Is Honey Considered Vegan?
It’s a common question and frequently argued subject by both vegans and non-vegans alike. Let’s see if we can’t shed some light on the debate and help our Sober Vegan readers reach their own conclusions.
Dictionary.com defines Vegan as:
1. a vegetarian who omits all animal products from the diet.
2. a person who does not use any animal products, as leather or wool.
Most of us can all agree on the first point. The second point, however, is another source of debate. Some would classify vegans as either “Ethincal vegans”, meaning both of the above definitions apply to them, or “dietary vegans” meaning they are mainly vegans for health reasons. Some would argue if “dietary vegans” are vegan at all. They might just be labeled as eating a plant-based diet. Let’s go with the standard definition of vegan as described by Dictionary.com as someone who does not eat animals or use animal products for the sake of moving forward with our analysis in this article. If we can all agree on that then the next logical questions is:
Are Bees Animals?
The short answer is yes, according to HoneyBeeSuite:
Bees are both insects and animals. In fact, all insects are animals, and pretty much anything that’s not a plant, fungus, bacterium, virus, or protist is an animal too.
Scientifically speaking the honey bee is in the Apidae family which is a subcategory of the Animalia kingdom. If you want to see the entire taxonomy list for the honey bee you can find it here:
We Have Established That:
- Vegans don’t eat animals or use animal products.
- Bees are animals.
If you are not eating the bee or wearing bee sneakers then what’s the harm in eating honey? It might help if we first define what honey actually is and make sure we have an understanding of why the bees produce it.
What Is Honey?
According to LiveScience.com honey is:
A thick, golden liquid produced by industrious bees, honey is made using the nectar of flowering plants and is saved inside the beehive for eating during times of scarcity.
How do bees make honey?
LiveScience.com goes on to say:
Nectar — a sugary liquid — is extracted from flowers and stored in its extra stomach, or “crop.” While sloshing around in the crop, the nectar mixes with enzymes that transform its chemical composition and pH, making it more suitable for long-term storage. When a honeybee returns to the hive, it is deposited into a honeycomb.
Once in the comb, nectar is still a viscous liquid — nothing like the thick honey you use at the breakfast table. To get all that extra water out of their honey, bees set to work fanning the honeycomb with their wings in an effort to speed up the process of evaporation.
When most of the water has evaporated from the honeycomb, the bee seals the comb with a secretion of liquid from its abdomen, which eventually hardens into beeswax. Away from air and water, honey can be stored indefinitely, providing bees with the perfect food source for cold winter months.
So as you can see the bees go through a great deal of effort to produce the honey that we so often take for granted. Now it is up to the beekeepers to extract the honey from the artificial hives they create for this purpose.
What are Beekeepers?
Beekeepers are also called honey farmers, apiarists, or less commonly, apiculturists (both from the Latin apis, bee; cf. apiary). The term beekeeper refers to a person who keeps honey bees in beehives, boxes, or other receptacles. Honey bees are not domesticated and the beekeeper does not control the creatures. The beekeeper owns the hives or boxes and associated equipment. The bees are free to forage or leave (swarm) as they desire. Bees usually return to the beekeeper’s hive as the hive presents a clean, dark, sheltered abode.
Sideline beekeepers attempt to make a profit keeping bees but relies on another source of income. Sideliners may operate up to as many as 300 colonies of bees, producing 10–20 metric tons of honey worth a few tens of thousands of dollars each year.
Commercial beekeepers control hundreds or thousands of colonies of bees. The most extensive own and operate up to 50,000 colonies of bees and produce millions of pounds of honey. The first major commercial beekeeper was probably Petro Prokopovych of Ukraine, operating 6600 colonies in the early 19th century. Today, Adee Honey Farm in South Dakota, USA, (80,000 colonies) and Comvita in New Zealand (30,000+ colonies) are among the world’s largest beekeeping enterprises. Worldwide, commercial beekeepers number about 5% of the individuals with bees but produce about 60% of the world’s honey crop. Commercial beekeeping is on the rise especially in high-value markets such as pollination in North America and honey production (especially Manuka honey) in New Zealand.
Some Of Arguments Against Eating Honey
Hive Burning: Supporting the beekeeping industry is supporting the actions they take in order to preserve their businesses. One of them is the burning of hives infected with American Foul Brood (AFB),a fatal disease for honey bees, to keep it from spreading. This is considered by some to be unnecessarily cruel since the disease is often a consequence of neglect.
Wing clipping: Some beekeepers think that clipping will prevent swarming. If your bees get ready to head for the trees, a clipped queen is stuck. The queen begins to head for the sky with her hive mates. Then, embarrassingly, she crashes at the hive’s lighting board. Irritated, the bees all fly back, encourage her to try flying again, but she just turns around and ambles back to the nest. Defeated. The bees wait a few days and then take off when one of the ripe swarm cells ruptures and a new queen emerges. The new queen (still a virgin and quite energetic) will likely kill the hive’s clipped and disgraced queen.
Culling of hives: One of the most brutal aspects of industrial-scale bee farming is culling. This occurs once the honey is collected (usually in autumn). In some cases it is cheaper to kill off entire hives rather than feed the bees through the winter. In cases where bees are not culled they are sometimes fed sugar water as a replacement for the honey taken for human consumption.
Antibiotic use: Neonicotinoid, a widely-used insecticide, is often used to protect bee colonies from harmful intruders such as mites or fungi. While conflicting research exists over whether this practice is contributing to the recent colony collapse, the EPA is taking steps to find alternative ways to protect honeybees.
Some Arguments For Eating Honey
Some vegans choose to consume honey if they know it’s from a humane and sustainable source such as a small-scale, local farm. These vegans may approve honey if it was harvested only from an abundance inside the hive, or when it’s “raw honey,” meaning it has been processed as little as possible. The majority of the honey you see at grocery stores has been filtered and pasteurized to create a smoother consistency and a more pleasing appearance. Many consider this practice completely unnecessary, as honey does not need to be pasteurized in the same way as milk because it is highly acidic and a natural bacteria inhibitor. Raw honey retains many of the nutrients that processed honey lacks, since it has not been heated or filtered in any way. You’ll know it when you see it, as raw honey often contains actual pieces of pollen or honeycomb.
Some Vegan Substitutes For Honey
If you do not eat honey, there are plenty of suitable substitutes that can be easily swapped into recipes. While we recommend choosing “clean,” unprocessed sugars such as maple syrup, it’s important to verse yourself in the options out there.
Coconut Nectar: Made from the reduced sap of coconut palms, coconut nectar has a sweet, tangy, taste with no coconut flavor. It is high in amino acids, vitamins and minerals. The nectar also is low-glycemic.
Agave Nectar: Derived from the agave plant, agave nectar has a similar consistency to honey, but is a notch sweeter. Touted as a natural substitute for artificial sweeteners, agave is controversial because it is highly-processed.
Maple Syrup: Made from the sap of red, black, or sugar maple trees, maple syrup has a similar consistency to honey but a more concentrated sweet flavor. Due to its high antioxidant and mineral count, maple syrup is widely embraced as an ideal sweetener. Make sure that “pure maple syrup” is the only ingredient on the bottle you’re purchasing.
Barley Malt Syrup: Brown rice syrup is a sweetener made by exposing cooked rice to enzymes that break down the starches and turn them into smaller sugars. Then all the “impurities” are filtered out and all that is left is a thick dark syrup with a caramel type flavor.
Sorghum Syrup: Made by extracting and boiling down the juice from sorghum, a whole grain cereal, this mild-flavored, sweet syrup is often enjoyed on its own as a topper for pancakes or waffles or as a spread for biscuits. Try sorghum syrup is these delicious Double Sorghum Spice Cookies.
Molasses: This thick, dark brown syrup is made by refining sugarcane or sugar beets. Typically, molasses is used as a sweetener for baked goods such as cookies, but it’s also used in savory applications (think baked beans!).
So what’s the conclusion?
If you do not eat animals or use any products that come from animals you might consider eating honey to be unethical because bees are certainly animals and only they can make honey. If you believe in sourcing honey from small scale local farms that only skim the excess honey from the hives and avoid endangering the bees then perhaps you would be fine with eating honey. Folks have been debating this topic for years and will continue to do so for a long time. Like anything you have to do your own research and come to your own conclusions about what you feel is right. That way you can sleep well knowing the choices you make each day are good for you, and others, and the planet.
Recommended Documentary on Honey
If you want to learn more about the honey industry there is a good documentary on Netflix called Rotten: Lawyers, Guns and Honey that came out in 2018.
About the author: Scot Bowers is a sober vegan from the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. He is passionate about his family and the sober vegan lifestyle. Scot’s hobbies include surfing, beach volleyball, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and promoting the benefits of sobriety and veganism. Scot started the Sober Vegan Blog, the Sober Vegan Discussion Forums, and the Sober Vegan Facebook Group to help educate and inspire others who are sober and/or vegan or considering either as a healthy lifestyle choice.