Honey – Is it Vegan?

This is a question asked by many vegans as they plan their diets and prepare their meals. Many food items are easy enough to identify as vegan-friendly, while others clearly go against the vegan diet. Blueberries are a great vegan snack. Cheese, not so much. A tasty lemonade is a great drink for vegans if they want to cool down. Milk, however, is something they will stay away from. Nuts, seeds, and vegetables all work. Meat is definitely off limits.

But what about honey? Do vegans eat honey? It’s an issue that has sparked a lot of debate among the vegan community. To better answer that, it’s important to look at what the definition of veganism is in the first place. According to The Vegan Society, veganism is a lifestyle “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.” From that definition, it’s easy to see that the vegan lifestyle involves more than just what a person chooses to eat. It seeks to avoid taking advantage of animals for any reason.

So where does this put honey? The Vegan Society has an answer to this as well. In their view, harvesting honey runs contrary to veganism and thus should be avoided by all vegans seeking to respect animals, honeybees included.

Despite this, many vegans still believe that honey is okay as part of a vegan diet. Many say that the honey that bees produce is meant for human consumption, thereby passing the vegan test, so to speak. To get to the bottom of the debate and find an answer, let’s take a look at what honey is and how it gets from the beehive to your plate.

Honey: How It’s Made and Harvested

The journey honey takes starts with the nectar found in flowers. As part of the pollination process, bees suck nectar from flowers and store it inside a “honey gut,” where they then return to the hive and expel it into a cell of honeycomb. The bees then get to work to remove a large portion of water from the nectar. After this is accomplished, honeybees store it by creating a cap made of beeswax over it. This helps to preserve the honey for future use. Honey is basically food for bees, which they often eat during winter after spending most of the spring and summer collecting it.

Harvesting honey from hives can be done in several different ways, the most common being extraction. Combs containing honey first need to be removed from the hive without suffering significant damage. Next, beekeepers need to remove the bees guarding the honeycomb. In many cases, this is done by attempting to pacify the bees by using a bee smoker. This makes the bees go into a feeding instinct, which makes them less hostile toward the beekeeper. The bee smoker also dampens the bees’ ability to communicate by blocking pheromones. In more extreme cases, beekeepers may use leaf blowers to blow the bees off the hive.

Once the honeycomb is removed, honey can be extracted through a specially designed honey extractor or by crushing it. Beeswax and other items are then filtered out, leaving only the honey.

The Case Against Honey

If the aim of veganism is to avoid the exploitation of animals, it’s easy to see why so many consider honey to be against their principles. Though the practices of beekeeping have evolved over the years to be more humane (i.e. removable frames avoid sacrificing the entire colony each season), there is no denying that at least some degree of exploiting honeybees is required to harvest honey. Most vegans make the case that current beekeeping practices still cause suffering for bees.

First off, bees make honey for themselves. They need it to survive, particularly during the cold winter months when flowers and pollen are no longer available. A typical hive can produce up to 200 pounds of honey every year if conditions during spring and summer are right. Even when conditions aren’t right, they can still produce about half of that, which is about as much as they need to get through the winter. Harvesting their honey takes away one of their main food sources. Many beekeepers try to leave enough honey for them to eat during winter, but these are mainly estimates and may not be accurate enough, leading to bees dying of starvation. And when you consider that beekeepers often take pollen as well, another food source, that doesn’t leave much for the bees.

While taking honey and other food sources from bees is harsh, beekeepers try to mitigate the effects by giving them other types of food, like a sugar water substitute, but these replacements lack the vital nutrients found in typical honey and usually have a higher level of acidity. In other words, it’s not always good for the bees.

But that only scratches the surface of exploitation. Commercial bee farming engages in several practices that cause suffering for honeybees. It is pretty much unavoidable for at least some bees to die during the harvesting process. Sometimes it happens by accident despite their best efforts, other times it’s a case of simply being careless. Either way, it happens.

Commercial beekeepers also give their bees antibiotics as a way to fight against common diseases and pests, like the varroa mite, that affect bees. Giving bees antibiotics even if they’re not sick can lead to negative effects on bees like deficiencies with their immune systems.

In addition to that, commercial bee farming usually engages in artificial insemination of queen bees. This is a level of animal manipulation that vegans frown upon. Artificial insemination is done by this industry in order to eventually increase honey production, which is the ultimate goal.

Other effects reach beyond simply the honey people put on their food. Honey is also something that’s used in animal testing. Laboratories will test rats, rabbits, sheep, and even horses by giving them honey. This is done to study the overall health effects that honey has on humans. Some of the animal testing involves purposely wounding animals to test honey’s healing properties. Researchers also dissect animals to see the impact of honey on metabolism. If the exploitation of bees isn’t enough to convince a vegan to avoid honey, the fact animal testing uses it as well should be a clinching factor.

A Different View

Even so, there is another side of the debate worth exploring. Yes, in some way, whether minor or major, bees suffer when their honey is harvested. Yet some vegans still maintain that eating honey is all right. In such cases, honey vegan supporters will often point out that honey isn’t really the controversial issue that so many think it is.

This point of view usually brings up the fact that commercial bees are used for more than just the production of honey. Even if a vegan completely swears off ever eating honey again, chances are they will still be consuming a product that is the result of bee labor. That’s because many commercial farms use bees to pollinate their crops. In fact, many foods that are considered vegan-friendly are pollinated in this way. They include common crops like lettuce, tomatoes, pears, cherries, broccoli, almonds, and plums. If anything, the number of bees used as industrial pollinators in this way dwarfs the number used for honey production.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem to be such a big deal. After all, the bees are used for doing something that they would normally do anyway. Plus, doesn’t the act of pollination not involve beekeepers invading beehives, using smoke to make them docile and likely killing some bees in the process? Without that level of intrusion, what’s the worry over using bees to pollinate?

The sad fact is, when commercial bees are used in this way, their living conditions are often no better than those used to make honey. In some cases, they may even be worse. Many of the intrusive practices used in honey production are also used on bee pollinators. In addition to that, many pollinating bees act as rentals as they go from farm to farm, usually in the back of a large semi-truck. They also tend to have less genetic diversity than other bee colonies, which means their defenses are weaker.

As the pro-honey side argues, if honey is to be avoided due to what people do to bees, why not avoid the crops that use bees for pollination too? It isn’t easy to do. Some farms pollinate their crops with wild insects or even the wind, but they are rare, and sometimes it’s difficult to find out where particular crops come from.

Honey Alternatives

Even if a clear solution to the debate can’t be reached, many vegans agree that a reasonable approach to take is to at the very least avoid honey. The issue then becomes what they can use to replace honey in their diets. Honey is extremely nutritious, so vegans need to find a nutritious vegan alternative. Luckily, finding alternatives isn’t difficult to do, and many of the replacements are quite delicious.

You may choose to go with coconut nectar. This option may be especially appealing if you don’t like coconut since coconut nectar tastes sweet and tangy but has none of the flavor of coconut. With lots of vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids, coconut nectar is an excellent honey substitute.

Another healthy option is agave nectar, which is a type of sweetener that comes in different styles. You can choose lighter agave, which is very similar to honey, or you can go with dark agave for something more akin to caramel.

Other options exist that will surely hit the sweet spot. You may try molasses, which has a lot of calcium and iron. Don’t overlook maple syrup, which can be used for more than just breakfast foods. All of these alternatives can act as the perfect replacement for honey.

Personal Choice

Let’s return to the original question: can vegans eat honey? Obviously there is no strict legal code that vegans have to abide by, so whether to eat honey as a vegan largely comes down to personal choice. Most vegans and vegan groups say honey should not be consumed, but it’s up to the individual to decide if eating honey is in line with the decision to become a vegan. The main takeaway from this is that you need to educate yourself on where honey comes from and how bees are affected by its production to make an informed decision.

If you decide avoiding honey is the correct choice, there are many different products that are undoubtedly vegan-friendly that you can try. Don’t be afraid to change up your meals. Discovering better options is always immensely satisfying.