them to slaughter, but consider this: With the rise of factory farming, the breed diversity of livestock has alarmingly dwindled. A small number of breeds now dominate — those that do well in confinement and need as little input as possible for the maximum output. However, I feel certain that any animal lover would like to see the amazing Mangalitsa pig live to see another decade. Descended from wild boars and possessing a bizarre coat of fleece, this breed is now rare. The only sustainable way of saving critically endangered livestock animals is to find niche markets for them. They aren’t going to feed themselves.
If you believe it would be better in the long run to let all livestock perish from the earth so we can return to an Eden in which all animals run wild and free, I will at least consider that an interesting, tough-love argument. What I really consider astonishing is the notion that taking anything from animals is theft and exploitation. Here I throw down the gauntlet.
Any responsible beekeeper does not take honey that the bees will need to survive. What is so marvelous about honey bees is that they will horde as much honey as they possibly can. To those of us that make the effort to provide bees with a home in which the comb may easily be removed, surplus honey is our rich reward. As someone who has practical experience with bees rather than intellectual theories about them, I am prepared to say that in all good conscience I don’t feel like a cruel plunderer.
As an authentic bee lover, here is what I find troubling. Like livestock animals, honey bees are victims of industrial agriculture. Loaded up with chemicals to stave off disease, exposed to even more chemicals through agricultural herbicides, and deprived of nutritional diversity, bee hives are shipped around the country, sometimes even around the world, to pollinate crops. Very few will argue that this system is putting bees under tremendous stress. Opting out of honey to protest this situation is, dare I say it, facile and ridiculous. Logically, vegans should in fact opt out of all crops pollinated by the labor of commercially raised bees. To name just some, this includes almonds, apples, cherries, cucumbers, onions, oranges, raspberries, soybeans, and strawberries.
Within the last half century, eating has become a morally intricate knot, as Michael Pollan so brilliantly observed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Veganism appears to neatly solve the dilemma, but in fact ignores its true complexities. The question is not simply what you should eat. Where it was grown and how it was grown are important considerations. If being vegan takes the mental gymnastics and worry out of every bite, I applaud the effort to simplify. I just ask us all to recognize that grey exists between black and white.
Alethea Morrison lived in San Francisco before stepping with her husband into the wild yonder of rural Massachusetts to raise their son, keep bees and chickens, brew beer, sew clothes and otherwise slow down to smell the flowers of a handmade life. She is the author of Homegrown Honey Bees.