Down, Silk, and Honey

Each year, the down, silk, and honey industries kill thousands of geese, silkworms, and bees. Silk and honey producers excuse their actions with claims that worms and bees are just "simple" forms of life, but consumers are beginning to question the unnecessary killing of even tiny, sometimes complex, and certainly feeling, creatures like these.

Down on Down

"Down" is the soft underfeathering often plucked out of live geese who are raised for food. In many European countries, geese are allowed to mature during the first eight or nine weeks of life. Reaching adulthood, they are divided by color.

Gray geese are caged and force-fed--a funnel is inserted into their throats and a salty, fatty corn mash is forced down it, up to six pounds a day--until they are overweight and their livers have ballooned to four or more times the normal size. 

Then they are killed for pâté de foie gras.

White geese are plucked repeatedly to supply filling for products such as comforters, pillows, and ski parkas.(2) Plucking the geese causes them considerable pain and distress.

Four or five times in their lives, they will squirm as a plucker tears out five ounces of their feathers. A skilled plucker can handle 100 birds a day. After the last plucking, the geese have five weeks to grow more feathers before they are sent through a machine that plucks their longest feathers. From there they go to the slaughterhouse.(3)

Apart from the cruelty involved in its production, down has drawbacks as a cold-weather insulator that synthetic insulators do not have. Not only is down expensive, it also loses its insulating ability when wet, whereas the insulating capabilities of cruelty-free synthetic fillers are retained in all weather.(5)


Sack the Silk

Of all the animals man has "domesticated" there have only been two insects - bees and silkworms. Today silkworms have become extinct outside silk factories where they are harvested and then killed by the billions.

The Chinese first domesticated silkworms about 5000 years ago. According to Chinese legend, silk was discovered when Emperor Huangdi ordered his wife Xilingshi to find out what was damaging his mulberry tree. She found white worms eating the leaves and spinning shiny cocoons. When she dropped a cocoon into her hot tea a slender thread of silk unwound itself from the cocoon.

The silkworm is so called because it spins its cocoon from raw silk. The cocoon is made of a single continuous thread of silk from about 300 to 900 meters (1000 to 3000 feet) long.

If the caterpillar is left to eat its way out of the cocoon naturally, the threads will be cut short and the silk will be useless, so silkworm cocoons are thrown into boiling water, which kills the silkworms and also makes the cocoons easier to unravel. A worker finds the end of the thread and places it on a winding bobbin. Then a machine unrolls the cocoon, winding the silk from five cocoons together to make one silk thread.  Then the thread is woven into cloth.

It is interesting to note that one ounce of silkworm eggs contains 40,000 eggs (1,500 eggs per gram).  These worms will eat 3,500 pounds (1500 kilograms) of mulberry leaves, and will spin cocoons which will produce 18 pounds (8 kilograms) of silk thread. It takes 1700 to 2000 cocoons to make one silk dress or about 1,000 cocoons for a silk shirt.

Each year countless silkworms are boiled alive in order to make silk. Silkworms produce endorphins, a chemical response to pain, and worms are sensate. Humane alternatives to silk include nylon, milkweed seed pod fibers, silk-cotton tree and ceiba tree filaments, hemp and rayon.

How About Honey?

In the honey industry, the buzz word is profit. Like factory farmers, many beekeepers take inhumane steps to ensure personal safety and reach production quotas. It is not unusual for larger honey producers to cut off the wings of the queen bee so that she cannot leave the colony, or to have her artificially inseminated on a bee-sized version of the factory farm " rack."(6) When the keeper wants to move a queen to a new colony, she is carried with "bodyguard" bees, all of whom--if they survive transport-- will be killed by bees in the new colony.

Large commercial operations also may take all the honey instead of leaving the 60 pounds or so that bees need to get through the winter. They replace the rich honey with a cheap sugar substitute that is not as fortifying or tasty. In colder areas, if the keepers consider it too costly to keep the bees alive through the winter, they will destroy the hives by pouring gasoline on them, killing most of the bees with the fumes, and setting them on fire. Other times, keepers, who feel that lost bees are easily replaced, allow them to die when trees are sprayed with insecticide. Bees are often killed, or their wings and legs torn off, by haphazard handling.

To produce a pound of honey, bees must get pollen from 2 million flowers and must fly more than 55,000 miles.(7) Honeybees returning to the hive from a pollen-seeking expedition "dance" in figure eights to "map out" a route for other bees to follow. These dances "encode information about the distance and direction of a target that can be miles away from the nest," said Thomas D. Seeley of Cornell University.(8)

According to the Cook-DuPage Beekeepers' Association, humans have been using honey since about 15,000 B.C., but it wasn't until the 20th century that people turned bees into factory-farmed animals. In 1987, the honey "crop" netted $115.4 million.(9) Luckily, many sweeteners are made without killing bees: Rice syrup, molasses, sorghum, barley malt, maple syrup, and dried fruit or fruit concentrates can replace honey in recipes.(10) Use these substitutes to keep your diet bee-free.


  1. "And a Cow Jumped Over the Moon," The Animals' Voice, February 1989, p. 56.
  2. Kamm, Henry, "No Bed of Feathers for a Goose in Hungary," The New York Times, June 2, 1988.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Pearson, Marcia, "Down," The Compassionate Shopper, Winter 1987-88.
  5. Schneider, Al, "Down-Filled Clothing vs. Synthetics," Letters, The Washington Post Health Section, Jan. 16, 1990.
  6. Ling, Arthur, "Ain't So Sweet: The Other Side of Honey," The Vegan, Spring 1988, pp. 12-13.
  7. Spiers, Wally, Belleville News-Democrat, Sept. 11, 1988.
  8. Weiss, Rick, "New Dancer in the Hive," Science News, Oct. 28, 1989, p. 282.
  9. Spiers, op. cit.
  10. Moran, Victoria, "Leaving the Land of Milk and Honey," The Animals' Agenda, March 1988, p. 48.

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