The topic of whether honey is suitable for a vegan diet is a highly controversial issue. Some vegans consider honey a natural by-product of the pollination of plants and crops, and thus acceptable to eat. And yet, honey is produced by an animal - the honeybee. For stricter followers of the vegan diet, that poses a moral dilemma. The type of beekeeping and honey production also factors in: commercial beekeeping tends to have a far wider set of questionable implications than natural or wild honey collection, and is often a significant source of criticism.
Bees are natural pollinators helping propagate plant life (they’re responsible for pollinating one sixth of the world’s flowering plant species and 400 agricultural crops), and honey is the main byproduct of their journeys. The sweet nectar they extract from flowering plants is stored in separate honey stomachs where enzymes begin to break it down, and once these stomachs are full the honeybees return to their hives. Now the essential process of transferring the nectar to the beeswax begins - the honeybee regurgitates what it has collected into the mouth of another worker bee, and this occurs several times over until the honey reaches the beeswax. The enzymes in the bees’ stomachs continue to break the nectar down and reduce its water content so the final product is concentrated and lasts for months. The bees will also fan the honey with their wings to increase evaporation. Once enough water has evaporated, the honey is ready to be sealed off in the beeswax and eaten during winter months when no flowering plants are available. The work is extensive and takes thousands of honeybees to produce a small amount of honey.
Why most vegans don't eat honey?
There are a number of ethical reasons that vegans choose to abstain from eating honey. The act of taking an animal’s main food source is not in line with a vegan lifestyle and considered a form of stealing. Much like the claim that cow milk is meant for cows, honey would be meant for bees and not for human exploitation. Alternative forms of beekeeping exist that only gather a certain portion of honey to ensure that the whole hive has enough to survive on during winter months. Nonetheless, the argument goes that humans do not require honey for survival and thus have no need to consume it. That includes health food staple Manuka honey, a flower native to New Zealand with purported health benefits. Some stricter vegans will even consider rejecting foods that have been pollinated by bees - pollination being a natural by-product of bee mobility - to avoid exploitation.
There is also the issue of bee welfare, most often compromised in commercial beekeeping. Whilst bees naturally eat their own honey, commercial bee farms will feed them alternatives with no nutritional value, like sugar water or corn syrup, which weakens their immune system. They are often bred to increase productivity, a process which narrows their gene pool and makes them less resilient to diseases. Some beekeepers will kill off their bees when there are too many or clip the wings of the queen bee so she cannot leave. And the process of collecting the honey is often conducted in a more stressful way, and can kill bees in the process.
The final verdict on whether or not honey is vegan? There is no doubt that honey is a bee by-product, and that the commercial honey industry has negative effects on the welfare of the bee population. Whether a vegan chooses to eat honey ultimately comes down to the individual, the choice between ethically and commercially produced honey, and what your position is on the consideration of bees as sentient beings that should not be exploited. Those vegans who do choose to eat honey are sweetly called “beegans.”
And of course there are many alternatives to honey - maple syrup, date syrup, molasses, barley malt syrup, and agave nectar can all be used as a replacement in recipes for cooking and desserts in lieu of bee honey.
Bee farming, also known as beekeeping or apiculture, comes in various shapes and sizes. It involves managing a hive and collecting honey from it, although there is a significant difference in the human interference between commercial and small-scale beekeeping that impacts the treatment of the animals and resulting quality of the product.
More small scale beekeeping involves maintaining smaller hives and using less invasive tactics to collect honey. Urban beekeeping on rooftops or in community gardens is a modern way of maintaining hives in cities that usually have less green space, keeping urban gardens pollinated and bee populations healthy. In contrast, commercial beekeeping is generally seen as harmful for bees and a large factor in the decline of the bee population. But the wellbeing of bees isn’t the only issue with commercial honey.
Honeybees are often imported as well as genetically bred to more efficiently produce honey, ousting out other natural pollinators and bringing diseases to wild bee populations. The resulting decline in pollinator populations means that less crops are being propagated naturally. And so, managed bee populations are also being used to maintain industrial agriculture, transported across the USA to pollinate monocrops (large crops of one single variety of a plant, usually genetically modified to enhance yield at the expense of nutritional health, soil health, and agroforestry). This activity disrupts the natural symbiosis of ecosystems and adversely affects biodiversity, with negative implications not only for wildlife but also agricultural and human wellbeing.
From the vegan perspective, all beekeeping is exploitative of bees and interferes with their natural environment and life cycles. The choice on whether or not to eat honey is ultimately up to the consumer.