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  • Writer's pictureVirginia Thomas

Bees and the Politics of Honey

Updated: Mar 22

In this animal highlight I’m focusing on the honeybee. Insects like bees are usually, literally and figuratively, beneath our gaze. We often don’t notice or appreciate the things they do, including the things they do for us. Bees do a great deal for humans and I think they’re one of the few insects that we do perhaps notice and appreciate, at least to some extent. But of course, as Gary Francione explained in the latest episode of The Animal Turn, from an abolitionist standpoint we shouldn’t be exploiting (or using) what bees (or other animals) do at all. 

Honey bees are remarkable animals, particularly because of their social organisation. More than 20,000 species of bee have been identified and there’s a huge amount of diversity among the species. Not all bees are social, some of them, like the mining bee and the cuckoo bee are solitary. Honeybees are, however, social and live in colonies that can have tens of thousands of bees living together. For social insects like honey bees, the colony is a ‘super-organism’ whose survival is more important than the survival of individual bees. 

Honeybees cooperate and collaborate in highly evolved and complex ways, particularly through the division of labour which is determined through their caste system of female queens, male drones, and female workers. Queens and drones reproduce to ensure the survival of their own colony (in the case of the queen) and other colonies (in the case of the drones). The workers do all the work of maintaining the colony: cleaning, ventilating and guarding the nest, feeding and caring for larvae, building wax comb cells, looking after the queen, foraging for and storing food, and even feeding the drones.

As you can imagine communication is incredibly important to animals who live with so many others and bees are famous for the way they communicate: they’ve developed a sophisticated system of dancing to share information about the location and quality of food with other members of the colony. This includes information based on calculations made in relation to the position of the sun. 

Now honey bees do two things that are of particular interest to humans – they pollinate plants and they make honey. Both of these things are natural honeybee behaviours and wild honeybees pollinate plants and make honey independently of humans. But over thousands of years people have learned to exploit honeybee behaviour. This started with an interest in keeping bees for their honey, and also their wax. A paper by Guy Bloch and colleagues suggests that there’s evidence of  bee keeping as early as the 10th century before the common era. Today honeybees are important to humans for their pollination of crops.

Bees and other pollinators pollinate wild and domestic plants. Thirty-five percent of our crops depend on bees and other pollinators, making bees essential to crop production and human food security. In financial terms it’s estimated that bees contribute 22 billion Euro a year to Europe’s agriculture industry and 14 billion dollars in the USA. This is very important to people but it’s a very utilitarian, teleological way of thinking about bees - something which an abolitionist like Gary was would argue resist.  

Gary was also talking about veganism in relation to abolitionist views. He described veganism as the avoidance of eating, wearing or using any animal product which of course includes honey, and wax. Often when people who aren’t vegans think about dietary veganism they remember meat, dairy products and eggs but they might forget about honey. If people knew some of the incredible figures associated with honey production they might take bees, and their exploitation by people, more seriously. So over her entire life (which is admittedly short – only a few weeks) a worker bee will make only one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. And it takes two million visits to flowers to make 500g of honey which is roughly the size of jars of honey that are sold in supermarkets – so in terms of exploitation, think of the sheer scale of lives and work and effort that have gone into that small jar of honey which we take for granted. 


Virginia Thomas is a fellow with the Animal Turn. She is also an environmental social scientist with a PhD in Sociology. Virginia is interested in people’s interactions with their environment and with other animals. Virginia’s work explores the social and ethical questions in human-animal relationships. She is currently a research fellow on the Wellcome Trust funded project ‘From Feed the Birds to Do Not Feed the Animals’ which examines the drivers and consequences of animal feeding. This leads on from her previous research which examined human-animal relations in the media (as part of zoonotic disease framing) and in rewilding projects (in relation to biopolitics and human-animal coexistence).

You can connect with Virginia via Twitter (@ArbitrioHumano). Learn more about our team here.


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