— Tip: voor VEGAN Magazine schreven we een vergelijkbaar artikel in het Nederlands!
Like wool and leather for clothes, honey and beeswax are generally accepted ingredients for cosmetics products. But have you ever wondered what honey essentially is? How those hard working bees in the industry are treated? Or whether it's justified to take this magic elixir from these tiny but important creatures? Only for those who give a damn: this is the not-so-sweet truth about honey and beeswax.
Did you know that the humble bumblebee carries the whole balance of world food supply on its tiny shoulders? And no, we’re not exaggerating here. Despite its size, this fantastic creature pollinates up to 80% of all food crops! It's safe to say, the bee is essential to keeping us and most other creatures alive.
Nonetheless, the human race is massively exploiting the diligent, hard working bees for their honey and wax. Honey and beeswax, essentially one and the same, are not vegan products or kindly 'produced' for that matter, despite how 'natural' they are often advertised.
The sources that were used to write this article can be found at the bottom of this page.
Although innocent from the naked eye, this golden elixir, deceptively beautiful and fragrant is actually regurgitated bee food. In other words: the bees have chewed up and spit out the nectar they make over and over again before it becomes what we know as honey.
It is often a misconception that honey bees produce honey for us. Honey isn’t a waste product from the life of the bee, rather its whole food source to get through the winter. At the end of the day, honey bees are only meant to make enough honey for themselves. It is only because we take it that they overextend themselves and produce more and more: a single bee naturally only makes about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey... in its entire lifetime! 1
Beeswax is not to be overlooked here as it’s used to help the bees store and preserve their honey. From a material point of view, honey and beeswax are basically the same thing, they just have different functions to both humans and bees. Beeswax is a waxy secretion released by young bees in a thin flakey form, that is then chewed and molded by a chain of bees - into the honeycomb hexagonal formation that later houses the honey 2.
Despite the wax and honey serving different functions to the bees, the harvest of one usually implicates the other and is an unethical practice that can harm bees in the process. Unethical? Yes.
One of the more hidden facets of animal agriculture that honey and beeswax don’t carry with them, is the heavy slaughterhouse imagery that we can easily relate to cattle or pigs. However, this animal product is far from acceptable and it’s industrial production is brimming with cruel and unethical practices making it decisively not vegan. Why? You're about to find out.
First and foremost, the very practice of farming bees in order to take their honey for a profit-driven product creates a forced environment in which the bee is pushed to produce more than they do naturally.
How do they do that, you might wonder? The farmers don’t simply cheer on the bees to do more work and to eventually make them more money.
Industrially farmed bees have the majority of their honey removed upon ‘harvest’. This is then replaced by a far cheaper sugar solution with none of the nutritional value of honey for the bees. A lack of nutrition and variety in their diets leads to a largely malnourished and weak colony all for the cause of providing humans with honey for their tea 3. You'll soon find out why this is wildly scary for us humans too.
When farmers set up artificial beehives for industrial beekeeping, the bees are given far more space than they would naturally need to produce the honey they need to feed themselves. This larger space inside the hives does not perturb the bees who then overextend themselves to fill it.
These tiny creatures work incredibly hard to generate a pot of honey. For around 450g of honey, a hive of bees flies over 8,800 kilometres 4.
Continue reading the article below this image.
© Coralie Boon - @thula_art.
These inflated hives continue to be treated as an economic asset even through the hibernation periods of the bees. Oftentimes beekeepers kill off a colony over the winter to save the costs of keeping them alive throughout those relatively unproductive months.
Either this or the beehive is placed in an unnaturally heated surrounding to prevent a risk of hibernation. This lack of hibernation period for the hardworking bees then often proceeds to lead to even worse health as they have no recovery time across the year 5.
Hives are also often transported internationally from cooler to warmer climates to pollinate certain crops during their short blooming periods. This often means hibernation periods won’t align with what they are used to, again leading to less recovery time across the year. This transportation process is also not smooth, with temperatures inside their transportation trucks often fluctuating wildly, causing stress and even premature death.
In the actual harvesting of the honey, haphazard handling in pulling out the trays of honeycomb mixed with hive overcrowding often results in bees having their wings crushed or being crushed in the process 6.
And then there’s the leader of the pack. Just because she carries the title of queen doesn't mean she gets any special treatment from beekeepers. From the moment she is born, industrial beekeepers try to isolate and label her in order to transport and sell her to populate other hives. Once she is settled into the hive, some beekeepers even clip her wings to prevent her from leaving or ‘swarming’ to create a new colony.
If this wasn't bad enough, the queen bee is continuously artificially inseminated for her entire life, her whole existence being forcibly dedicated to populating the colony at a rate that wouldn't take place naturally. And another crazy fact: in order for this insemination to take place, the male ‘drone’ bees are crushed for their sperm to be collected 7.
Continue reading the article below this video.
In a more long term perspective, this often selective and forced breeding for productivity leads to an incredibly small gene pool. And if there’s anything we’ve learnt from evolution it’s that a small gene pool with a lack of variety leads to a higher risk of disease or genetic flaws to wipe out a species.
Read more below on why this would pose a direct problem for you and me too.
This rough handling, especially during the transport and trade of bees is commonplace throughout the industry, raises questions of ethics surrounding insects and their pain.
Although not known for certain, several studies have been conducted into bees and their consciousness. After all, if we knew that they felt and reacted to pain like other animals, it would be easier to argue for more rigorous anti-animal cruelty measures to be put in place. Us vegans figure: why use any animals for their bodies when we can do perfectly well without?
Zoologist Dr Geraldine Wright has perhaps the most conclusive evidence surrounding bees and their responses. From an investigation into honeybees and anxiety, she concludes:
From this evidence, it is safe to say although largely inconclusive on a large scale, there is enough possibility for bees to have a developed sense of fear, anxiety and pain that the industrial beekeeping is not just unnecessary, but maybe even inhumane.
Besides: us humans share quite an important reason to respect these little workers and treat them kindly.
So after all this you might be wondering why the tiny bee is so important to us. Well, in short, the existence of the bee is one of the only reasons plants can survive. Plants are pretty stationary throughout their lives, so pollination by means of bees or wind is vital for their breeding.
Bees are natural pollen scatterers. By landing on such a variety of plants, bees provide the ‘legs’ or ‘wings’ in this case, of the plants. Without bees, pollination doesn’t occur and plants do not grow. A third of our food is pollination dependent, as bees pollinate around many types of crop: from fruits and coffee to avocados and pumpkins 9.
Therefore, without bees, the entire existence of our food chain comes into peril!
The simple and natural activity of the bee indirectly leads to the very foundation of our traditional food chain in plants. The irony here is that measures to farm bees and sustain our food chain have actually worked in the reverse to put it at risk.
And unless you’ve been living under a rock the last couple of years, you have probably heard that the bees are not doing too well right now...
As depressing as it is, honeybees have been on a perilous edge of extinction for the past decades. The most recent development being the listing of the ‘Rusty Patch’ bee as endangered in 2017. With climate change and increasing drought periods, the wildflower meadows that bees are most adapted to and nourished by are falling dramatically. 97% of these wild meadows have been lost since the 1930s 10.
In addition to this, industrial bee farming is often a part of industrial agricultural processes such as the production of non-organic cane sugar or almonds which largely function as a monocrop. This means that the plants that bees are exposed to pollinate are very uniform and unchanging. Aside from not being beneficial to the soil, monocropping thus contributes to the lack of variety and nutritional value present in industrially farmed bees diets already.
In fact, towards the end of february, up to 70% of all US farmed bees are transported to the California San Joaquin Valley (just a 50 mile wide area) to pollinate the countries’ almonds. By concentrating such a high number of bees in this area with a single crop, the spread of disease is rampant and available nutrition incredibly low 11.
Most concerning of all however is the overwhelming presence of pesticides used in these modern farming methods. In the ‘almond valley’, Monsanto’s notorious ‘Roundup’ is widely used amongst others.
One such type, the Neonicotinoid, is particularly lethal to insects and bees. A nicotine-like chemical, neonicotinoids are not externally sprayed onto the plant, rather taken up by the plant internally. This internal action means that the toxin is present in the plants pollen and consequently eaten by the bees, who as a result become paralysed and quickly die.
Although severely restricted in the EU now, neonicotinoids are still extremely prevalent worldwide and continue to be found as residue in plants including wildflowers throughout the EU that have not been consciously treated at all. So despite them being banned in the EU, the damage has been done and continues to spread. This means that the toxin has already entered the natural environment; a grave sentence for the honeybee 12.
When combined with their artificially narrowed gene pool, lack of nutrition and poor handling, pesticides are just the distressing icing on the cake for the world’s bee population.
One of the easiest ways we can support bees is by not contributing to their industrial farming. This means avoiding honey and beeswax products and instead supporting permaculture businesses and the planting of wildflowers that have not been treated with pesticides.
This is how you take the sting out:
Honey and beeswax are rampantly present in cosmetics often labelled as ‘natural’. It’s important to remember that vegan cosmetics not only do not test on animals, but also do not include animal products in their ingredients. Only if no animal was part of the process you can be certain that (the production of) your makeup collection is indeed cruelty-free.
Creams, shampoos, conditioners and most often lip balm are all prone to the use of both honey and beeswax on a cosmetic basis. The good news is: there are more than enough products that do not contain synthetic ingredients and make use of natural, plant-based balms such as coconut butter or olive oil.
There are so many amazing vegan alternatives that you can use today! Cruelty-free shopping tip: check out our vegan cosmetics collection! A preview of some vegan and bee-friendly cosmetic and skincare products we’ve put together:
Instead of buying honey to sweeten your tea or porridge, you can easily opt for the equally tasty date, agave or maple syrup or even organic local raw cane sugar. But please make sure it’s organic and not part of a mass-produced monocrop.
Cosy household items such as candles are often also marketed as ‘natural’ with beeswax, yet there are also amazing vegan candles with ingredients like coconut or soy!
And are you familiar with those beeswax-based food wraps that have been conquering the hearts and kitchens of environmental lovers for quite some time now? Sure, they are plastic-free and do help in the fight against food waste. But they also come without beeswax: vegan alternatives of vegetable wax already exist, based on pine resin for instance. We'll try and add some in the collection of our department store!
Have you already discovered our new Home & Lifestyle collection?
Increase the demand for pesticide-free products. Not just your fruit and vegetables, but also plants and flowers that you buy for in and around the house!
Also sow some of those cool organic seed bombs full of bee-friendly flower mixes. Organisations like The Pollinators will help you on your way!
With such an overlooked participant in our global food chain, spreading awareness for the exploitation of honeybees is vital to more than just honey and beeswax. If the bees collapse, so will we.
By living a lifestyle that avoids contributing to the cruel and unethical industrial farming of bees, it is important to help give a voice to such a tiny yet such an important creature. Thank you for reading down till here.