Is honey vegan? Generally speaking, no. If we assume that a honeybee is an animal, then the honey they produce is an animal product and is therefore not vegan-friendly.
However, there are shades of grey, like all ethical considerations, when debating whether honey production is humane or cruel.
According to this small poll, there’s so much confusion around honey that 20 per cent of people who identify themselves as vegan see no issue with consuming honey.
Whether you’re a vegan, non-vegan or veg-curious, we aim to answer all of the hairy questions regarding the honey industry’s ethics.
We go beyond the toxic commercial honey industry and put local beekeeping practices under the microscope as well.
Lastly, we wrap up with some actionable steps we can all take to encourage cruelty-free pollination and improve our local ecosystems.
What is honey, and how is it made?
Honey is a thick, sugary, golden liquid most commonly used as a sweetener in food, medicine and drinks.
Beeswax, another product made by bees, is used in cosmetics, waterproofing, candles, food wrapping, crayons and wood polish.
Humans have been obsessed with honey and beeswax for over 9,000 years.
To put it in perspective, a 3,000-year-old pot of honey was found in an Egyptian tomb of a deceased ancient king. Honey was a delicacy back then, and it’s speculated that this pot represented an offering to the gods. The crazy thing is, the honey was still perfectly edible 3,000 years later!
Nowadays, the honey industry is valued at over 9.21 billion dollars with an annual growth rate of 8.2% due to increasing demands and promotion of the health benefits of this golden nectar.
Honey is, of course, made by the infamous honeybee. But did you know that there are over 20,000 bee species, and only one makes honey? That’s one busy segment of an incredibly diverse species!
For this article, we’ll be referring to honeybees as bees.
How do bees make honey?
Honey is made from bees collecting propolis, water and plant sap with their long pointed tongues.
The little creatures have a separate stomach called the crop, where they store all the nectar until they get it back to the hive. This is done once their honey stomach is full; it’s a separate stomach to their main stomach.
As they’re flying back, the enzymes begin to break down the nectar and start the process of making honey.
When the bees return, they regurgitate it into the mouth of another worker bee in the hive. They then continue the process of breaking down the water content in the nectar and the enzymes.
The reason that the enzymes are essential is that they help to create the longevity of honey. This allows the bees to store as much as they need for later use without it spoiling, ever.
This process is done about 50 times over before it is transferred into the beeswax cells and is fanned with their wings to process it even further to reduce the water content even more.
The nectar goes from 70% water to 20% within the processing stage. Without the bees processing, honey would not exist. Once this is done, they seal the cell, and the honey is ready.
It’s at this point that humans intervene with beekeeping or honey farming.
How is honey harvested from a beehive?
For thousands of years, honey has been extracted by using the smoking technique.
Despite the negative terminology, smoking doesn’t directly harm the bees. All it does is trick them into thinking there’s a hazardous fire nearby, triggering the bees to go into lockdown, filling their bellies with honey to preserve it for the future.
Being overly full makes the bees incredibly lethargic and passive—making it easier to manage for beekeepers when removing the bees from the hive.
At this stage, beekeepers use a variety of methods to remove the bees from the hive frames. Common approaches include:
- Shaking and brushing the bees
- Using escape boards
- High-powered bee blowers
- Fume boards
Once the bees have been successfully removed from the frame, beekeepers use either specialised extractors, gravity or manually crush and strain the combs to harvest the honey.
How much honey does a bee make in its lifetime?
Bees, by nature, collect honey and store it for the winter months for themselves as food and insulation. They fill the wax then seal it to save for later.
If you can comprehend that a bee only makes a quarter of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, then you’ll understand how precious this sticky nectar is for them. Bees have to visit 2000 flowers just to make a teaspoon of honey!
Is beekeeping ethical? Commercial versus local (backyard) practices
Now that we’re a little more versed in how honey is made and harvested, let’s discuss commercial and local beekeeping practices related to veganism.
The devastating impact of commercial beekeeping
In the current state of the honey industry, the supply can simply not meet the demand. Again, we’re talking about a 9 billion dollar industry that continues to snowball.
How is it that the population of bees globally is drastically decreasing (due to chemical sprays that are killing them), yet we seem to be ramping up the production year on year as the popularity of honey increases?
If you’re buying commercially produced honey, sorry, I have some bad news for you—likely, you’re not buying pure honey.
After watching the documentary series Rotten on Netflix, where they did an episode on bees, it all leads to one answer. Adulterated honey.
Adulterated honey is honey that has been tampered with. Typically a mix of imported kinds of honey to round out the flavour and ingredients that shouldn’t be in honey.
For many years, producers manipulated honey to look like it was just pure honey when it was lab-tested.
Ingredients like rice syrup were used that weren’t able to be detected in the lab tests. Some also found medications and blends of rice malt and fructose corn syrup in the test results.
The honey blend was also detected to have antibiotics which could be illegal and deadly. It’s no joke.
Without going into too much detail, let’s briefly break this down.
In commercial beekeeping, naturally extracted honey doesn’t make them much money. It’s the contracts with the farms that need bees to pollinate their crops that make up significant revenue.
Pollination is dependent on two different factors; insects or the wind. We wouldn’t have many foods if it weren’t for the work that bees do.
For bees to pollinate these crops, typically monocrops—they have to be transported year-round to pollinate them. This would be very stressful for the bees, and many die in the transportation process.
It’s unnatural for hives to be moving around from place to place, which also increases their chances of disease.
The reason many bees die in this type of beekeeping is that the sprays that are used on the crops are deadly. Billions of bees are dying worldwide because of chemical use.
It’s also been found that bees can get lost and disoriented after being in contact with the chemicals, and if they don’t return to their hive within 24 hours, they die.
Death comes because pesticides weaken their immune systems, create issues with their digestive systems, slowly harming their brains.
If you’re interested in learning more, you can read up on CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder), which has become an issue globally since its first reporting back in 2006.
When honeybees come to monocrops for pollination, they end up pushing out all other wild/native bees and other insects in that area.
This means that there’s less food for wild bees to eat. It would explain why certain breeds of bees are dying globally as the honeybees would push out the other species. This can easily disrupt the normal flow of local ecosystems. We’ll be discussing this point in greater detail later.
With commercial beekeeping, bees are subject to various processes and procedures, including artificial insemination for the queen and clipping of her wings, so she doesn’t fly off, manual replacement of the hive’s queen bee, treatment with antibiotics, and culling.
Culling is done for many reasons; one is when there’s an outbreak of disease, and another is if it’s the end of the pollinating season.
Producers kill the colony to save costs over the winter months as it’s cheaper to start with a new batch of bees when the season begins again rather than to look after their existing colony.
How does local beekeeping compare?
In an attempt to remain objective in this article, we’ve tried to put ourselves in the shoes of a local beekeeper.
This meant reading books like Backyard Bees: A Guide for the Beginner Beekeeper by Doug Purdie, in addition to hanging out in online beekeeping communities.
During our research, it became clear that local beekeepers are passionate, knowledgeable and care about their bees. There’s almost a pet-like relationship between keepers and their hives.
Unlike commercial processes, local beekeepers don’t use any harmful chemicals, artificial sweeteners or antibiotics.
Outside of acquiring a new hive either from a wild swarm, a new bee package, or second-hand, bees are rarely transported.
While not as drastic as commercial beekeeping, some variables may harm or even kill bees, even as a local beekeeper.
The first variable is integrating a hive into a new environment. Whether the keeper is getting a swarm, combining hives, new, second hand, there’s always a chance for injuries and death in this process—especially with new beekeepers.
Beekeepers may need to introduce a new queen to the hive or replace their queen bee every year to keep a healthy population in the hive. This process is intricate, and if the colony rejects the new queen, the rest of the colony will kill her.
The third variable is the extraction of honey. While most local keepers will tell you they do this without harming any bees, it doesn’t mean every local beekeeper is consistently patient and caring when removing bees from the frames.
Whether bees are blown, brushed, shook—if done carelessly, bees will get hurt or killed.
Lastly, like commercial beekeeping, local beekeepers are not immune to disease, which can sometimes result in killing off the sick.
Many of the decisions backyard beekeepers make, even if it leads to bees’ death, is about preserving and growing the colony. So when comparing commercial and local practices, it’s night and day.
If you’re going to consume honey, please consider supporting local producers. However, even though these backyard practices are positive, does it mean that it’s vegan-friendly? More on that next.
Why is honey, not vegan?
From a commercial standpoint, it’s clear that bees are exploited and mistreated for profit.
Much like the industrialised farming of cows, chickens, sheep, pigs, and fish, commercial beekeeping is not concerned for the bees’ wellbeing, and most folks would agree that mass scale honey is not vegan.
However, when it comes to local beekeeping, the answer becomes a little more complicated.
Natural beekeepers will argue that:
- Bees are a powerhouse pollinator helping plants and local ecosystems around the world.
- Bees are critical for crop production. When bees pollinate, they increase yields by as much as 60%.
- Native bees, like the Tetragonula in Australia, have a minimal foraging range up to 800 metres (875 yards), compared to 3.2 kilometres (2 miles) from the honeybee, and don’t provide nearly enough honey for humans to consume.
- Pure quality honey has many health benefits, including antioxidant effects, antifungal properties, the ability to heal wounds, soothe sore throats, and improve digestion.
There’s no denying that there are benefits to producing honey; however, it’s an entirely different story regarding veganism.
The worker bees are the heavy lifters of the colony. They do everything from cleaning, feeding, guard duty, collecting water and foraging for nectar.
These females work to a point where they can’t fly anymore. Many die outside the hive, unable to fly home as their wings are so damaged.
From birth to death, the lifespan of a worker bee is four to five weeks, and during that time, they make roughly a quarter teaspoon of honey.
Imagine this. You work hard all your life, doing 70-80 hour weeks and make very little money. You can’t afford to do anything else but work; you’re just trying to survive.
Now, think about someone else coming along and without permission or necessity and taking or “draining” your money—and there’s nothing you can do. How would that make you feel?
Would you consider this fair? Or would you feel exploited, enslaved even?
When we simplify it in this way and start considering that bees weren’t put on this earth to provide honey for us, we can begin to shift how we see them. They gather the honey for their families.
We always want to be pushing boundaries to include more animal products in our diet. Backyard eggs and honey being the ones that are most “justified” as entirely natural and okay.
Honeybees versus native bees: the real problem
For years we’ve heard there’s a bee problem. If bees go extinct, then we’re all doomed! When you see that 75% of crops are dependent on animal pollinators, you start to understand the urgency.
However, the issue with this stance is the propaganda that our pollination problem is linked solely to the survival of honeybees.
Here’s the deal. After the global beehive collapse in 2008, the honeybee population has successfully bounced back.
What’s scary is that honeybees are creating an imbalance in our ecosystem. Yes, you read that correctly. Honeybees could be doing more harm than good.
As it currently stands, here’s the division of production across pollinators:
- 39% honeybees.
- 38% other bees.
- 23% non-bees, including bats, butterflies, hummingbirds and flies.
As you can see, as one species, the honeybee does the bulk of pollinating due to our ability to farm them. Yet, they’re not always the best at the job.
Native bees, for example, perform 90% of watermelon pollination. They also return twice as many blueberries compared to honeybees.
Heck, honeybees are not even big enough to successfully pollinate tomatoes. We need a big furry bumblebee to get the job done. Meanwhile, 96% of the bumblebee population has died off.
The honeybee species is pushing out the other 19,999 species of native bees and other pollinators, spreading disease, destroying biodiversity along the way.
Before Europeans imported honeybees across borders, we lived for centuries without needing honeybees.
So what’s the deal here? Why so much talk about saving honeybees and silence towards the native species?
I was embarrassed that I couldn’t tell you what a native bee looked like my whole life growing up in Australia.
Here’s a hint, they’re not yellow and black. The colours and sizes of different bee species are endless. Just type in “native bees in ” and check out the images. You’ll be blown away!
These native bees are mostly solitary, don’t sting and live in dirt, sand and wood.
Here’s the punchline, only one bee species produces honey. By singularly supporting 0.005% of the bee population and ignoring the rest shows that humans expect a return on their “altruistic” efforts.
Honeybees dominate the narrative because they provide honey. That’s why some researchers think of honeybees as livestock, not wildlife.
Even the honest backyard beekeeper is helping grow the monopoly honeybees have on the plants to pollinate in their area.
Is there such a thing as vegan beekeeping?
In 2012, Will Curley made waves on the internet by saying that he’s a proud ethical beekeeper while maintaining vegan values.
As you can expect, his story garnered a polarised response—mainly amongst beekeepers and hardcore vegans.
“Vegan” beekeeping or well-practised local beekeeping is based on the concept of only taking honey from the hive in Spring. This is after the bees have already eaten what they need for the winter.
It’s thought that the honey during this particular window of time is considered excess that can be quickly replaced and does no real harm to the bees.
The question is, how’s the excess amount of honey determined? Who says they have excess, and what is enough for them? How would we know where to draw the line?
Measuring excess animal “byproducts” is an ongoing ethical debate. For instance, what’s considered surplus eggs from hens? Or when have calves drunk enough milk from the mother cow?
It’s safe to assume that most small scale and backyard beekeepers leave some honey for their bees. However, when one colony can eat up to 50 kilos (around 110 pounds) of honey in one year, I don’t know if the excess is justified for it to be taken.
Unfortunately, humans can’t communicate with bees, and thus there’s no permission to take their resources. If we don’t have consent, isn’t it safer to not intervene instead of assuming it’s okay?
The bottom line is that we don’t need it. Humans can comfortably survive and thrive without consuming honey, and we can help bees at the same time. We can live in harmony with them and help them in more than one way.
We can plant more bee-friendly plants in our gardens and create bee sanctuaries that help the bees live out their lives without taking their honey.
Is avoiding honey as a vegan dogmatic and over-the-top?
For many, honey is where we draw the line when it comes to how far veganism goes. We’ve seen vegans get called unrealistic because they choose not to consume honey.
Most vegan books that cover the topic of honey are met with reviews like this (click/tap to enlarge the image):
As honey’s ethics is highly debatable, it’s understandable why even some vegans think this approach is too strict or regimented.
At the same time, we also see the perspective of those labelled as the vegan police who present similar arguments to what we’ve covered already.
We think it’s essential to be clear about honey production and veganism for the cultural impact. As discussed in our piece about extending the definition of veganism and our podcast about the grey areas of veganism, consuming honey as a vegan can be incredibly confusing.
People who aren’t vegan observe that some vegans avoid the honey ingredient in everything they consume, while others are happy to roll with it. They’re left thinking, “so is honey vegan-friendly or not?”
The animal rights movement, which already has a lot to fight for and prove, risks losing credibility over simple terminology. Veganism as a concept and a practice loses some power. The power needed to help reduce the unnecessary exploitation and harm to animals. Period.
So no matter where you position yourself on the spectrum of veganism and honey, we encourage you to think about how you use terminology when communicating with others.
For example, if you consider yourself vegan but choose to consume honey, maybe take the time to explain that you’re more plant-based or why vegans choose not to eat honey.
These seemingly minor interactions add up over time and affect our culture and ability to be successful activists.
We wish the nuanced terminologies we use weren’t a big deal, but unfortunately, the details matter when trying to be clear and convicted in a cause.
Should vegans stop eating foods that are pollinated by bees?
This is a tricky question to answer. We farm differently and at a much larger scale than what we did even 50 years ago.
Huge monocultures have created a higher risk of disease in bees and exposure to pesticides sprayed on the crops—causing many issues, as mentioned before.
You can learn more about this in a documentary called Vanishing of the Bees.
Bees are pollinators not for us to benefit from, but it’s something that happens when they collect for themselves. The pollination occurs by multiple types of bees, not just honeybees.
This process is essential for us to have many of the foods we find in our stores and markets and backyards today.
We shouldn’t focus our attention on stopping the consumption of foods pollinated by bees—as this happens naturally. Instead, we should focus our attention on bringing back different bees, preventing honey and their wax consumption, and creating sanctuaries for bees to help them live out their lives.
We would have to do this like we would for any other animal that has been brought into existence for our selfish benefit and crowded out diversity in our ecosystem.
What’s a vegan-friendly approach to helping bees and other pollinators?
We’ve already touched on some ideas to help with the pollination issue, but here’s a summarised actionable list of cruelty-free things we can all do to help our ecosystem.
1. Support local farmers
Support local farmers that grow a variety of organic fruits, nuts, seeds and vegetables, rather than buying products that depend solely on the exploitation of bees and other animals through monocrops.
2. Plant a bee and pollinator-friendly garden
Whether you have a full-blown garden or just have the time or space for a few pot plants, providing a variety of plants will go a long way to helping our planet’s busiest pollinators.
The benefits of nurturing plants are genuinely remarkable. Some examples include:
- Growing your food.
- Having a beautiful garden.
- Providing options for pollinators that helps your local ecosystem.
- Gardening is known to have therapeutic qualities.
If you can, try to plant natives to see if you can encourage local pollinators. Alternatively, if you want to target honeybees, check out this guide on the best plants for bees.
It’s worth noting that bees like sunny areas, so try to focus your plants in those areas of your yard to give them a source.
3. Avoid using harmful chemicals like herbicides or pesticides
As we touched on earlier, herbicides and pesticides can be detrimental (sometimes lethal) to all insects. Many of these chemicals leave a toxic residue for days, even weeks after use for the bees.
If you want some inspiration check out these natural alternatives to herbicides to help, you manage your garden and help bees.
4. Supply homes and water for native bees
Think of all the skills we’ve acquired over 9,000 years of beekeeping. Let’s put those experiences and passion for using in providing more homes for honeybees and natives alike.
The difference here is that we’re not taking any honey from the bees. It’s truly a selfless act, just like it is to plant a tree.
The ideal thing to help bees native to your area is to create a bee hotel, as pictured above. You create a space for them to come and create. Some bees don’t make honey, so make sure not to bring honeybees to a nest like this.
This is the best way to help support bees and our ecosystem of diverse species of bees, so we don’t add yet another to the extinct list. Here is a video on making a bee hotel at home, or you can buy one.
Don’t forget that bees need water. So ponds, fountains and other freshwater sources go a long way for bee health, especially in the warmer months.
5. Help bees by going vegan
By going vegan, you’re helping reduce the impact of monoculture by a long shot.
Knowing that just in the US alone, 41 million tonnes of plant protein is grown for the animal agriculture industry simply doesn’t add up! It’s just an inefficient way of using resources.
This is one of the main reasons the Amazon rainforest is being cleared—to grow feed for livestock and raise livestock.
By avoiding animal products, including honey, you help slow down the demand growing at 8.2% annually.
What are the vegan alternatives to honey?
Many people struggle to give up honey because they love the taste of this thick sugary golden syrup.
Luckily, vegans don’t need to feel like they’re missing out on the honey experience with so many alternatives out there.
You can try the likes of rice malt syrup, coconut nectar, bee-free honey, maple syrup, molasses, and date syrup.
If you’re keen, you could even try making a homemade vegan honey recipe.
Love honey-based dipping sauces and dressings? Check out this super simple 4-ingredient vegan honey mustard recipe.
FAQs about the relationship between honey and veganism
Below are answers to some common questions about the ethics of honey. As we continue to update this post, we’ll add more questions to grow the resource.
Is honey tested on animals?
Medical researchers have been known to test honey on various animals, often leading to the death of rabbits, mice, sheep, goats, horses, and even cats and dogs.
Animal testing is another indication that honey isn’t vegan.
For more information, check out these not-so-talked-about findings by KD Angle-Traegner, If You Eat Honey, Read This. As she presents in her article, aloe vera has proven to be an effective cruelty-free alternative to honey when treating pain in patients.
Is organic, natural, raw honey vegan and cruelty-free?
There’s a lot of misinformation about the ethics of labels like organic, natural, raw and pure honey.
If you had to pick one, certified organic means that producers must meet strict processes for making honey. Depending on the region, some examples of requirements include:
- Wing clipping is prohibited.
- Hive locations cannot be within a certain radius of potential pollution sources like conventional farms, landfills, urban centres and contaminated water.
- Hive hygiene must be held to a high sanitary standard.
- Toxic preservatives shall not be used.
Certified organic is always a better option; however, as we mentioned previously, even what is considered to be a vegan beekeeper is still not cruelty-free. Taking bees food and resources without consent or permission is stealing.
Is honey plant-based?
While technically, honey is made by an animal, not a plant, it appears that it’s culturally acceptable and expected that those on a plant-based diet see no problem with consuming honey.
So, is honey vegan?
We hope that this guide has shed some light on why honey is not vegan. With so many alternatives out there and actionable cruelty-free ways to help pollinate plants, we don’t have any reason to consume honey.
Now it’s over to you, what do you think? Do you think honey is vegan? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Other posts you’ll love:
- Is Alcohol Vegan? How To Approach Alcohol As a Vegan
- How To Go Vegan: A Guide On How To Transition To a Vegan Lifestyle
- Is It Okay For Vegans To Eat Eggs From Backyard Chickens?
- Is Silk Vegan? The Answer Lies In The Process
- Is Wool Vegan? Ethical Considerations of The Wool Industry
Published at Fri, 26 Mar 2021 18:00:55 +0000