The colonial flight of the honey bee
The honeybee is any of seven species that fall under the genus Apis, all characterized by their propensity to build hives made of wax in which to store honey. They exist among nearly 20,000 other species of bees. Of these seven species, most all have been domesticated (to the extent that a bee can be) and exploited for honey by humans at some point throughout history.
Veganism insists that humans should not consume honey because it involves the captivity of bees and the exploitation of their labour for human desires. Therefore, abstention from the consumption of honey, beeswax, and other related products is a rejection of the speciesism humans enact over honeybees. This logic follows a European settler mentality that has been nurtured since the dawn of colonization which understands the place of Canadians and Americans, civilized and rational, as separate from the land and those who live according to it, marked as wild and savage.
I turn my sights here to one bee in particular, Apis mellifera, the western honeybee, the European honeybee, to tell a tale of colonization, agriculture, food, capitalism, and domination. Through so small a subject can we weave an epic history.
Before 1622, so-called North America (hereafter Turtle Island) had been a stranger to the buzzing wings of Apis mellifera. European settlers, engaged in a process of violent colonization of these territories, mandated that the bees be packed into crates and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean in order to pollinate the newly appropriated agricultural land. The settlers wanted to grow crops familiar to them from Europe and they knew that the honeybee was integral to that new system.
Though the settlers kept the bees for honey and wax, they also understood their role as pollinators. Wheat, corn, oats, and other grains, though complete with their own colonial-meddled histories, are not pollinated by insects but by wind; but up to 80% of fruits, vegetables, and nuts are completely dependent on the services of bees and other insects to reproduce.
The honeybee’s presence was immediately disruptive to the natural balance that had been struck between indigenous plants and animals over hundreds of thousands of years. The honeybees that managed to escape the structured hives of their white settler captors ironically formed their own colonies in the hollows of trees, taking valuable shelter from other beings. And they were not the only uninvited guests to be let loose. Apis melliferawas brought to Virginia. Sus scrofa, the wild pig, was brought to Florida. Pinus sylvestris, Scots pine, was one of the very first trees brought over, though there would be more to follow. Honeybees, pigs, pine trees, and even dandelions, though most associate these things with North America, had never been seen on this land prior to the first sighting of the European. The first records of Apis mellifera in Canada are dated 1776.
The European settlers, driven by a misguided belief in their own exceptionalism and the primacy of linear progress, dismantled the indigenous agriculture they encountered and replaced it with their own. The Haudenosaunee in particular, whose territory spans much of the land known as Southern Ontario, had a complex system of planting and crop rotation that produced bountiful food and left the land healthy. Settler colonialism, however, required ever expanding yields in order to feed an exploding population and extra to send back to the European markets. Domination over the land was seen as the work of salvation. The destruction and denial of indigenous ecological knowledge and people was necessary in order to impose the narrative of European supremacy, which carried with it the “burden” of civilizing all that was supposedly savage.
The European system of agriculture expanded across Turtle Island, wiping out the natural habitat of the people and animals indigenous to this territory. This expansion was as much about feeding settlers as it was a deliberate attempt to destroy indigenous food sovereignty and create a system of dependence. This violent process, resisted courageously at every step, devoured the land and spit out the agricultural system we know today. The capitalist theories of perpetual growth and progressivism fueled the industrialization of settler agriculture when the constant expansion came up against the inevitable limits of the natural world. And so began the chemical inputs, the rise of the factory farm, and the devastating system of mono-cropping that sealed the fate of Apis mellifera.
As capitalism and oil fueled the “efficiency” race here on Turtle Island, a system of global free trade was expanding across the planet. Occupied lands around the world saw the administrative repression of colonialism replaced by the more subtle economic form, carried out through the worldwide financial institutions of the World Bank and the IMF. Structural adjustment programs reorganized agriculture in the South to serve the needs of the North and people began to grow crops for cash instead of food under the banner of comparative advantage. With the world opened up for import and export, the industrial agriculturalists began producing plants, including those pollinated by insects, in massive manipulated plots.
Enter veganism, appropriated by modern white settlers from Buddhist and Hindu traditions.
California produced over 1.9 billion pounds of almonds in 2014. They are the largest specialty crop export of the United States and the fields stretch over half a million acres in the valleys of Sacramento and San Joaquin. The almond tree was brought to Turtle Island by Spanish colonizers. While almonds require heavy hydrological inputs, a glass of almond milk contains only a fraction of the water used in the production of a glass of cow’s milk, seemingly making it the superior choice for harm reduction for both cows and the environment at large. Most vegans consume almond milk on the daily.
In addition to soil, water, and sunlight, almonds require another natural service in order to exist: insect pollination. The almond fields of California are filled with gorgeous flowers for only a few weeks between the months of February and March, during which time honey bees, particularly Apis mellifera, are required to be present and busy pollinating the trees. While this allows for a spectacular availability of almond pollen over these six or so weeks, the rest of the year remains a barren food desert for the honeybee. Given the size and scope of mono-cropped almonds in California, this results in an impossibility of naturally occurring bees to exist. Instead, honeybees are shipped in and out of fields in giant oil-fueled transport trucks which make their way across the country, stopping at each site of scheduled pollination for the other myriad of consumable crops grown in the same industrialized, monopolized fashion. Bees on the west coast of the United States follow a pattern of almonds, apples, and sunflowers (amongst many more); bees on the east coast chase blueberries, cucumbers, and oranges (amongst another many more). The same cycles repeat in Canada. There is no way to grow fruits, vegetables, and nuts within the system of large-scale industrial agriculture and global free trade without exploiting the labour of and lives of bees.
And make no mistake about it, this system is killing the bees we have set ourselves up to desperately depend on. Apis mellifera is dying.
So how then can any vegan who declines a spoonful of honey in their almond milk latte propose that they are removing themselves from the exploitation and extinction of the honeybee?
This dilemma supersedes the palm oil-orangutan debate in every measurable way. This is not about scouring labels for palm oil, but about the domination of bees by humans intimately woven into nearly all the fruits, vegetables, and nuts that vegans eat. There is no way to remove yourself from the pollination services of bees and other insects. And you should not want to; that relationship is a beautiful gift. This simple fact lays bare the ignorance and preposterousness of the settler-colonial anthropocentrism that attempted to destroy the indigenous knowledge that very clearly understood human beings are but one part of a web of responsibilities to one another. Plant, animal, insect, water, rock, thunder, wind, rain.
The solution to this dilemma is not to stop eating almonds or tomatoes, but to stop positioning ourselves as separate from the natural systems of the world. Animals included.
The solution is to challenge the human systems of capitalism and free trade as those which necessitate the exploitation, extinction, and sacrifice of our animal siblings at the altar of economic growth.
The solution is to attack the manipulations and distortions of the settler-colonial agricultural system which cannot function on this land without simultaneously causing its destruction.
I am not proposing that settlers living on Turtle Island abandon veganism, but I am asserting that perhaps you cannot call yourself a vegan unless you are actively opposing the capitalist-colonial system, at home and abroad.
I assert alongside this that each and every vegan must also acknowledge that their lifestyle is made possible only because of a brutal legacy of settler-colonialism that tried to extinguish the traditional indigenous knowledge that once saw food grown and harvested in a way that saw no animal in a cage and no bee in a transport truck.
Veganism does not absolve you from the violent systems that exploit and consume life on this planet.
An acknowledgement of these facts, an acknowledgement of the land we exist on is only symbolic of the real action and labour that must be undertaken in order to reconcile our relationships to each other and the land.
Until the day you take that action, fellow vegans, you may not call your lifestyle “cruelty-free”.