Is honey vegan? There are many debates within the vegan community about various foods you can and can’t consume. And one of them is honey.
To be a vegan is to abstain from consuming or using products made of/that use animal products in the production process — due to ethical or environmental reasons. Bees do make honey themselves, and they are a living thing, but do vegans eat honey? It’s not necessarily a clear-cut case compared to other things such as meat and tends to depend on an individual’s beliefs.
In this post, I’ll do a deep dive into honey, bees and try to offer a more comprehensive answer to the question ‘is honey vegan?’. You learn something new every day, so today, it may as well be bees.
Is Honey Vegan?
What is Honey?
Honey is a sweet, golden, syrup-like liquid used to add flavour to everything from toast, breakfast cereal, snacks, hot drinks and even helps with cold or flu symptoms. But where does it come from? We all know that bees make honey and sting us, but that’s likely where most people’s knowledge stops on the subject.
To make honey, bees collect nectar from flowering plants. From here, they return to their hive to pass it onto another bee via regurgitation. That in itself is an amazing fact, a little bit grim, but amazing nonetheless. The bees repeat this process before the collected nectar is placed into a honeycomb. At this point, they still have not successfully produced honey.
Next, they have to work hard to fan the liquid and evaporate the extra water within the nectar. When they have achieved this, the bees will then seal the honeycomb by secreting fluid from their abdomen. Eventually, this will harden and become beeswax.
Why Do Bees Make Honey?
Honey isn’t produced by bees because they want something sweet to snack on. It’s one of their essential nutrition sources. Honey is made as a source of nutrition and stored for consumption throughout the winter months when fewer flowers grow, and less nectar is available. The process of honey-making ensures the survival of their entire colony and, of course, the royalty that is the queen bee.
Honey is not only crucial for nutrition but also energy. It’s packed with sugar and provides the ideal fuel for buzzing around as they collect nectar, but also to aid the hard work they do back at the hive. Flapping their wings rapidly throughout the honey-making process and to regulate hive temperature doesn’t sound like the easiest task, does it?
How Does Commercial Bee Keeping Work?
Now let’s turn our attention to why most vegans, myself included, do not consider honey to be vegan.
Commercial beekeepers take food from colonies — food that they have worked super hard to produce — and replace it with a substance of poorer quality. This substance tends to be sugar water, which can include antibiotics and other additives. Fun fact, it takes a bee the equivalent of three trips around the world to fill one jar of honey. With that in mind, the above hardly seems fair. Unfortunately, since they are just insects, people simply don’t feel bad or give it much thought.
Bees are shipped long distances for commercial purposes, and it has become unsustainable to the point where hives suffer for it. Examples of which include disease spread throughout colonies and bees being exposed to malnutrition or harmful pesticides, which impacts the entire colony in both the short and long-term.
Unethical Practices & Environmental Impact
Many vegans do not consume honey for both ethical and environmental reasons. But let’s talk about the former for a moment. For example, in the United States, beekeepers have reported losses of almost 50% of their colonies in warm and colder months. Regardless of your ethical stance here, that’s a concerning fact. Yes, bees thrive in warm weather, so some losses are expected in cold months, but almost 50%?! It’s both concerning and may well point to issues with beekeeping practices. Here are a few aspects of beekeeping to consider:
- Wing clipping: Yep, it’s as cruel as it sounds. Clipping the queen bee’s wings ensures that she does not swarm or leave the hive to start a new one. This may well be carried out to control commercial beekeeping populations, but many vegans see this as inhuman and directly interfering with nature.
- Burning Hives: American Foulbrood is a highly-contagious and deadly disease for honey bees. Many beekeepers burn hives (along with the infected bees) to control the outbreak and prevent spreading to fight this disease. This is another unethical practice that vegans aren’t a big fan of, as beekeepers can prevent the spread of this disease altogether with regular and efficient hive monitoring.
- Pesticide use: Neonicotinoid is a commonly-used insecticide used to protect bee colonies from harmful intruders such as mites or fungi. Unfortunately, this research has suggested that this practice may well be a contributing factor in colony collapse, something that continues to plague many colonies. So much so that the EPA is endeavouring to seek alternative methods of protecting bees.
- Honey substitutes: As I mentioned earlier in the post, bee farmers often replace honey with poorer quality honey alternatives, which are made from a fructose solution and can include additives and antibiotics. While they may think they are helping the bees and still harvesting honey, honey contains vital nutrients needed for bees to stay strong and healthy. Without a honey-rich diet (real honey), bees are significantly more vulnerable to disease and extinction.
So that’s enough ethical fun stuff, now what about the impact on the environment? It’s not uncommon for domesticated farmed bees to spread diseases to the original and endangered pollinators. As pollination becomes unnaturally competitive and crowded, both farmed and wild honeybees cause a lot of problems for the ecosystem.
Bees are indeed tiny, but they play an enormous role in the preservation of nature’s biodiversity and ecological balance. Pollination is one of the most well known and recognisable environmental services, so yes, these little bees are the ecosystem’s unsung heroes. They make food possible and act as an indicator for the current state of the environment.
Is There Vegan Honey?
Vegan Honey: There are alternatives to honey, but is there vegan honey? ‘Vegan honey’ is produced by various companies, often made from singular ingredients such as brown rice. Personally, I haven’t tried brown rice vegan honey, but I love maple syrup, so life is just as tasty without honey!
Speaking of maple syrup…
Maple Syrup: Maple syrup is made from the sap of black, red or sugar maple trees and has a similar consistency but a more concentrated sweet flavour than honey. So much so that many non-vegans actually prefer it to honey. When buying, make sure that ‘pure maple syrup’ is the only ingredient.
Agave Nectar: Agave nectar is taken from the agave plant and has a similar consistency to honey but is just a little bit sweeter. While it is referred to by many as the most ideal sweetener, this raises some dispute as it can be highly processed.
Molasses: Molasses is a thick, dark brown syrup made by refining sugarcane or sugar beets. It tends to be used as a sweetener for baked goods like cakes and cookies, but it’s also used in savoury foods too — baked beans, for example.
Can Vegans Eat Honey?
Can vegans eat honey? Technically anyone can eat honey, unless you’re allergic, of course. But is honey vegan? I would say no. Especially when you consider vegans have an alternative for honey, an abundance of them actually. Ask yourself this — if honey does play a vital role in the survival of bees and their colonies, why do we have the right to interfere just to enjoy a sweet ingredient? With that said, many vegans will read this and maintain their stance that honey is vegan, and everyone is entitled to an opinion.
Bees are amazing; bees are animals, vegans strive to protect animals, no? Just enjoy an alternative for honey instead!