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Is Honey Vegan? 6 Important Things to Know Before Deciding

Is honey vegan? When it comes to honey, there is a lot of debate in the vegan world. A lot of people are surprised that many vegans will say it isn’t.

Being vegan means that one abstains from the consumption of, and use of animals and animal products, as well as the exploitation of animals. But does this apply to bees too? Do vegans eat honey? If not, why? What’s the big deal? And, of course, is honey vegan?

By the way, if you’re new to veganism or have questions about the lifestyle check out my series – Veganism for Beginners.

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Is Honey Vegan?

is honey vegan - honeycomb

The answer to the question, “Is honey vegan?” is not as obvious as you might think.

Ambiguity does exist when it comes to honey and some vegans do eat it. But let’s look at the bare facts of the argument to see whether or not honey is vegan.

What is Honey?

What is Honey

To answer the question, is honey vegan? we need to make sure we know what honey is.

Honey is a golden, sugary, syrupy that has been consumed by humans worldwide for centuries. Bees produce honey by collecting nectar from flowers and ingesting it. When a bee ingests nectar they secrete an enzyme which begins to convert in into honey. Bees then transport the nectar back to the hive and share it (aka vomit it) with their hive buddies. Their bee buddies also ingest it and add more enzymes to the mix. They then store the by-product in their honey combs (i.e. beeswax).

Bees use the honey they produce as a nutrient sources. First for their metabolism when they gather nectar, and later to help restore muscle and aid in wing repair. They also use honey to nourish their young when food sources are scarce.

Bees and Bee Behavior

bees and bee behavior

Another thing to consider when deciding how to answer the question, is honey vegan, are the creatures that actually make it. Bees.

Bees are insects (invertebrates) who happen to be the custodians of the health of our planet’s flora. Sources suggest there are about 16,000 species of bees worldwide which are responsible for the pollination of plants on earth.

You have bees to thank for the existence of plant crops and plant food sources in our world. According to PETA, bees are the key contributor in the production of 1 out of every 3 mouthfuls of food we eat. Pollination also ensures biodiversity in the natural world. A healthy variety of plants that sustains all life on the planet as a whole.

Bees live in intricately-woven communities (hives or nests) comprised of ‘worker’ bees and ‘drone’ bees, both of which are directed by a ‘queen’ bee. The worker bees collect, create and store honey and make beeswax using their wax-producing glands. Drones contribute by mating with the queen; their sole role in the bee community. The queen bee is responsible for laying eggs and creating the next generation of her colony. Every bee has a role, so a tight-knit community such as this ensures successful survival.

Bees live in close quarters and have intricate communication methods. They are highly sociable creatures, show compassion for their hives, and exhibit defense behaviors when their livelihood is threatened. The defense mechanism of a honey bee comes in the shape of a barbed stinger. Meant to defend against other insects, these stingers are no match for mammals unfortunately. If they’re forced to defend their hive against us, or other mammalian attackers, their stinger remains lodged under the skin and the only way bees can detach is by leaving behind the barb and part of their digestive system. This, of course, means imminent death to the honey bee.

Common Misconceptions and Confusion About Honey

a bee hive disturbed

So, is honey vegan? Is beeswax vegan?

Since honey and beeswax are the by-products of natural animal behaviors, it could be assumed that honey and beeswax are there for the taking without damage to the animal itself. You could assume that this is the answer to the question ‘can vegans eat honey?’.

Yet, here’s where the contradiction lies. Gathering honey and beeswax requires, to some extent, the destruction of a bee hive or disturbing a bee community. Prying open a beehive involves threatening the survival of an entire bee community, including bees in larval or developmental stages. Additionally, as mentioned honey bees in defense mode run the risk of potential death.

For centuries, humans have used honey to their advantage in food and, more prominently, for medicinal purposes. Since honey has antibacterial qualities it’s been used to heal wounds and burns, fight bacteria, and relieve flu or cold symptoms for as many as 50,000 years. So, it is understandable that those who choose to use or consume honey do so from a place of blind tradition.

Furthermore, the word ‘can’ in the “can vegans eat honey” question implies choice and vegans do have a choice. Whether you choose to eat honey despite consciously knowing the ramifications is the dilemma of the argument. The reason we, as ethical vegans, choose not to consume honey is clear. For us, the answer to the question “Is honey vegan?” is no.

Common Practices in the Honey Industry

White Box Bee Hive

According to PETA bees need to visit about 10,000 flowers per day in order to produce one teaspoon of honey. In a world where human populations continue to surge, demand for honey increases as does the scale of honey production to meet demand.

There are various types of honey producers including small-scale operations, backyard beekeepers, and mass-producers. The desire for profit plays a part at every level of production, and intensive farming practices involve unethical production methods. All of which are detrimental to the wellbeing of bees.

Mass breeding of particular bee species is common in the honey industry. This results in an imbalance in the bee populations and affects the ability for native populations to sustain themselves.

One common practice in mass breeding is to clip the wings of queen bees, giving them no choice but to stay with their assigned hive. The cruelty involving queen bees, unfortunately, doesn’t end there. News reports in Australia have discovered artificial insemination of queen bees occurs in the honey industry as a way to genetically manipulate the quality of bees born in hives. Artificial insemination, conducted under a microscope, involves ‘gassing’ the queen bee with carbon dioxide as a way to sedate her while the procedure takes place.

Furthermore, artificial insemination is a way for beekeepers to ‘breed out’ natural behavioral traits that are undesirable and may limit the output in honey production. Traits such as aggression, for example, can lead to the queen mobilizing an entire bee community to attack if her hive is under threat.

Another common practice in the honey industry is the use of white boxes that act as artificial ‘hives’. Once a beekeeper removes beeswax and honey from a white box bees lose their essential nutrient source in order to survive and reproduce effectively. Furthermore, “smoking” is a method used to ‘calm’ a hive before honey is removed. This method changes bees’ natural behaviors and compromise their ability to pollinate, reproduce, and defend their community.

Is honey vegan if these practices are implemented? Surely not.

The Rapid Rise of Industrial Farming and Its Effects on Bee Community

dead beehive

In recent farming generations, there’s been an accelerated use of pesticides that are now threatening the survival of bee species across the globe.
Now, we are witnessing a decline in bee numbers around the world due to chemical-intensive agriculture.

Greenpeace has reported the “sudden disappearance of bees” since the late 1990’s and “unusually high rates of decline in honeybee colonies.” Bees are naturally resilient insects yet they are sadly meeting their match. Pesticides are killing these colonies. Calls to shift from intense chemical farming practices to more ecologically-friendly methods are emerging, but it’s uncertain whether or not these methods are enough to save bees from this rapid decline.

Ethical Vegans Aren’t the Only Ones Who Should Say No to Honey

Whether or not you care about the question, “Is honey vegan?” you may want to avoid it for other reasons.

Most honey is not ethically produced.

A commonly used process called ultra-filtering remove all traces of pollen in honey. Honey is heated, often watered down, and then filtered. Pollen, enzymes, and vitamins are removed from the honey and render it void of any health benefits it might have had. Furthermore, the removal of pollen makes the origins of the honey untraceable. This is a huge problem when many manufacturers sell honey that contains illegal antibiotics and heavy metals. Without traceability, there’s no accountability.

Consumers valuing honey due to its health benefits opt for raw, or unpasteurized, honey. Though, raw honey can poses another issue for consumers. Propolis is the ‘bee glue’ that is used to seal a hive and is found in raw honey. Propolis has been found to assist in fighting “bacteria, viruses and fungi”, but there are some health concerns to be aware of. Pregnant people, asthma and bee by-product allergy sufferers, and people with bleeding issues should avoid consuming propolis.

Honey Alternatives – Food and Cosmetics

vegan honey alternative - maple syrup

There are an array of vegan products that can be used as honey substitutes without compromising on flavor and quality.

One such common substitute is maple syrup, preferably pure maple syrup that has not been watered down. It’s a little more expensive, but the flavor is as rich and sweet. Additionally, agave nectar, some brands of molasses and even rice syrup (rice malt) are good substitutes and can be easily be found in organic grocers or supermarkets. Other common alternatives include 100% date syrup and coconut flower nectar, a common ingredient found in Thai cooking.

If you really crave that honey flavor you can get vegan honey like Blenditup Bee Free Vegan Honey or Organic Harmless Hunny by Pyure!

Finally, you can even make vegan honey at home with a variety of ingredients like apples or dandelion. These homemade products are surprisingly similar to bee-made honey.

Honey and/or beeswax is also a common ingredient found in cosmetics. It moisturizes skin, remove bacteria, and helps heal acne. In haircare products, honey adds gloss and smoothness to hair while moisturizing follicles. Additionally, it adds a pleasant scent and flavor to cosmetics and beauty products. 

Luckily there are plenty of alternatives. Companies are staring to use vegan wax alternatives to produce the create the same effects bees wax. For example, vegan lip-balm company, Hurraw!, uses a beeswax alternative to produce a silky smooth product. For more info about honey and wax-free vegan make-up check this out.

The Verdict – Is Honey Vegan?

What do you think? Is honey vegan? For us, the answer is no.

Have we left any important details out in the “Is honey vegan?” debate?

Let us know in the comments why you choose to abstain from or continue to consume honey.

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It's a big debate amongst the vegan community. Is honey vegan? What's the harm in consuming it? Why should we care about bees. Answered here!

Contributor: Justine de Jonge

Justine is a freelance vegan travel writer and blogger based in Melbourne, Australia. Her site, Fire & Tea, is a map of her personal journey to becoming vegan, especially while on the road, and gradually slipping into the vegan way of life.