Is beeswax vegan? is beekeeping cruel? Neve, my daughter, and I are Oxfordshire beekeepers – these are questions we are often asked.
Beeswax is created, by the bees, from honey. They use beeswax to build their hives and to ‘cap’ the honey to seal it into the honeycomb – it is this ‘cappings wax’ that we use . So, in answering this question, we’re also answering the question, “Is Honey Vegan”.
Definition of Vegan
Here is the definition of Veganism from The Vegan Society
Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
Vegans typically classify honey and beeswax to be non-vegan because they consider the bees are ‘exploited’ by harvesting the honey and that their health is sacrificed when the honey and wax are harvested – hence not adhering to this above definition.
Whilst I don’t want to challenge any of the great stuff the vegan society does, I would like to suggest a balancing viewpoint which, I hope, helps you to decide whether we, as beekeepers are indeed ‘exploiting’ the bees, whether their health is being ‘sacrificed’ and to determine is beekeeping cruel.
Also, I think it’s worth mentioning here that there are many, many health benefits of honey and beeswax both when eaten and when applied to our skin and many of the alternatives are, arguably, more damaging to our planet (e.g. carnauba wax, often used to replace beeswax in vegan cosmetics, is derived from Carnauba Palm Trees responsible for deforestation across swathes of North Eastern Brazil and the conditions of the workers harvesting the carnauba wax have been described as ‘akin to slavery’).
So here goes!
First, a few facts about Bees
- Believe it or not, you have a bee to thank for one in every three bites of food you eat. Honeybees perform about 80% of all pollination. No pollination, no food! (Greenpeace International)
- Bee numbers are falling. According to Greenpeace, a third of UK bees have disappeared in the last 10 years and quarter of European species are at risk of extinction
- Whilst there isn’t one single cause to blame, there are four significant threats that stand out:: pesticides, the varroa mite, climate change and habitat loss. (Source: The Soil Association)
- It is estimated that 75% of all wild bee colonies will die within a year (largely for the reasons above)
It is my view that beekeepers are helping to keep bees alive and healthy and thereby helping to ensure the continued pollination of crops and supply of the food on which we, and other wildlife, all survive.
Are bees exploited?
So let’s move on to explore whether bees are being ‘exploited’ by beekeepers, and ‘is beekeeping cruel’ Here’s my thinking:
- I provide a box in which the bees live
- I keep the box warm in the in the winter and cool in the summer
- I keep the box dry
- I do my best to prevent disease from infecting the box (the varroa mite sadly came to the UK in the 70s and kills many bee colonies especially in the wild), or mice, wax moths and wasps from getting in the box
- I make sure there is sufficient natural forage and fresh water near the box in the warmer months and in the winter I always put extra bee fondant in the box just in case the bees need it
- I make sure there is enough space in the box for the bees to stay healthy and cool
- The bees are free to leave the box and fly away at any time they chose….they don’t!
Bees produce honey to see them through the winter (unlike many bees, honeybee colonies survive over the winter). They typically produce 3 times more honey than they need. Beekeepers will normally harvest a third to half the honey, ensuring the bees have enough for the winter (in a long winter, they will use the extra fondant).
Myths about bees
So let’s explore some ‘myths’ you may have seen on various sites.
1) Beekeepers cut off the Queen Bee’s Wings
I have seen this cited as a terrible thing that beekeepers do to their Queen Bees – it’s on the PETA site and I’ve been sent facebook posts on this subject. Personally, I don’t do this (it’s quite a tricky thing to do) but there are some very good reasons that this is done.
Firstly, it’s worth understanding that the queen bee only flies on two occasions in her life. When she has first hatched, she flies to get mated. Thereafter, she stays in her hive laying eggs – up to 1,500 each day! She doesn’t fly, she’s normally too big – the worker bees do this. Her job is to lay eggs – that’s it! Sometimes, if the colony grows too big for the hive, the bees will swarm – they grow a new queen, starve the old queen so she’s thin enough to fly and kick her out with half the bees (around 40,000 of them). If the queen has her wings clipped, she can’t fly and she will die BUT the 40,000 other bees will go back into the hive and survive. If she is not clipped, she, and the 40,000 other bees will fly away to try to find another place to live. 75% of these swarms will die in the wild as their natural habitat is so badly destroyed nowadays. So yes, clipping the queen’s wings means that, if the colony swarms, she will die, but this saves 40,000 other bees – personally I think this is a preferable outcome – having seen a dead swarm – a large pile of thousands of dead bees – I would far rather just see one dead queen bee!
2) Bees may be killed or injured by a beekeeper.
In the height of summer, a beehive can contain a colony of up to 80,000 bees! Typically, a beekeeper will check their hives weekly throughout the summer. We’re looking for whether there’s a healthy, laying queen, whether they have enough space in the hive, whether there are any signs of disease, whether they have enough stores of honey and pollen and whether the colony is growing as it should. We lift off the supers, containing the honey, and look in the brood boxes (containing the frames of bee eggs and nurse bees). Whilst we do our very best to get all the bees back into their box, yes occasionally, we might squash a bee accidentally when we put the hive back together. In the summer, a worker bee will live for about 6 weeks, a drone lives until the Autumn (or until he mates with a queen when his genitals explode and he dies).
3) But do bees actually benefit from beekeeping?
Yes, they survive! 75% of all swarms die as their natural habitat has been so badly damaged by urbanisation
NB: I’ve no doubt there are some individuals who keep bees and who perhaps have less ethical practices, but fundamentally, it’s called bee KEEP ing – the objective is to keep your bees healthy and happy in their hives. If a beekeeper treats their bees badly, the bees will die, then they will have no bees – this is not in anyone’s best interests!
4) What is the link between beekeeping and bee conservation?
There are four main reasons that bees are dying out 1) loss of natural habitat 2) use of pesticides 3) climate change 4) Varroa mite. If we can all plant beefriendly flowers, shrubs and trees, stop mowing dandelions and other ‘weeds’ that bees love, work with our local councils to keep verges full of wildflowers and not keep cutting them back, encourage farmers to leave strips. Join your local wildlife trust to see what you can do to help. (NB we have a couple of blog posts on which plants are the most bee friendly: Bee Happy Plants for Summer and Trees for Bees
5) Is there a difference between individuals keeping bees and doing it large scale? How so?
Fundamentally, no beekeepers wants to lose their bees so I think animal husbandry is going to be similar. Some of the treatments you can choose for making sure there are no diseases in the hives are possibly different – similar to a human choosing to take Valium vs valerian I guess!
There are some practices that aren’t so nice, however, especially in some of the monoculture crops such as almonds in California – where bees are shipped in to pollinate the almonds. Because these bees’ only diet is Almond pollen and nectar, their immune systems are weakened (as yours would be if you only ate one type of food all day everyday) and they become susceptible to disease. Many Beekeepers won’t now take their bees to monocultures such as almonds anymore.
6) How do you actually harvest bee “ingredients”? What is the process?
The bees live in the brood box (down the bottom of the hive) then we put ‘supers’ which are smaller boxes on the top. Gradually, the bees fill these boxes with honey, capped with wax. Bees normally produce three times more than they need to get them through the winter. Most beekeepers take a third to a half of the supers and leave the remaining two thirds or half for the bees. To harvest the honey, the beekeeper puts a ‘crown board’ between the full super at the top of the hive and the one below with a ‘one way door’ so as the bees leave the top super, they can’t get back into it. Once all the bees have left the super, the beekeeper takes this off the stack of boxes. Then we remove each frame, slice off the beeswax, spin out the honey, then put the frames and the super back onto the hive. The bees then start filling it up again.
7) Is this all safe for the bees? Are there any practices that might be harmful
A beekeeper’s role is to keep the bees year after year. If a beekeeper was doing something harmful, he would lose his bees – they would either fly away or die – so they would stop doing this. Yes, it’s sometimes inevitable that a bee gets squashed when you put a heavy super back on, but we smoke the bees to keep them calm so they stay in the box when we’re doing our inspections. So no, apart from the monoculture issue, a beekeeper is not going to do something that’s harmful to his bees?
8) When it comes to sourcing bee derived ingredients, what is important?
(How do you know the bees are being treated well, what red flags can you look for, are there any specific credentials that are important, differences in quality, what should a consumer know?)
I think it’s important to think about what the bees are foraging on – most small scale beekeepers will let their bees forage on wildflowers in the natural habitat. Some will take their hives to forage on something like heather which has a nice taste and, in this country, it’s likely to be interspersed with other forage to keep the bees healthy. There is lots of anecdotal evidence that local honey and bee products are very good for those suffering from hayfever. Some beekeepers will use chemicals to treat any disease but this is mainly done in the winter so these will long have left the hive before any honey is harvested. Also, in the UK all these treatments are certified safe to use by DEFRA. I understand that in some countries they can treat bees with any chemicals which could end up in the honey. Check the label – by law as UK beekeeper, we have to say where the honey comes from – if the label says ‘of many countries’ or such – be careful with it! Likewise, if you’re buying wax, check where it comes from!
It is thought that some commercial beekeepers will either feed their bees sugar, throughout the year or dilute the honey with sugar or corn syrup. Whilst this doesn’t harm the bees, it’s a bit of a rip off for the customers and not as good for your health!
There are some interesting studies that suggest that Manuka honey is a bit of a con too – yes it’s good for you, but arguably honey harvested local to where you live is better for you (and is likely to cost a lot less than Manuka!)
So, hopefully, this has given you some useful information around the subject of ‘is beeswax vegan’ and ‘is beekeeping cruel’- is the bees’ health being sacrificed or improved by the beekeepers? Are the bees being exploited or helped?
Here at Neve’s Bees, we create a range of 100% natural skincare using our local Oxfordshire Beeswax.. We plough the money we make back into making sure our hives are well maintained and our bees fit and healthy. We also donate 5p per sale to BBOWT (Bucks, Berks Oxon Wildlife Trust to help preserve our natural habitat and the wildlife it supports) We’re often asked why we use our natural beeswax.
Beeswax is an amazing material that’s been used in skincare for thousands of years. It’s a natural humectant that helps to seal moisture into the skin. Interestingly, the trendy skincare ingredient at the moment, hyaluronic acid, is also a humectant – same mode of action as beeswax and nowhere near as tried and tested!