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Welcome to one of the most hotly debated questions in the plant-based world: Is honey vegan?

The short answer is: No, it isn’t. But before we dive into that answer, let’s explore honey and the world of beekeeping.

What exactly is honey?

honey pouring from a wooden spoon into a small glass bowl on a wooden table

Honey is pretty much flower nectar (or, occasionally, insect secretions) which has been treated by bees, through a variety of processes, to produce the thick, sticky-sweet substance most of us are familiar with. All types of bees make honey, but the only type of honey that people consume (usually) is the kind produced by honeybees, members of the Apis genus. It has a high fructose and glucose content. It’s also high enough in microbial agents and acidity, whilst low enough in moisture, that a jar of honey can be stored for thousands of years without spoiling.

There are lots of different types of honey. The one that most people are familiar with is clover honey, which is produced mainly in Canada and New Zealand, from – you guessed it – clover nectar. This honey is lighter in color and flavor than most other types of honey. This makes it a very popular honey to use when baking.

various types of honey in glass jars at a market

Another type of honey that has been gaining popularity recently is Manuka honey. Manuka honey can only be sourced from the Manuka tree which is native to New Zealand. This honey has been a bit of a buzzword lately due to its high antibiotic properties. Manuka also tastes a bit more medicinal than other honey varieties.

Other types of popular honey are sourwood, sourced from the Appalachian Mountains, buckwheat, often used for making mead, and acacia honey, sourced from the Black Locust tree in Europe and North America.

Okay, so how is honey made?

honeybee on a flower collecting pollen to make honey

We’ve all seen bees humming around flowers in the spring, like some sort of ex-boyfriend you just can’t shake. It usually doesn’t look like they’re doing much, if anything. Actually, bees visit flowers to collect three things – pollen, propolis, and nectar.

Most people have a good, general knowledge of what pollen is (seasonal allergies, anybody?). The pollen transfer is also what makes having healthy, happy, and busy bees so important to our environment. There are many species of plant that are only pollinated by bees, such as apples, mangos, broccoli, beets, and so many other yummy (vegan!) eats. Propolis is a resin-y, wax-like substance that bees use to seal up cracks in the hive. And then, the nectar.

yellow flower with a honeybee collecting pollen

Forager bees slurp up nectar from the waiting flowers with their long, skinny, tube-like tongue. The nectar is stored in a special “honey stomach”, the crop, which is a completely different organ than the regular stomach. When the crop is full, it weighs almost as much as the rest of the bee does. A bee usually has to visit about 1,500 flowers just to fill up the crop once – that’s a lot of work!

Once the crop is full to the brim with nectar, the bee starts the journey back to the hive. On the flight back, the bee secretes enzymes into its “honey stomach”. These enzymes start a process of changing the nectar’s chemical composition and pH. It’s almost like a digestive process, except the goal of the bee is to make the nectar easier to store long term.

When the forager bee finally makes it back to the hive, it will regurgitate the contents of its “honey stomach” and hand it over to a house bee. This house bee starts to chew the partially-digested nectar that it has been given. It adds more enzymes, trying to break up the complex sugars and turn them into simple sugars. When this is done, the house bee deposits the processed nectar into the honeycomb.

golden honeycomb with many bees working on it

Seems like a lot of work? Well the nectar still hasn’t been fully processed into honey.

Once the nectar is in the honeycomb, the bees fan the nectar with their wings to dehumidify it, and eventually turn it into the thick, syrupy substance that we recognize as honey. After this is complete, the cell is sealed off with wax, and the honey is stored away to feed the hive during the winter.

The average beehive will consume between 120 to 200 pounds of honey over the course of only one winter. The average bee only makes about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey over the course of its entire lifetime. It takes a lot of work to make enough honey to feed a hive for just one winter, even without human interference. For reference, a beehive has to visit about 2 million flowers just to make one pound of honey, and fly about 55,000 miles. Bees work hard to make their honey!

Check out the video below if you’re interested in learning more about how bees make honey:

How is the honey harvested?

For commercial beekeepers to harvest the honey, first they need to gas the bees with a smoke made from pine needles. This smoke makes the bees drowsy, docile, and unable or unwilling to sting the harvester. It also forces them away from the honey containing cells, and into the lower portions of the beehive. Then the beekeeper removes the honeycomb frames, and takes them in for processing.

Even with the most gentle of beekeepers, it is inevitable that some bees will be crushed, injured, or suffocated during this process (can you see where we’re heading?).

Check out this video to see what happens to the honey after it is removed from the hive:

If honey is made for bees, by bees, should we, as humans, consume it?

There are honestly quite a few health benefits to honey, including high antimicrobial content, low GI index, and boosting of immune system function.

However, none of these benefits are only honey specific. That is to say, they can all be obtained from different food sources. Since honey consumption is not absolutely essential for human existence, and the health benefits that honey provides can be obtained elsewhere, should we really be eating honey?

There are also a few reasons that honey might not be all it’s cracked up to be. For example, honey is a lot more calorically dense than sugar. This can cause weight gain when not consumed in moderation. Too much honey can also increase insulin resistance, and is problematic for anyone dealing with type two diabetes. Finally, honey should never be given to infants under 12 months of age, as it carries a risk of leading to the development of infant botulism.

Got it! But, is honey vegan or not?

So, now that we know what honey is and how its made, it’s time to return to the question at hand: Is honey vegan?

Well, no, it’s not. As stated in this previous article on beeswax, veganism is at its heart, avoiding any product or practice that results in the exploitation of, or cruelty to, any animal, whenever possible. Although they are tiny and a lot less cuddly than the dog or cat that usually comes to mind, bees are still animals and deserving of our consideration. And there’s another thing…

Commercial beekeeping isn’t really that different from factory farming in many ways.

Antibiotics

Commercial beekeepers use antibiotics freely to try to keep their hives free from disease. This large scale use of antibiotics is proven to cause immune deficiencies in the hives. It also contributes to resistant forms of bee diseases and pests, which will even affect the beehives who haven’t been doused with heavy duty antibiotics.

 

Wing clipping

In commercial beekeeping (and even some amateur operations), the queen bee has her wings clipped so that she is unable to fly and a cause a “swarm”, when the hive splits and moves elsewhere (this, by the way, is a natural process that occurs in the spring/summer in most naturally occurring hives).

 

Artificial insemination

She is also artificially inseminated by a syringe, which is an incredibly violating process. Drone bees that would usually inseminate her are crushed and flipped inside out in order to extract the sperm. Not surprisingly, this results in death.

 

Selective breeding

Commercially kept bees are forced to construct hives in shapes that are not organic in nature. Have you ever seen a square beehive hanging from a tree? Beekeepers have also artificially increased cell size in hives, leading to larger bees, and they selectively breed these bees for characteristics like docility and honey production.

 

Unsurprisingly, this inbreeding doesn’t only result in underwhelming genetic diversity, but it also results in genetic deficiencies, just like in other members of the animal kingdom.

 

Nutrient deficiency

Honey is created by the bees in order to supply them with a food source in the winter months. What do they eat once the humans have taken it all? Popular honey-production myth says that the thoughtful beekeepers only take the excess, leaving the hive with plenty to eat all winter long. This is just untrue.

 

What usually ends up happening, is that the honey is replaced with an artificial food source. This has the same sugar content as honey, but is missing nearly all of the micronutrients that make honey so beneficial in the first place. This leads to bees with nutritional deficiencies. Some beekeepers even resort to high fructose corn syrup, which results in bees that have less natural defenses to any threat, including pathogens, winter temperatures, and pesticides.

 

Accidental death

During harvesting, and at other times when the hives are checked, it is inevitable that a certain number of bees from the colony will lose their lives. Even the most careful of beekeepers will lose one or two, as these tiny insects are relatively delicate when it comes to getting squished or swatted.

 

Seasonal kill-offs

Some beekeepers will even kill off the entire hive in the fall, using either cyanide gas or burning the whole thing. They do this because it is less expensive than caring for and maintaining the hive over the winter. Can you imagine if we killed off humans when it became inconvenient to care for them?

Environmental vegan? There are still drawbacks

bee hive truck releasing bees into a field of rape

If you are someone who practices veganism for environmental reasons, there are still drawbacks to honey consumption.

The transportation of bee hives all over the nation has led to the spread of varroa mites. Varroa mites are parasites that feed on bees. They are also the carriers of lots of viruses and other nasty bugs that cause bees to sicken and die. If that wasn’t enough, even if the parasites don’t spread viruses to their bees, they can still cause the wings to develop malformed. The varroa mite spread is decimating the feral bee populations across the country, and feral bees have been pollinating America’s crops for a lot longer than the honeybee (which was only introduced to the Americas about 400 years ago).

Another downside is that, as stated above, feral bee populations along with some other insects, have been the major pollinators of many plants for a long time. As you may have noticed, concern for the bee population is growing rapidly as of late, and honey bee cultivation is not helping matters.

As cute and bumbling as these creatures are, they are competitors with the wild bees that have been happily pollinating away for thousands of years. When the honey bees are around, often in massive numbers, pollinating huge swaths of mono-cultured crops, the wild bees have far less to eat. This pushes them closer to dying off, and worsens the plight of wild bees worldwide.

So, despite some popular myths, consuming honey will not in fact help the bee situation. The best thing you can do, if you’re really looking to save the bees, is avoid honey consumption altogether, and plant native wildflowers and grasses in your yard or window boxes.

But I love honey! Are there any vegan alternatives?

agave leaves closely bunched together

Great news! There are plenty of vegan alternatives to honey.

One of the most popular alternatives is something called agave nectar. Does the name sound familiar? That’s right, it’s made from the same type of plant that is also used to manufacture tequila and mezcal. Agave nectar tends to be sweeter than honey. Valor has a lovely agave nectar on the market that is both organic and raw. You can find it here. Another bonus to using agave nectar is that is has a very low glycemic index, and it is naturally gluten free.

Maple syrup is another useful alternative to honey, however it can be difficult to find sustainably and mindfully harvested maple syrup. Try to buy from local maple syrup producers to reduce environmental impact. If you can’t buy locally, opt for a company like Coombs Family Farms who take environmental stewardship seriously.

Other vegan replacements for honey include blackstrap molasses (a great source of iron and calcium), barley malt syrup, and brown rice syrup.

There are also several “bee free” vegan honey replacements on the market. For example, this one is made in the USA. The company is owned by women, and the only ingredients are organic apple juice concentrate, cane sugar, and lemon juice, making it a great sustainable and ethical alternative to honey.

If you’re more into DIY, date paste is another awesome vegan honey replacement. It’s super simple and easy to make at home. All you have to do is soak one cup of Medjool dates in water or juice for over an hour, and then blend it in a Vitamix or food processor until it becomes a smooth paste. ½ cup liquid for every one cup of dates tends to be about right, but feel free to add more or less liquid depending on your preferences.

Dates are also chock full of fiber, as well as calcium, iron, and phosphorus. So, what are you waiting for? Get blendin’!

Is honey vegan? A quick recap

So, honey is definitively not vegan.

We talked a little bit about what honey actually is, (some may even say it’s dehumidified flower nectar/bee vomit), the different types of honey, and how it’s made.

There are many unsavory aspects of a commercial beekeepers work: the intentional stealing of a bee’s life’s work, and replacing it with a mediocre substance, for example. There is also the inevitable loss of life, whether it be intentional or not, the abundant antibiotic usage, the smoking of the bees in order to render them docile, and the incredibly violating procedure of artificial insemination of the queen.

There are also a number of environmental reasons to avoid the consumption of honey, including the spread of varroa mites and competition with feral bee populations. Finally, and good news for any former honey lovers out there, we concluded with a few suggestions for bee-friendly honey replacements.

What are your thoughts on honey consumption and the honey industry? Do you have any favorite honey replacements? Let me know in the comments below!

A dripping honey spoon with a text box which reads, "is honey vegan? if not, why not?"

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