The question “is honey vegan?” has become a fascinating topic to me. When I first became vegan over five years ago, I admittedly ate honey for a couple of years from local sources.
I thought consuming honey was a good thing because of the potential health benefits. I also thought it was harmless and that bees weren’t exploited. Oh, was I wrong.
In this post, I explore the commercial bee industry, how unnatural and harmful beekeeping has become, as well as answering lots of questions I had about the honey they make and the role bees play in our ecosystem.
The global honey market has boomed as it’s being increasingly recognised as a healthier alternative to cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup. At this point, we should pause and ask “how has the industry of beekeeping changed over time to keep up with the demand?”.
If we look at the honey industry from the same perspective as factory farming, most of what we’ll find on the supermarket shelves will be from exploitative practices.
Before we get into it, I’d also like to point out that yes bees are animals. All insects are. So if you look at the definition of veganism outlined by its founder, Donald Watson, you will understand that honey is not vegan.
But let’s break it all down.
How does commercial beekeeping work?
I’ve been learning about commercial beekeeping and the honey industry as a whole for about a year now. Not until I finally decided to write this post did I dive deep into how honey is produced on a larger scale. This opened up my eyes to an industry that is far from ethical.
In the current state of the honey industry, the supply can simply not meet the demand.
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? So, if you’re buying commercially produced honey, sorry I have some bad news for you. You’re probably 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 as well as ingredients that shouldn’t be in honey. For many years they manipulated honey so that when it was lab-tested, it looked like it was just pure honey.
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.
I won’t go into too much detail because this isn’t the focus of the post. I would, however, like to give you a bit more of an understanding of what typically happens with commercial beekeeping.
In commercial beekeeping, honey doesn’t tend to make them much money. It’s the contracts with the farms that need bees to pollinate their crops that do. Pollination is dependant on two different factors; insects or the wind. There are many foods that we wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the work that bees do.
For bees to be able to pollinate these crops; which are normally monocrops—they have to be transported year-round to pollenate them. This would be very stressful for the bees, and many die in the transportation process. It’s unnatural for them to be moving around from place to place all the time, which also increases their chances of disease.
The reason many bees die off in this type of beekeeping is that the sprays that are used on the crops are deadly (as mentioned earlier). 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.
This is because pesticides weaken their immune systems, create issues with their digestive systems, slowly harming their brains as well as the issues I mentioned previously. If you’re interested in learning more, you can read up on CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) which has become an issue globally since it’s first reporting back in 2006.
The devastating impact of commercial beekeeping
When honeybees come to monocrops for pollination, they end up pushing out all other types of wild/native bees and other insects that are 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 off globally as the honeybees would push out the other species. This can easily disrupt the normal flow of local ecosystems.
With commercial beekeeping, bees are subject to a variety of different processes and procedures. I have outlined some above, but they also include artificial insemination for the queen as well as 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. They 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 is honey made?
Honey is made from bees collecting propolis, water and plant sap with their long pointed tongue. They 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; this is a separate stomach to their main stomach. As they are flying back, the enzymes begin to break down the nectar and start the process of honey.
When the bees return, they regurgitate it into the mouth of another worker bee in the hive, continuing 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 helps the bees 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. 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.
They also collect it for their young and to feed the rest of the colony that doesn’t go out to collect.
What are the roles of different bees in the hive?
Until I started doing research, I had no idea how interesting and intelligent bees are. They all have a role to play, and they know exactly what they have to do to keep their colony alive and healthy. To interact with each other they have special body languages to help one another find food (how far away it is from the hive and how much there is) and to communicate what time of day it is based on the sun.
Wondering how they know what to do? Each bees hormones activate the part of their genetic make up that tells them what they have to do. Here’s the breakdown of the jobs that the bees have within their colony:
The queen bee is responsible for populating the hive and laying eggs every single day. She is important for a healthy honey bee colony. Queen bees can lay up to 2000 eggs a day. They mate or get artificially inseminated early on in life and lay eggs for around 2-3 years.
After this time, beekeepers will get rid of their queens and replace them with young ones as they can no longer lay; they are deemed useless. Queen bees can naturally live anywhere between 5-9 years.
Drones are the males in the hive. Their only goal is to mate with the queen and if possible from other colonies to propagate the species. Some colonies will push out the males if the food source is scarce.
They’re also involved in the artificial insemination process of new queens in the lab. They are squeezed to ejaculate sperm and it’s stored and injected into queen bees for new hives.
The worker bees do everything else that is required and are always female. Here’s a list of what they do:
- Care for the larvae (babies),
- Maintain the cleanliness of the hive,
- Build new cells,
- Store the honey,
- Tend to the queen and drones,
- Ventilate the hive,
- Pollinate plants,
- Forage for food,
- Guard and protect the nest.
The average life of a worker bee is typically six weeks.
Bees will normally leave the hive before they die. If they die inside the hive, other bees will remove them from the hive.
What do bees use their honey for?
The other fact that I found alarming is that when beekeepers extract honey, they feed the bees with alternatives that have no nutritional value for the species. Things such as sugar water and high fructose corn syrup. This is normally done in the winter season to get the bees through a time when they don’t do much or any collecting. This is only if they choose to keep them.
They do this because they take their honey. 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 it for later. Not for us to take.
So let’s get one thing straight. Honey is made by the bees for bees. They don’t work hard all their lives to have their hard work taken away from them. That’s called stealing.
How much honey does a bee make in its lifetime?
If you can comprehend that a bee only makes a 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in their lifetime, then you’ll understand how precious this sticky nectar is for them. They have to visit 2000 flowers just to make a 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 reason, and taking or “draining” your money. How would that make you feel?
Would you consider this exploitation? Or perhaps slavery?
When we simplify it in this way and start considering that bees weren’t put on this earth to provide honey for us, then we can start to shift how we see them. They gather the honey for themselves.
Should we stop eating foods that are pollinated by bees?
This is a tricky question to answer. We farm in such a different way and at a much larger scale to what we did even 50 years ago. Huge monocultures have created a higher risk of disease in bees as well as exposure to pesticides that are sprayed on the crops—which has caused many issues as I 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 are collecting for themselves. The pollination happens by multiple types of bees, not just honeybees. This process is essential for us to have many of the foods that we find in our stores and at markets today.
We shouldn’t be focusing our attention on stopping consumption of foods that are pollinated by bees—as this happens naturally. We should instead be focusing our attention on bringing back different species of bees, stopping consumption of honey and their wax, 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.
A potential solution to the honeybee problem
It would be a good idea to focus our attention on supporting 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.
By going vegan, you’re also 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 to raise livestock.
But that’s a whole other post!
But what about supporting local beekeepers?
Supporting local beekeepers still means that there’s an exploitative relationship in the extraction of honey. It’s inevitable.
Not only that, but bees harvest that honey for themselves. Whether it’s commercial beekeeping or small local beekeepers, the result is still the same, stealing something that’s not ours.
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 completely natural and okay.
Many people argue that bees produce an excessive amount of honey so that we can take some of that for ourselves. 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?
I can imagine that most small scale and backyard beekeepers do 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.
The bottom line is that we don’t need it. Humans can comfortably survive and thrive without it 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.
The ideal thing to help bees that are native to your area is to create a bee hotel, as pictured above. You create a space for them to come and create a home but with no intention of taking their honey. Some species of bees don’t even make honey, so with this in mind, make sure to not bring in honeybees to a nest like this.
In my opinion, 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 how to make one at home, or alternatively, you can buy one.
So, is honey vegan?
I hope that this article has shed some light on why honey is not vegan. With so many alternatives out there, we don’t have any reason to eat honey.
Some alternatives you can try are rice malt syrup, coconut nectar, date syrup, bee-free honey, maple syrup, molasses, and date syrup.
Now it’s over to you, what do you think? Did you know much about the commercial beekeeping industry or how bees make honey? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.