Is Honey Vegan?
By KD Angle-Traegner | Updated April 6, 2018
Honey is a hotly debated topic among vegans and non-vegans. Vegans avoid honey and bee products because bees make them. This avoidance makes sense. Vegans avoid animal products, and a bee is an animal.
But some people disagree and believe that avoiding minutia ingredients like honey can harm the vegan movement by appearing too rigid or difficult.
So, who’s right? Does the cultivation of honey and bee products hurt animals? What about the environment? Are bees animals? Are vegans just being extreme? Let’s find out.
Here is a practical guide to putting an end to the question, “Can you eat honey as a vegan?”
How Is Honey Made?
Honey bees fly from their hive to collect pollen, propolis- a resinous mixture collected from tree buds, sap flows, or other botanical sources used as a sealant for unwanted open spaces in the hives- and nectar. It is the nectar that is used to make honey. Nectar is extracted from flowers using a bee’s long, tube-shaped tongue and stored in its “honey stomach”, or crop. Bees have two stomachs, the crop and their regular stomach. When the crop is full, it weighs almost as much as the bee does.
During the flight back to the hive, bees secrete enzymes in the crop that transform the chemical composition and pH of the nectar, making it more suitable for long-term storage. Once the forager bee returns to the hive, she will regurgitate the contents of the honey stomach (called trophallaxis) and pass it on to a house bee. The house bee will then process the nectar internally by chewing the nectar, adding more enzymes to break the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars. Then the nectar is deposited it into the beeswax cells.
Initially the nectar collected and stored still contains a high water content. The bees will begin to dehumidify the nectar by fanning it with their wings.This process removes most of the moisture from the nectar, making a thick syrup- the honey. Once this process is complete the bees seal off the cell with a plug of wax.
Bees store pollen and honey during the active summer period. This cache of food stored in the honeycombs is slowly consumed during times when the hive cannot forage for flower blossoms, such as in winter months. The honey can be stored in the capped cells almost indefinitely and can feed around 20,000 workers plus the queen bee. In one year, a colony of bees eats between 120 and 200 pounds of honey. (6)
Honey is Tested on Animals
One little known fact about honey is that it is routinely used in animal testing. That’s right, animals are dying to determine the effects honey has on human health. These tests are typically performed on animals such as mice, rats, and rabbits but have also been known to include cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, and even feral cats and dogs. These tests include: surgically wounding animals to determine the effects honey has on wound healing, dissecting animals to determine the effects of honey on bone mass and metabolism, as well as removing reproductive organs to determine how honey effects hormonal profiles- which is the animal model for menopause. (23, 24, 25, 26)
Related Reading: If You Eat Honey, Read This
Of all the important factors to consider when examining honey and bee products, these animal tests are the most heinous, the most egregious, and definitely the most offensive. If there were only one reason to give up honey for good, it should absolutely be this extremely important one.
How to Help Bees & Other Pollinators
Bees are well-known as pollinators, but they aren’t alone. Other pollinators include birds, butterflies, ants, and even bats, among others. Animal pollinators are responsible for pollinating one-third of our crops and of that one-third, bees pollinate 75%. Flowering plants provide the vast array of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, flavonoids, antioxidants, and trace elements that are needed for good health. Humans could not survive a world without animal-pollinated plants, making saving pollinators an absolute necessity. Here’s how you can help.
1. Plant a Bee-Friendly Garden
Much like the rest of the non-human animal community, habitat loss is threatening the lives of bees around the world. From monoculture-based agriculture to perfectly manicured sprawling lawns in the suburbs, native landscapes vital to bees are disappearing. Add flowering plants to your garden or yard that bloom year round. If you have limited space, add a flower box or a container garden with flowering plants to create an inviting oasis that will help bees with foraging.
- Rethink your lawn. Replace all or part of your lawn grass with flowering plants. This will provide food and habitat.
- Plant native flowers. Native flowers help feed bees and are uniquely adapted to your region. Try to use native flowers that the local bees love. Find out which plants are the best for pollinators here.
- Choose single flower tops such as daisies, rather than double flower tops such as double impatiens. Double headed flowers produce much less nectar and make it difficult for bees to access the pollen.
- Steer clear of hybridized plants that have been bred not to seed. They produce very little pollen for bees.
- Plan for year-round blooming. Plant at least three different types of blooming flowers to ensure flowers through as many seasons as possible. This will provide bees with a constant source of food.
- Weeds can be a good thing. Wildflowers, many of which some might classify as weeds like clover and dandelions for instance, are not only some of the most important food sources for native North American bees, but to other native pollinators as well. Free yourself from the confines of the outdated idea that every house needs a well-manicured lawn. Letting your landscape flower is better for the pollinators and your back.
2. Supply Homes & Water for Native Bees
Native bees like to burrow and leaving a patch of the garden (or area in the lawn) uncultivated in a sunny area will encourage this behavior.
“Some native bees also need access to the soil surface for nesting. For wood- and stem-nesting bees, this means piles of branches, bamboo sections, hollow reeds, or nesting blocks made out of untreated wood. Mason bees need a source of water and mud, and many kinds of bees are attracted to weedy, untended hedgerows.” (39)
Bees also need a place to get fresh, clean water. Fill a shallow container of water with pebbles or twigs for the bees to land on while drinking- such as a birdbath with some stones in it for them to crawl on. It’s important to remember to maintain the water supply to ensure that the bees know they can return to the same spot every day.
3. Do Not Use Herbicides or Pesticides
Avoid using herbicides or pesticides in the garden. The treatments you put on your lawn or garden can not only be toxic to bees, but also to the humans and other animals who visit. These treatments are especially damaging if applied while the flowers are in bloom because the chemical will get into the pollen and nectar. The bee collects the contaminated nectar and pollen and take it back to the hive where it gets into the honey- which can then be passed on to humans if they consume the honey. Ladybugs, spiders, and praying mantises will naturally keep the garden populations in check.
4. Buy Local, Organic Food
Buying organic food means no pesticides, buying local food also means eating seasonally which can help you avoid foods that come from monoculture crops. Buy produce from a local farmer’s market or co-op or a Community Supported Agriculture Farm.
5. Avoid Bee Products
There are many different ways to be a voice for the pollinators of our world from planting a garden to advocating for organic food, and each action is important in its own way. You may, in researching this topic, read that one way to help the bees is by becoming a beekeeper yourself.
Some organizations will even promote the idea of supporting local beekeepers and encouraging them to use more “natural” and “organic” methods of beekeeping. But doing so would mean advocating for animal husbandry reform rather than advocating for animal autonomy, which would be antithetical to veganism as an ethical philosophy.
A cleaner hive, a bigger hive, a hive that gets to eat honey instead of high fructose corn syrup, a hive that isn’t bombarded with antibiotics, or queens that aren’t artificially inseminated- these are all things that bees deserve, no doubt about it. But they also deserve a life free from human obligation.
The catastrophic disappearance of honeybees is an ecological crisis that threatens to bring global agriculture to a standstill. Take a further look at our current agricultural landscape and the mysterious world of the beehive through documentaries and films about bees. Find several films that document this crisis by visiting Vegan Flicks, the YDV movie library.
Vegan Honey Alternatives
Finding a replacement for honey is super simple. There are plenty of vegan alternatives to help satisfy that sweep syrup craving you may have. While some are more like honey than others, all of them come from plants making these syrups friendly for everyone, human and animal.
Agave nectar is a sweetener commercially produced from several species of the agave plant. That’s right, the same plant that produces tequila (which explains why agave pairs so beautifully in tequila cocktails). Most agave comes from Mexico and South Africa. Agave is sweeter than honey and tends to be less viscous. And, like honey, agave nectar comes in a varietal of styles ranging from dark amber to light, each with their own distinct flavor. Dark agave has a caramel taste, while the lighter agave is more reminiscent of a delicate honey.
Made from the reduced sap of coconut palms, coconut nectar has a sweet, tangy, taste with no coconut flavor. It is high in amino acids, vitamins and minerals. The nectar also is low-glycemic.
Maple syrup is a syrup usually made from the xylem sap of sugar maple, red maple, or black maple trees, although it can also be made from other maple species. In cold climates, these trees store starch in their trunks and roots before the winter; the starch is then converted to sugar that rises in the sap in the spring.
Molasses is made by refining sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar. Interestingly, the word comes from the Portuguese melaço, ultimately derived from mel, the Portuguese and Latin word for “honey”. Perhaps your only experience with blackstrap molasses has been in gingerbread or baked beans. You probably never gave much thought to it, but blackstrap molasses is an excellent source of iron and calcium. Like other plant syrups, molasses has several varieties and flavors.
Barley Malt Syrup
Comes from sprouted barley, roasted and cooked down to a syrup with a malt-like flavor.
Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup is a sweetener made by exposing cooked rice to enzymes that break down the starches and turn them into smaller sugars. Then all the “impurities” are filtered out and all that is left is a thick dark syrup with a caramel type flavor.
Make Your Own Vegan Honey
Here are a few recipes to get you started:
- 1 cup pitted medjool dates
- 2/3 cup hot water
To make date paste, place medjool dates into bowl. Pour hot water directly over top. Let them soak for an hour or more. Blend well in a high speed food processor (like a Vitamix or BlendTec) until smooth. The flavor is similar to caramel.
Shop for Vegan Honey Alternatives
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Vegan Beeswax Alternatives
“It’s none of your beeswax!” is a phrase I would use frequently as a six-year old child wanting to keep a secret and I find that my meaning then still applies today- it’s not yours, you can’t have it. Back then I was using beeswax to mean business, today I mean it more literally- let’s leave the wax to the bees. There are plenty of great alternatives.
Soy wax is a vegetable wax made from the oil of soybeans. After harvesting, the beans are cleaned, cracked, dehulled, and rolled into flakes. The oil is then extracted from the flakes and hydrogenated. The hydrogenation process converts some of the fatty acids in the oil from unsaturated to saturated. This process dramatically alters the melting point of the oil, making it a solid at room temperature. (40)
Candelilla wax is the exudate found on the leaves of a small scrub native to Mexico and the southwest. It is softer than Carnauba wax and is often used to make candles. Candelilla wax is used in lip balms, lipsticks, body butters, creams, lotions, hair pomades and other products.
Carnauba wax is obtained from leaves of the palm tree Copernica Cerifera, known as the Brazilian “Tree of Life.” This tree grows and flourishes only in the northeastern parts of Brazil along river banks, streams, and damp lowlands and exudes a wax through the petioles of its fan-shaped leaves, preventing dehydration from the equatorial climate. The leaves that contain the wax are cultivated in a manner that does not harm the tree. (41)
Bayberry wax is an aromatic green vegetable wax. It is collected from the surface of the fruit of the bayberry (wax-myrtle) shrub by boiling the fruits in water and skimming the wax from the surface of the water. The scent of bayberry candle is said to be strong. This naturally aromatic wax posses a unique fragrance has become a classic holiday scent. (42)
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Your Daily Vegan is committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. The information and data presented in this article has been meticulously researched, and is based on the information available to me at the time of publication. Each guide is periodically reviewed for accuracy and updated as necessary. You can find the update date listed at the end of every guide. Please contact me if you find out-of-date or incorrect information.
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2. ^ University of California. “Managed Bees Spread and Intensify Diseases in Wild Bees.” Retrieved January 20, 2016
8. ^ Extension. “Proceedings of the American Bee Research Conference 2010.” Retrieved November 7, 2014
11. ^ NPR. “Funny Honey? Bringing Trust to a Sector Full of Suspicion.” Retrieved November 8, 2014
13. ^ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Honey Constituents Up-Regulate Detoxification & Immunity Genes.” Retrieved October 11, 2014
18. ^ Harvard. “Sub-lethal exposure to neonicotinoids proceeding to colony collapse disorder.” Retrieved November 11, 2014
20. ^ Entomology Today. “Study Finds Honey Bees Originated From Asia Not Africa.” Retrieved January 20, 2016
21. ^ University of California. “Managed Bees Spread and Intensify Diseases in Wild Bees.” Retrieved January 20, 2016
24. ^ NCBI. “Effects of Honey Supplementation & Calcium Absorption.” Retrieved November 13, 2014
25. ^ Academia. “Effects of Tualang Honey on Female Reproductive Organs.” Retrieved November 13, 2014
26. ^ De Gruyter. “Review of animal models used to study effects of bee products on wound healing: findings and applications.” Retrieved January 23, 2016
28. ^ JAMA Network. “Effect of Honey, Dextromethorphan, and No Treatment on Nocturnal Cough & Sleep Quality for Children.” Retrieved November 4, 2014
29. ^ Wiley Online Library. “Clinical Observations on Wound Healing Properties of Honey.” Retrieved November 11, 2014
30. ^ National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). “Honey compared with silver sulphadiazine in the treatment of burns.” Retrieved July 9, 2014
32. ^ National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). “Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis.” Retrieved July 9, 2014
38. ^ SueBee. “Why Shouldn’t I Feed Honey to Infants Under 1 year of Age.” Retrieved November 8, 2014
43. General honey bee information obtained from York County Beekeepers’ Association. “Honeybee Facts.” Retrieved October 10, 2014