Is Honey Vegan?

« LAST UPDATE: 18 May 2021 »

PUBLISHED: 5 June 2014

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 demanding.

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?

Here is a practical guide to answering the question, “Can you eat honey as a vegan?”

QUICK FACTS

» Category: Lifestyle Guides & Vegan Baking
» Minutes to Read: 30

Is Honey Vegan?

PUBLISHED: 5 June 2014  »  LAST UPDATE: 18 May 2021

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 demanding.

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?

Here is a practical guide to answering the question, “Can you eat honey as a vegan?”

QUICK FACTS

» Category: Lifestyle Guides & Vegan Baking
» Minutes to Read: 30

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Honey and veganism are a big topic, but a few questions come up more than others. 

Here are some answers to the most commonly asked ones.

Some well-intentioned vegans overlook the use of honey because of the widely spread myth that honey and bee products are all-natural by-products of the necessary pollination of our food crops.

Some vegan bloggers and organizations have made matters more confusing by claiming that only extreme vegans avoid honey.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth is, consuming honey is detrimental to bees and damaging to the environment, and has dangerous consequences for our food supply. And honey is tested on animals such as cats and dogs, among others.

We can avoid honey and bee products for our survival. So, we should.

Yes, and no.

The first thing you should know about honeybees is that they aren’t native to North America. (1) So, how did food crops get pollinated before the arrival of honeybees?

From the keystone pollinators. 

Keystone pollinators are pollinators that are essential to the survival of an ecosystem. In North America, the indigenous pollinators are birds, butterflies, insects, and native wild bees.

There is a significant adverse impact on keystone pollinator populations from honeybees through crowding and stealing pollen and nectar that would otherwise be available to them.

Wild pollinators are in decline across many parts of the world. Because of the downturn, managed honeybees and bumblebees are frequently shipped to the U.S. to provide pollination services. But doing this poses dangerous risks to the wild bee population.

So, to sum up:

Managed honeybees do pollinate plants but are not helpful to the environment because they crowd out and bring disease to native keystone pollinators. Also, they use precious resources in both the transportation of the finished products and the transportation of managed bee colonies.

Even if honey were the healthiest food on the planet, there is still no reason for a vegan to consume it. Though, honey as food falls into the “use sparingly” category of the food pyramid. It’s sugar with no complex carbohydrates or amino acids and virtually no nutritional value.

Honey does contain “small amounts of vitamins and minerals, including niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc,” according to the National Honey Board. Unfortunately, the heating and filtering process can be destructive. While this does not eliminate all enzymes, it does reduce the number left after processing.

Regardless, while proper nutrition is important, it doesn’t play a role in veganism as an ethical philosophy. How many times have we heard that eating animals is vital to good health? Hundreds? Thousands?

Plenty.

Read more: Health Benefits & Honey

It would take a great deal of work to obtain authentic, genuinely free-range, local, and organic honey.

First, you’d have to head into the woods to find a hive made by native bees. Good luck with that. Native bee colonies are scarce and hard to find.

Next, if you do happen to find a native colony, removing the honey won’t be easy. Attempting to take it from the hive would destroy it. Hives are delicate and intricate and not sized for human hands.

Oh, and you’d get stung because bees don’t willingly give up the food that they work hard for and need to survive.

Nope. Bees are accidental pollinators. The only thing they care about is collecting pollen and nectar for their young.

As bees move about collecting what they need, pollen sticks to their hairy bodies. Then it’s rubbed off onto other flowers. Eventually, it makes it the pistol of the plant where seed-production gets started. In this way, the pollination is entirely by accident. The bee does nothing to make it happen.

Since pollination occurs as a result of the natural behavior of bees, the answer to the question is simple. No, there are no ethical implications for eating food pollinated by bees.

That is, as a concept.

Today’s Pollinators

Today’s industrial pollinators spend much of their lives in the back of 18-wheelers, subsisting on high-fructose corn syrup while being shlepped back and forth across the country to pollinate acres upon acres of monoculture crops.

This practice raises ethical questions for vegans, as well as non-vegans, to consider.

All animals rely on plants for survival, directly or indirectly, and our food supply depends on the pollination of our crops. The first step to addressing this concern is to eliminate the consumption of honey and bee products, thereby reducing the number of managed bee colonies in existence.

The next step needs to be addressing the acres and acres of monoculture crops by moving towards a plant-based diet. This plan would eliminate the need to grow millions of pounds of corn and soy to feed animals, thereby allowing farmers to grow more diverse crops that keystone pollinators could then pollinate.

Obviously, s a monumental task and won’t happen overnight. But eliminating honey and bee products from the equation is the first crucial step.

You’d be surprised how often this comes up when discussing honey and veganism.

Someone who eats honey but avoids eggs assumes that the pain, suffering, and human dominance experienced by a bee counts less than the pain experienced by a chicken. In reality, the only difference is the size of the animal.

The thing to remember is that veganism is an ethical philosophy. It begins with the idea that humans do not have the right to use animals in any way and that our use of animals is unnecessary and exploitative. This ethical stance means we should avoid, to the extent that it is practical and possible, all forms of exploitation and human dominance.

The Truth

Listen, if you ask a large group of people about whether or not we should consume honey or bee products, you’ll receive various answers.

You’ll hear that some vegans avoid honey, while others do not. Not true. A vegan will avoid it because it comes from bees, similar to how dairy products come from cows.

Also, you’ll see articles stating that people who avoid honey make the entire vegan concept unworkable or unfeasible for most people.

Don’t listen.

Honey isn’t some magical ingredient no one can avoid. It’s an animal product that has been mass marketed and mass-manufactured for generations. Plus, it’s tested on animals.

With so many vegan alternatives available, honey is not only exploitative; it’s unnecessary.

Read more: Vegan Purity & Perfection

Are Bees Animals?

If you were to ask, most people would be able to tell you that a dog is an animal. There’d be no debate about it.

But should you ask the same people if a bee is an animal, you’ll hear a variety of answers.

A lot of them incorrect.

Bees on a pink and green flower.

Bee searching for nectar / Source

Insects Are Animals

A bee is an insect. Are insects animals? Yes, absolutely.

Bees are flying insects related to wasps and ants. There are nearly 20,000 known species of bees on every continent except Antarctica.

Insects are a class of invertebrates within the arthropod phylum with a chitinous exoskeleton or outer covering, a three-part body (head, thorax, and abdomen), three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes, and one pair of antennae.

Among some of the most diverse groups of animals on the planet, including more than a million described species, insects represent more than half of all known living organisms. The number of extant species (living species) is between six and ten million, potentially representing over 90% of Earth’s differing animal life forms. (4)

A red and yellow striped beetle sitting among a forest of green leaves

Colorado Potato Beetle / Source

The Importance of Insects

Insects play a vital role in our ecosystem, which includes many functions such as soil turning and aeration, dung burial, pest control, wildlife nutrition, and pollination.

Take beetles, for example. They’re scavengers who feed on dead animals, fallen trees, and other decaying matter. By doing so, they recycle biological materials creating the rich topsoil our crops need to thrive.

Like butterflies, insects are also food for larger animals. Not only that, some insects feed on other insects that are damaging to crops. Ladybugs feed on aphids, for instance. Finally, insects such as wasps, bees, butterflies, and ants are pollinators of flowering plants.

As an aside: Birds are perhaps the most visible predator of insects, but they aren’t the only ones. Ants and even insects themselves account for the vast majority of insect consumption. Without predators to keep these populations in check, insects could undergo an almost unstoppable population explosion.

Section Summary:

Is a honey bee an animal?

The short answer is yes; insects are animals. Vital, important animals and some of the most diverse group on the planet, including more than a million described species, insects represent more than half of all known living organisms.

 

How Is Honey Made?

Is honey bee barf? Let’s find out.

A closeup picture of a honeycomb with bees on it.

Bees working in hive / Source

How Do Bees Make Honey?

The process begins with honeybees flying from their hives to collect pollen and nectar. They also gather propolis, a resinous mixture collected from tree buds, sap flowers, or other botanical sources. Bees use it as a sealant for unwanted open spaces in hives.

But it’s the nectar that they use to make honey.

From Stomach to Mouth, the Process to Make Honey

First, nectar is extracted from flowers using a bee’s long, tube-shaped tongue and stored inside its “honey stomach,” or crop. Bees have two stomachs; the crop or honey stomach and a stomach used for eating. When full, the crop weighs almost as much as the bee does.

Next, during the flight back to the hive, bees secrete enzymes that transform the chemical composition and pH of the nectar. This process makes it more suitable for long-term storage.

Once the forager bee returns to the hive, she will regurgitate the contents of the honey stomach, a process 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.

Finally, the nectar goes inside beeswax cells.

The Transformation Into Thick Syrup

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, turning it into thick syrupy honey.

Once this process is complete, the bees seal off the cell with a plug of wax. (5) (6) (7)

Hundreds of honeybees working on a honeycomb.

Bees in hive / Source

Honey Is Survival Food, for Bees

A bee will only produce around 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. To make one pound of honey, it takes bees visiting 2 million flowers. (8)

Bees store pollen and honey during the active summer period. This cache of food stored in the honeycombs is what the bees survive when the hive cannot forage flower blossoms, such as in the winter months.

The honey can be stored in the capped cells almost indefinitely and feed around 20,000 workers plus the queen bee. In one year, a colony of bees eats between 120 and 200 pounds of honey. (9)

Section Summary:

Is Honey Bee Vomit or Poop?

Believe it or not, this question comes up again and again. The answer to both is no; bee vomit is closer maybe, but still not right. Nectar collected by bees is passed mouth-to-mouth from bee to bee through a process called trophallaxis until it reduces in moisture content and turns into honey.

So, honey is not technically bee vomit, but it does come from bees passing nectar between themselves.

 

Beekeeping aka The Bee Industry

For this guide, there are two styles of beekeeping: commercial and backyard hobbyists.

Instead of oversimplifying and making sweeping statements about each, this section will focus on the practices that regularly occur in beekeeping and why they make honey not vegan.

A beekeeper in a white beekeeper suit standing over a man-made beehive.

Beekeeper working with hives / Source

Bees as Commodities

It’s unfortunate but true; beekeeping often tends to be overlooked as an exploitative practice. One reason for this may be that people have little idea that bees are part of the animal husbandry industry, much like cows are.

Beekeepers hate when I say that, but it’s well-documented.

Whether in a commercial setting or an idyllic backyard environment, raising bees for honey requires many of the same practices.

Standard Beekeeping Practices

The following practices regularly occur in managed bee colonies, both commercial and hobbyist setups. Not every beekeeper may use every method, but every technique listed is conventional within the industry.

Antibiotics

Beekeepers regularly administer antibiotics to their bees. (10)

Using antibiotics contributes to immune system deficiencies and promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant super-pests and diseases. (11) Hives are treated in winter when they are already stressed to prevent toxins from entering the honey supply. (12)

Artificial or Instrumental Insemination

Using specialized equipment, beekeepers inseminate Queen Bees. They use this process for breeding bees with qualities that are advantageous to humans. Things like to be more docile, change the queen’s color, or increase honey production, for example. (13) (14)

The instrumental insemination method is not only violating for the queen; it’s a death sentence for the drones involved, too. Beekeepers crush the drones and invert their bodies to make it easier to obtain the sperm. Once it’s collected, the beekeeper will discard the drone. (15)

Manipulation & Interference

Over a hundred years ago, beekeepers increased the cell size of the wax foundation installed in beehives by nearly half a millimeter. The increase was from the natural brood cell size (of the European honey bee) of 4.9mm to the manipulated cell size of 5.4mm. The thought was, the bigger cell size would produce bigger bees. It did, and those bigger bees are still around today. (16)

Food Swapping

Bees make and store honey during the active months. This cache of food stored inside the honeycomb is what bees survive when the hive cannot forage flower blossoms, like in the winter months.

Some beekeepers take the honey once the worker bees finish capping it, leaving the hive without the winter store it needs. Instead, it’s common practice for beekeepers to feed their bees nectar replacements such as dry sugar, sugar water, pollen patties, and high fructose corn syrup, which isn’t the best for bees, maybe.

A team of entomologists from the University of Illinois found a possible link between feeding high fructose corn syrup and the collapse of the honeybee colonies worldwide.

“The widespread apicultural use of honey substitutes, including high-fructose corn syrup, may thus compromise the ability of honey bees to cope with pesticides and pathogens and contribute to colony losses.”

Their findings indicate that eating replacement food instead of honey prevents the bees from being exposed to other chemicals that help the bees fight off toxins, like those found in pesticides. (17)

Loss of Harvest

There are five products most commonly harvested from bees: Honey, pollen, beeswax, propolis, and royal jelly.

Honey is their primary food source. There is no benefit to the bees when we take it, primarily if replaced with inferior human-made sugar mixtures. Pollen is another source of food taken that has no advantage to the bees when we remove it.

Together with taking their food, beekeepers will take beeswax when harvesting honey. The process begins by collecting the entire comb structure and melting it down, then straining the wax out. Beekeepers might also take the propolis.

And then there’s royal jelly:

  • First, the queen bee is removed from a group of young bees. This removal stimulates the young bees into making new queens.
  • Each new queen larvae dines on a small amount of royal jelly.
  • The beekeeper kills the queen larvae and harvests the royal jelly.

In each of these cases, bees worked tirelessly to create these products and need them to survive.

By contrast, we don’t.

Loss of Life

Beekeepers typically kill queen bees every one to three years and replace them with new ones. In unmanaged hives, bees would decide if and when to remove the queen themselves.

In addition to these deliberate deaths, even the kindest and most gentle beekeepers will unintentionally injure, crush, or kill some bees during honey harvesting and collection. It’s unavoidable.

While there are several different methods for harvesting honey, extraction is the most common. Smaller bee operations with only a few colonies can use more gentle methods, like gently sweeping bees off honeycombs with a bee brush.

Larger, commercial-scale beekeepers manage thousands of colonies simultaneously, making it challenging to spend the time and necessary care for bee removal. Methods used with these colonies include using a leaf blower to blow bees off of the honeycomb or using a noxious combination of essential oils to drive the bees out of the nest. (18)

In either situation, bees can (and do) die.

False Advertising & Fraud

Finally, you may not be eating what you think you’re eating: mislabeling is rampant in the worldwide honey industry. (19) One study found that 3/4 of the 60 jars of honey tested were found to be counterfeit and contained no bee pollen. (20) In another study, foreign sugars were found 1.4 times in every ten honey samples tested. (21)

A group of pallets with multiple beehives on each one sitting in an orchard for pollinating.

Commercial Beehives / Source

Pollinators for Hire

Did you know that honey and bee products account for only a tiny percentage of the entire bee economy in the United States?

The most significant portion comes from the rental of managed colonies to farmers to pollinate fruit and vegetable crops.

Commercial hives for hire pollinate roughly 100 different flowering plants. These plants include almonds, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cherries, berries, cucumbers, lettuce, peaches, pears, and plums. Even the clover and alfalfa crops fed to cows on factory farms get pollinated by commercial hives, to name a few. (22)

Pollinators Before Honeybees

The first thing to know about honeybees is that they aren’t native to North America. Honeybees come from an ancient lineage of cavity-nesting bees from Asia around 300,000 years ago that rapidly spread across Europe and Africa. They arrived in North American sometime in the 1600s. (1)

So, how did food crops get pollinated before the arrival of honeybees? The answer is native, or keystone, pollinators.

Keystone pollinators are native pollinators that are vital to the survival of an ecosystem. The wide variety of native pollinators includes more than 3,500 species of bees (many of which are solitary), moths and beetles, and other animals such as bats and birds. (23) There is an adverse impact on keystone and native pollinator populations from honeybees through crowding and stealing of pollen and nectar that would otherwise be available to them.

Managed Honeybees Pose Risks to Wild Bees

Wild pollinators are in decline in many parts of the world. Because of the downturn, managed honeybees and bumblebees are frequently shipped to the United States to provide pollination services. But doing this poses dangerous risks to the wild bee population.

An entomologist at the University of California led a research team that has examined the evidence by analyzing the large body of research done in this area. They discovered that managed bees are spreading diseases to wild bees.

“Even in cases when the managed bees do not have a disease, they still stress local wild bees, making them more susceptible to disease,” says Peter Graystock, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology and the lead author of the study. (2)

Globalization Can Bring Infections

One problem is that many countries have inadequate or no laws for bee movements. The globalized trade in bees has enabled almost free movement of diseases around the world. (24)

Sadly, even if infections in managed colonies disappear, other problems arise. Resistant organisms, mites (varroa mites specifically) quickly develop a resistance to the pesticides used to control them. It’s widely thought that the varroa mite is a significant contributor to colony collapse, as are insecticides and monoculture crops.

The Additional Environmental Costs of Honey

Another important environmental factor to consider: most countries import honey. According to estimates, 42% comes from Argentina, China, Mexico, Canada, and India. About 85% in the UK comes from Vietnam, China, Mexico, Australia, and Argentina. While Germany, the world’s largest importer of honey, gets theirs from Argentina, China, and Mexico. (25)

Not only that, there’s the impact on the environment from transporting managed colonies back and forth across the United States alone pollinating crops.

Pollinators-for-Hire Raises Ethical Questions For Us All

Today’s industrial pollinators spend much of their lives in the back of 18-wheelers, subsisting on high-fructose corn syrup while being shlepped back and forth across the country to pollinate acres upon acres of monoculture crops. (26)

This practice raises ethical questions for both vegans and non-vegans alike. Seeing, all animals rely on plants for survival, directly or indirectly, and our food supply is dependent upon the pollination of crops.

Changing our world to benefit wild pollinators is part of the solution. Eliminating the demand for honey and bee products is the first step to take. Doing so would prevent millions of bees from being bred and managed to produce honey and by-products, which would reduce the transmission of disease and allow native pollinators to return to areas where managed populations have taken control.

Science & Research

The science and research about pollinators are always growing. Here are a few to note for further exploration:

  • 2018 – Experts at the Department of Zoology at Cambridge University found that the rise in amateur beekeepers is contributing to the decline of wild bees, “Keeping honeybees is an extractive activity. It removes pollen and nectar from the environment, which are natural resources needed by many wild species of bee and other pollinators…Honeybees are artificially-bred agricultural animals similar to livestock such as pigs and cows. But this livestock can roam beyond any enclosures to disrupt local ecosystems through competition and disease.” Continue to full article >> Think of Honeybees as ‘Livestock’ Not Wildlife, Says Experts

Section Summary:

Why Don’t Vegans Eat Honey?

Whether in a commercial setting or an idyllic backyard environment, raising bees for honey require many of the same practices of interference and manipulation used in farming (other) animals for food. That reason alone is enough to make it off-limits to vegans, but there are also environmental and ethical issues surrounding its production too. Vegans don’t eat it because honey is an animal product made by animals.

Honey is Tested on Animals

One little-known fact about honey is how animals undergo animal testing to determine its effects on human health.

Typically, these tests are performed on animals such as mice, rats, and rabbits and include cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, and even feral cats and dogs.

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 affects hormonal profiles, and many others not listed here. (27, 28, 29) 

Read the in-depth examination in, If You Eat Honey, Read This.

Of all the critical factors to consider when examining honey and bee products, animal testing is the most heinous and needless.

Is Honey Healthy?

Honey has a reputation for being good for us, but is it true?

Let’s look at some of honey’s best-known and popular purported health benefits; whether confirmed by science or passed down through folk traditions or a mother who heard it from their mother’s mother.

A picture of an outdoor picnic table on a sunny day with four jars of honey on it.

Jars of honey / Source

The Health Benefits of Honey

With its bonanza of purported healing properties, people have been using honey for millennia as a medicinal remedy for many ailments. The ancient Egyptians used it, as did the Greeks, Romans, and some other cultures too.

Honey has history, and with good reason too. When examined, honey does contain an unusual chemical makeup.

It’s low in moisture and highly acidic, creating an environment where bacteria and microorganisms can’t grow but keep honey from spoiling almost indefinitely. Bees add an enzyme, glucose oxidase, to it that makes hydrogen peroxide as a by-product.

At the same time, animal studies on the efficacy of honey and bee products used for medicinal purposes have had varying degrees of success.

Sounds good, right? Not so fast.

Honey’s Nutritional Benefits

Even if honey were the healthiest food on the planet, there is still no reason for vegans to consume it. Honey, as a food, falls into the “use sparingly” category on a traditional food pyramid.

In basic terms, it is just sugar with no complex carbohydrates or amino acids and virtually no nutritional value.

According to the National Honey Board, honey contains “small amounts of vitamins and minerals, including niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc.” (30) However, heating and filtering honey is a destructive process. While it does not eliminate all enzymes, it significantly reduces the number left after processing.

Regardless, while nutrition is essential to our overall health, it has no role in veganism as an ethical philosophy.

After all, how many times have we heard that eating animals is vital for good health?

Hundreds?

Thousands?

Plenty.

Honey’s Medicinal Uses

With so many health benefits claimed, it would be impossible to cover them all. For this guide, I’ll cover the top three.

1. Honey Soothes Coughs

A 2007 study from Penn State College of Medicine of 139 children found that buckwheat honey outperformed the cough suppressant, dextromethorphan (DM) in calming nighttime coughs and improving their sleep.

In the same study,

“This study is somewhat limited by the fact that each child had a physician visit between the two nights of the study, which may provide some of the explanation for the improvement in all of the groups, including the no-treatment group.” (31)

2. Honey Treats Wounds

In numerous studies, honey has been found effective in treating wounds. In a study, 59 patients suffering from wounds and leg ulcers – of which 80 percent had failed to heal with conventional treatment – were treated with unprocessed honey. All but one of the cases showed remarkable improvement following topical application of honey. (32)

However,

“Honey is noted to aid in wound healing because of its acidic pH level. And yes, there are some studies that show honey can have better results over conventional treatment. . .Yet, we also know that aloe vera has wonderful healing properties. A study. . .looked at the efficacy of aloe vera use with post hemorrhoidectomy patients. Those using aloe versus placebo had significant improvement with pain management and healing.” (33, 34)