Vegans and Honey

Vegans Disagree on Honeygate

Bees cover a honeycomb rack as urban beekeeper Erika Mayr checks on the health as well as the honey content of one of her honey bee colonies
Sean Gallup//Getty Images News/Getty Images

Animal rights activists and vegans are faced with a kind of dilemma when it comes to honey. Since vegans don’t include anything other than plant-based foods to meet their nutritional needs, honey is off the menu. And while it’s true that bees are not killed for their honey, hard-core vegans argue that because honey comes from bees and bees are animals, honey is an animal product and therefore not vegan.

It’s the product of exploitation of an animal, which makes it an animal-rights issue.

But, as with everything else in life, it’s complicated.

What Is Honey?

Honey is made out of flower nectar by honey bees, in a two-step process involving two types of bees: older worker bees and young hive bees. The older worker bees gather nectar from flowers and swallow it. The bees then regurgitate the nectar when they return to the hive and the younger bees swallow it. The younger bees then regurgitate it into a cell of the honeycomb and fan the honey with their wings to dry it before capping it with beeswax. The purpose of turning nectar into honey is to store the sugars to be consumed in the future. The bees convert the nectar to honey because nectar would ferment if it were stored.

As Debbie Hadley, the Guide to Insects, explains, thousands of bees work to supply the colony with honey:

A single worker bee produces only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. Working cooperatively, thousands of worker bees can produce over 200 pounds of honey for the colony within a year.

Why Don't Vegans Eat Honey?

Keeping bees for commercial or hobby purposes violates the bees' rights to be free of human exploitation. As with companion animals or other farmed animals, breeding, buying and selling animals violates the animals' rights to live free of human use and exploitation, and bees are commercially bred, bought and sold.

In addition to keeping bees, taking their honey is also exploitative. While beekeepers will say that they leave plenty of honey for the bees, the honey belongs to the bees. And, when more honey is needed for the beekeeper to make a profit, they may not leave plenty of honey behind for the bees. They may, instead, leave behind a substitute, basically, sugar water, which is not nearly as rich in nutrients as the honey.

Furthermore, some bees are killed every time the beekeeper smokes the bees out of their hive and takes their honey. These deaths are an additional reason to boycott honey; even if no bees were killed during honey collection, the exploitation of the bees would be reason enough.

Bees and Animal Rights

While experts disagree as to whether insects feel pain, studies have shown that some insects avoid negative stimuli and have a more complex social life than previously believed. Because insects may be sentient and it costs us practically nothing to respect their rights and avoid insect products like honey, silk, or carmine, vegans abstain from insect products.

There are, however, some self-described vegans who do eat honey and argue that insects are killed in other types of agriculture, so they are reluctant to draw the line at honey.

Pure vegans point out the line between intentional exploitation and incidental killings, and beekeeping falls into the former category. 

Not So Fast

But do vegans necessarily have to avoid honey? Surprisingly Michael Greger, M.D, one of the leaders of the animal rights movement and a well-respected author, physician and vegan nutrition specialist writes in his blog for Satya,  “A certain number of bees are undeniably killed by honey production, but far more insects are killed, for example, in sugar production. And if we really cared about bugs we would never again eat anything either at home or in a restaurant that wasn’t strictly organically grown—after all, killing bugs is what pesticides do best. And organic production uses pesticides too (albeit “natural”). Researchers measure up to approximately 10,000 bugs per square foot of soil—that’s over 400 million per acre, 250 trillion per square mile.

Even “veganically” grown produce involves the deaths of countless bugs in lost habitat, tilling, harvesting and transportation. We probably kill more bugs driving to the grocery store to get some honey-sweetened product than are killed in the product’s production.”

He's also concerned that over-zealous vegans will turn off a lot of potential new vegans because it makes our movement look radical if even bees (bugs) are considered sacred. He makes the point that most non-vegan, self-titled animal lovers may be persuaded to adopt a vegan diet if we appeal to their love of animals. But forcing new vegans to give up honey may be going a little too far. So, as I said, it’s complicated. Dr. Greger makes a good point when he says that for every potential vegan we lose because of our rigidity, millions of food animals continue to suffer because that would-be vegan has decided it's just too weird or complicated to try a vegan diet and, after all, inertia is so much easier. 

Colony Collapse Disorder

Scientists are still trying to sort out the mysterious problem of Colony Collapse Disorder. Bees are dying at an alarming rate, and entomologists are finding dead bees and mostly unpopulated hives in all parts of the country. From an animal rights standpoint, it’s imperative that this catastrophic state of affairs be sorted out before more animals die. From the standpoint of a human being who depends upon agriculture to put food on the table, it’s essential this problem be solved since bee pollination is what makes plants grow.

Ethical Beekeepers

But what if we could solve the problem of CCD and create a vegan honey that’s ethical enough for even hard-core vegans to approve at the same time? If you are a vegan who likes a little honey with your hot tea, you may be in luck. Ethical, organic and enlightened beekeepers are starting to challenge the status quo and in the process, may be helping to put a stop to CCD by starting up new colonies and keeping a close eye on them. In an article published in Elephant Journal, a website about enlightened living; writer and beekeeper Will Curley argues that keeping bees can be non-exploitative whether you are profiting from their honey or not.

He writes: “As with all things, there are shades of gray in the morality of producing and eating honey. Not all honey is cruelly produced, nor is all honey ethically produced. The important thing is that some beekeepers consistently put their bees and the health of the environment first.”

If you want to help the effort to restore the population of honeybees to pre-CCD numbers but don’t want an actual hive of your own, the USDA recommends the following solutions the general public can implement. Plant lots of bee-friendly plants that make bees happy. A quick Google search for plants that thrive in your area will help you make a list. Also, avoid using pesticides as much as possible, opting for organic gardening and using “friendly bugs” to devour the harmful bugs.

This article was updated and re-written in part by Michelle A. Rivera.