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The Buzz About Honey

Out of all the sweeteners we can choose from, could it be that honey is actually the one that does the least harm to animals? Gently Vegan’s Lifestyle Editor, Shonagh Walker, ponders this possibility.

According to 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.”

And, as people who chooses to live their lives as vegan as possible in every way, both Gently Vegan Publisher Catherine Carr and myself do our utmost on a daily basis the live by this ethos. However lately, we’ve had somewhat of a crisis of conscience when it comes to sweetening my daily cup of tea, or for Catherine, when she whips up one of her incredible cakes, or a batch of mouth-watering muffins.

‘Vegan’ sweeteners are many and varied and may include sugar, corn syrup, rice syrup, agave nectar, maple syrup, molasses, barley malt, organic cane sugar, Sucanat, sorghum or fruit concentrates.

Indeed, these are not animal products, but herein lies my quandary – to the best of my knowledge, the production of these sweeteners may actually do a great deal more damage to the environment and to other sentient beings than the ethical and sustainable harvesting of honey.

To begin with, growing and harvesting the plants from which these sweeteners are made involves clearing acres upon acres of land, which eradicates habitats for many species of mammals. It may also involve collateral killing of rodents, reptiles and amphibians, as well as birds and fruit bats that may become caught in nets laid out to protect the fruits.

Furthermore, many of these sweeteners, according to PETA, may be filtered using bone char from dead livestock.

So, lately I’ve been questioning, doesn’t honey, when produced in small batches and harvested ethically and sustainably, become a far kinder and compassionate alternative? Indeed, such ethical bee keepers use raised hives that require little to no land clearing, and actually encourage new bee populations with each harvest. And as we all know, without bees, we have no planet to sustain human life.

Pete Bunce is the director of The Bee Good Company, a honey distributor that relies on a co-op of ethical, sustainable, small batch honey producers from the pure wilderness of Tasmania.

He agrees, the honey industry does have its dodgy operators who overproduce to the detriment of bees, who dilute their product with other syrups and well, basically don’t respect the insects that are giving our planet its life blood.

However, at the same time, he stresses that there are plenty of producers who do the right thing and actually contribute to the health of not only the bees, but also the earth and its entire population.

“Honey production benefits the natural ecosystem, plants and animal,” he explains. “Bees pollinate much of our fruits and vegetables, and the bees that do this are typically honey producing bees.Bees produce way more honey than what is required for their own purposes, so of course beekeepers sell the excess honey. Ethical beekeepers leave two frames in each hive untouched, and the bees use this when they need it. The bees are free to come and go, and in terms of animal welfare, there really isn’t a huge impact on the bees,                                                                                        unlike some other forms of vegan sweeteners”

“Our beekeepers look after their bees well. It is in their best interest to have healthy colonies of bees. No smart beekeeper or honey producer is going to neglect their bees or infringe on their welfare, as it is their lifeblood. The animal is not being harmed and the benefits are so huge.”

Bunce goes so far to say that beekeeping and honey production actually boosts bee populations and helps to ensure a better future for our planet.

“Beekeepers also actually generate new populations by encouraging new colonies. A bees’ lifecycle is six weeks. In winter, they become dormant and shrink to a core colony. When spring comes around and food increases, the population increases, and it gets to a point where there are too many bees in a hive. The colony will naturally split into two and bees will create a new hive. Beekeepers provide abundant food sources to encourage the bees to do this.”

Cameron Bloom of Bungan Honey, a small batch producer with just four hives in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, agrees, adding, “It is a really important part of the process to ensure your hive is well maintained. Honey can become the bees’ food source if there isn’t enough food for them out in the wild. Over the winter they will need to eat their own honey, which is why it is important to never take all the honey and always leave a certain number of frames for the bees to eat.

“In summer and spring there is a lot of food around and you don’t need to leave as many frames, but if you were harvesting end of summer and autumn you would need to leave more frames on the hive above the brood box so the bees have enough food for winter.”

Bloom also stresses the importance of ‘swarming’ – the division of the hive upon the birth of a new queen – to not only maintain the colonies, but to multiply them.

While PETA does claim commercial bee keepers try to prevent swarming, saying it, “can cause a decline in honey production, beekeepers do what they can to prevent it, including clipping the wings of a new queen, killing and replacing an older queen after just one or two years, and confining a queen who is trying to begin a swarm,” Bloom is adamant that an ethical, sustainable bee keeper would never consider such a practice.

“Swarming typically happens in spring, when there is an abundance of honey,” he explains. “It is amazing for my children to learn and watch nature so closely. We can get so close watching them and being in a swarm is the most amazing thing. You can be surrounded and not get stung.

“We often collect the swarms and start a new colony. The bees will leave the hive with the old queen when a new queen emerges. They land in a tree with the old queen and settle around her. We then cut the branch they are sitting on and shake them into a new hive, thereby creating a new population of bees.”

Bunce adds that if you do decide to eschew traditional vegan sweeteners and opt for ethical honey options, be mindful of certain factors that can pollute your pollinated syrup.

“There are lots of differences in honey,” he stresses. “A lot of supermarket brands have been flash heated (pasteurised) to 80 degrees Celsius, which effectively overheats the honey and kills all the enzymes and destroys much of the honey’s goodness.

“For the best health benefits (to you and the bees), you also need to buy raw and organic, and look for products that will crystallise and harden. This is a sign it hasn’t been pasteurised and has not been blended with another product. For the same reason, look for coarse filtered honey. Many beekeepers will fine filter the honey to remove all of the pollen and wax, but the wax is perfectly edible, so why go through this processing if there is no need for it?”

How to find sustainable, ethical honey

Choosing the right source/supplier of honey is paramount, if you are opting for honey as your sweetener of choice.

“Most people who are sustainable and ethical are open and transparent about how they do business,” says Bunce. “Focus on local producers from an area that is as close to you as possible. There are beekeepers who produce honey for themselves and those who buy from other sources. I would always advise to buy directly from the producer.

Also, when purchasing, choose the most eco-conscious packaging you can advises Bunce.

“Go for glass or ceramic over plastic. The idea should be to buy a nice jar and refill it. Glass is recyclable, but it is also heavy, which increases carbon emissions in postage and transport, which is another reason to purchase honey as close to home as possible.

“In short, the least amount of packaging is the best option, so look for refills over single use bottles or jars. Currently, there is some exciting advancement being made in compostable plastic packaging. While it is still at trial stage, the idea is that you can put it in normal garbage and even if it goes to landfill, it will break down within four months.”

Finally, Bunce reminds us that you get what you pay for.

“My honey is premium, selling in boutique stores and health food stores.

It comes from Tasmanian rainforest, so it is more expensive. As with anything in life, price is a good indicator in terms of what you are getting. Anything that is cheap is going to be fraught with questions. Indeed, anything less than $10 for honey isn’t likely to be ethical or sustainable.”

There is much to ponder, and I do wonder – with all things considered, would it not be fair to say that honey is the most ‘vegan’ – or at least ‘ethical’ – of all the sweeteners available to us? What are your thoughts? Catherine and I would love to hear from you. Feel free to email catherine@gentlyvegan.com.au. 

 

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