Is it unethical to eat honey?

Danielle Gehr

Wooden boxes containing hives of bees line the back of a USDA field south of Iowa State’s campus, just past Wallace and Wilson halls.

During the warm months of the year, these particular bees are government employees tasked with pollinating plants, but by November, the plants they spent the summer pollinating are brown and withering giving them some time off.

This particular November day, Steve Hanlin, an entomologist with the USDA, said would be one of the last times he would open up the hive before the bees cluster together for the winter. Cold weather could be fatal to the entire hive.

After a long winter, the bees are ready to leave the hive and pollinate again as the weather warms up.

For Hanlin, his long career with bees started as a hobby. He, like many beekeepers, see them as his pets and genuinely cares for their well-being. Others, however, see his career as exploitative and inhumane.

These issues can include potentially not leaving enough honey for the bees to survive, subjecting bees to unnatural living conditions, genetic manipulations and frequently moving hives around the country. 

Hanlin said he’s unaware of the arguments against honey. He grabbed a device that produces smoke and began puffing it around the hive. He explained this causes the bees to become lethargic by making them think their hive is on fire making them less likely to sting. 

As he explained this, he said maybe that practice is a part of their argument.

On Wednesday nights, a group of like minded people meet to discuss the ethics behind food. The Ethical Eating Club is made up of mainly vegans. A typical meeting involves a table full of vegan food, a video covering food issues and a discussion of the video.

Club President Mallory Schatz said it is a good place to meet other vegans and it gives them a platform to talk about food issues — a topic that can be awkward to bring up around non-vegans.

Schatz tries not to eat honey, though sometimes when she doesn’t check labels carefully she’ll accidentally consume granola bars or cereal that contains honey. Outside of the ethical issues surrounding honey, Schatz said she also became weirded out when she found out honey “was essentially bee vomit.”

Differing from the strong stance an organization like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals takes, Schatz seemed much more lenient with the issue. She said she is fine with eating locally produced honey. She does have an issue with commercial honey.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, is an organization that works to educate people on issues surrounding the food industry, particularly the meat and dairy industry. This comes in the form of articles, protests and going undercover to get video of animal cruelty on factory farms.

PETA laid out their arguments against honey in an article that ends with encouraging people not to eat honey.

The article said, “As a result of disease, pesticides and climate changes, the honeybee population has been nearly decimated, but since the demand for the bees’ honey and other products remains high, these tiny animals are factory-farmed, much like chickens, pigs and cows are.”

The article also said studies show bees are capable of abstract thought and use dance movements to communicate with others in the hive.

“Bees, even though they’re insects, they’re social insects. They’re really intelligent,” Schatz said. “They have very complex social communities and it’s a shame that humans view insects as kind of dumb where we can mistreat them.”  

Hanlin specifically works with insects who are used for pollinating plants for the USDA. One of these natural pollinators is the honeybee. At his job, Hanlin does not extract honey.

Though Hanlin said he had not heard the arguments against eating honey, Ashley St Clair, doctoral student in ecology, evolution and organismal biology and graduate research assistant, said she’s heard the arguments and disagrees.

St Clair conducts research with bees through the warm months of the year. She received her undergraduate in biology and developed an interest in insects after working as an exterminator. One of the other graduate research assistants she works with is a vegan who eats honey.

St Clair described her relationship with bees as similar to the relationship between an owner and a pet. She doesn’t see it as exploitative as long as the bees are left with enough honey for themselves.

Hanlin agreed that he sees his bees almost as his pets and tries his best to be gentle with them.

“I would like to say that every bee that, when I’m working the bees, every bee is safe, but when you’re workin around 10,000 bees, you do crush a few. That sounds bad and it does kind of hurt you, so you try to save as many bees as you can.”

While he cares about the bees as individuals, he said he mainly looks at a hive as a single unit and the bees are the working parts inside.

“A bee is not an individual in these hives,” Hanlin said. “The hive is an organism, so a bee’s only purpose in a hive is for the benefit of the organism, so when you kind of look at it that way, it’s maybe not as inhumane.”

Currently, Hanlin does not keep bees of his own. He works with bees from March until November, sometime nine hours a day in the summer. He said, “That’s plenty of beekeeping.” 

When he retires, this will change, as he has spent so many years working with bees and isn’t ready to stop any time soon. 

“I always joke about a bee will, no matter the mood I’m in, a bee will tolerate me, so I talk to the bees sometimes. That might be a little crazy.”