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Are you vegan or considering going vegan? Honey may be one of those foods that you’re not quite sure about. This is a beekeeper’s perspective on how honey is produced and harvested, crops that rely on commercial beekeeping, and answers the question, do vegans eat honey?
With more awareness of how food is produced, a greater proportion of the population is switching to a vegan diet. It’s understandable considering the meat industry’s far-reaching impact. Animal cruelty, human health, environmental damage, and climate change are all factors that play into it. While certain foods and products are clear-cut as to whether they are vegan or not, one that causes confusion is honey. This piece addresses what honey is, how honeybees are used in farming, and if vegans eat honey.
To be clear, I, the writer, am a small-scale beekeeper. I tend to two colonies of bees that I’ve kept for over ten years. They’re a British type of honeybee that is small and dark and produces less honey than the Italian strains that most commercial beekeepers have. I know a lot about honeybees and the positives and negatives associated with the beekeeping industry. I hope to clear up misconceptions, broaden your awareness of commercial beekeeping, and fill you in on important information that non-beekeepers are generally unaware of.
What Exactly is Honey?
Imagine honey, and you might conjure up an image of Winny the Pooh treating himself from a sticky honeypot. Sweet, golden, and utterly irresistible! Alternatively, you might also have been told that honey is bee vomit, a visual that’s supposed to invoke disgust. It is not vomit.
Honey, as we know it, is food that honeybees produce to see them through leaner times and to feed their young. It’s nectar from countless flowers that they bring back to the colony in their honey stomach and then process into sweet and energy-rich honey. After it’s finished and stored in honeycomb, they’ll eat from these stores of honey in leaner times. That includes rainy spells, when forage is scarce, or through the winter to keep warm. Bees not only rely on honey, but they love it! They’ll even steal honey from open jars at picnics and other colonies if they can.
People love honey too, and it’s been a sweet source of calories and a treat for millennia. I think that it would still be a treat more than a mainstream staple if it weren’t for how food crops are now grown. We’ll get to how that works in a bit, but the critical point here is that plant pollination is the main reason that large-scale commercial beekeeping exists. Honey is a by-product that benefits the beekeepers that situate their colonies near crops. Without the pollination efforts of commercial honeybees, our supermarkets and kitchen cupboards would be empty of many foods. Food that includes almonds, avocados, and squash.
The Philosophy of Veganism
There are serious reasons why you would want to choose a vegan lifestyle. There is a real and urgent concern that animals everywhere are being exploited and abused. It’s traumatic for most of us to know and see. We also know that most of the calories we grow as crops get eaten by livestock, not people. Energy and protein-rich plants that could help address world hunger. Then there’s facing the reality that raising meat, eggs, and dairy for the masses (billions of us!) is a world of factory farming, cattle yards, damage to wild spaces, and greenhouse gas emissions. Raising animals for food can be very cruel, especially on a large scale.
The philosophy of veganism is simple. Vegans exclude all animal products, or derivatives from animals, from their diet, clothing, consumer goods, and lifestyle. By excluding animal-based products and promoting alternatives, the intention is to benefit people, animals, and the environment. In most cases, such as a hotdog or a pair of leather shoes, it’s clear that they’re made from animal parts. Honey is less clear, though, and to many, there’s a question: Do vegans eat honey? Can vegans eat honey?
Do Vegans Eat Honey
Strictly speaking, a genuinely vegan diet does not include honey. That’s because honeybees make it as food for themselves and the vegan society stands against the exploitation of bees. It’s a bit of a conundrum, though, as you’ll soon learn. The honey you see in jars is a by-product of a much broader picture of monoculture-based agriculture and plant-based food production. Commercial beekeeping is an industry because of monoculture farming. Farmers rely on commercial honeybees to produce most of the fruit, berries, legumes, and nuts that we eat. Whether it’s a popular idea or not, the vegan diet is coated in honey.
I completely understand the ideas driving veganism. However, as a beekeeper, I know that there is a conflict of interest involved in honey. My two colonies of honeybees, which I’ve named Primrose and Bluebell, will be familiar to some from social media or YouTube. The way they live is far from that of commercial honeybees trucked around the country to pollinate crops. Yet through working with bees and learning more about them, I know that a world without honeybees is a world without food. Food for anyone, vegans included.
Crops that Rely on Honeybee Pollination
You’ll hear the argument from some people that crops can be pollinated by insects other than commercial bees. The keyword is CAN rather than are they. The reality of modern monoculture-based agriculture is that it’s nearly impossible to rely on wild insects to pollinate crops in many scenarios. Either the farm has wiped out many or most wild pollinators, or the farms are just too massive for wild insects at the fringes to make their way in. Even in cases where wild pollination is at play, many crops rely on honeybees to increase fruit set and to supplement wild pollination. Common supermarket foods that owe their existence to commercial beekeeping include:
- Kiwi fruit
- Squash and pumpkins
- Even more crops and information
Do Some Vegans Eat Honey?
While the vegan diet does not include honey, some people who consider themselves vegans do eat honey. Food choices can be flexible and what you choose to eat depends on your beliefs, ethics, and knowledge. For example, I know a vegan couple who keep their own (very pampered) hens and so eat eggs. Though everything else they eat is vegan, they are happy eating eggs from their girls. Are they truly vegans though? That’s up to debate.
If you are vegan and are considering eating honey, please be aware that honey is the most faked food on the planet. In some places, such as the USA, most honey is now imported, and with imports come the chance of adulteration and unsavory beekeeping practices.
If you’re after honey that sets your heart and mind at ease, buy direct from a beekeeper. Before you purchase, take time to ask the beekeeper questions, too. Try to understand how their bees are cared for, and ensure that your purchase supports your ethos. Ask the beekeeper about how much honey they harvest at a time and if they feed their bees sugar-water in autumn. Inquire into where and how the bees are kept, whether they’ve had any hive losses, and what they do to help their bees.
Knowing how many hives they have and if they tend them all themselves is also important. You could even take a course on beginner beekeeping to better understand what’s involved. Know that commercial beekeepers can have a few colonies or thousands, and the number can make a difference in how they’re treated. It’s up to you to choose what you feel is best.
The Role of Bees and Pollination
Pollination, the act of fertilizing flowers, occurs by moving pollen from a male flower to a female flower. When that exchange is made, the flowers transform into fruit and berries. Pollination mechanisms are weird and wonderful, but it usually comes down to plants relying on a third party. Some, like corn, rely on wind to spread pollen, but the vast majority of the fruit, berries, and nuts we eat are pollinated by insects. In a perfectly balanced ecosystem, this task is completed by dozens, if not hundreds, of insect species—everything from hoverflies to bumblebees, wasps, honey bees, and at night, by moths. Unfortunately, most of those insects are now virtually absent from the fields where our food is grown.
Over the past hundred years, traditional farming has largely been replaced by mechanized. Where once small family farms held sway, now corporations dominate. Our rural landscapes that were once comprised of smaller fields, hedgerows, and mixed farming, are now ruthless seas of monocultures. Field after field of corn, wheat, sugar beets, and the like. It’s a bleak place and inhospitable for wildlife. Modern farming practices have led to the vast majority of farmland being almost devoid of insect life.
Monocultures and Honeybees
We’ve come to the point now that monocultures combined with the bulldozing of wild habitat and the use of pesticides and herbicides have decimated wild insect numbers. There was a time when all types of wild bees and insects would have pollinated our crops. Now those crops rely on commercial beekeepers to keep us in almonds, avocados, apples, and to some extent, pretty much every temperate-climate fruit, berry, and nut that you can think of. We’ll come to that.
It’s not all bad news though! Farmers are waking up to the reality that their farms need native insects to flourish. Many orchards are now farmed to include strips of wild plants and nectar-rich wildflowers between the trees. It gives native bees and pollinators a leg-up and will hopefully add to their recovery. Currently, it does not replace commercial beekeeping pollination services though.
The Role of Honeybees and Food Production
Honeybees are social animals and live together as a colony of generally around 10,000 bees in winter and 80,000 in summer. Almost all of the honeybees in a colony are female. 98% are female worker bees, with about 2% male drones and a single Queen bee. Their life’s work is creating more bees and producing food for the colony, namely honey, and bee bread. Little do they know that they’re essential in the plant world, though, too.
Flowers have evolved alongside insects and create the nectar and pollen bees and other pollinators need for food. Honeybees are lured to certain flowers for this prize. While the bees are visiting, their tiny hairs get coated in excess pollen. When the bee flies to another flower, it inadvertently deposits some pollen and can fertilize or pollinate the flower. That’s how insects can become pollinators.
Once a male flower has pollinated a female flower, fruit, berries, and nuts can begin growing, and the bees’ job is done. Some crops don’t need pollination to produce the food we eat, though. For example, carrots, kale, and broccoli all produce food without the aid of pollinators. However, the life cycle of those crops is biennial, meaning they create a big root, leaves, and/or stem this first year and then go to seed in year two. The process involves sending up flowers that again need to be pollinated by insects for the seeds to form. No pollinators, no seeds, and no future crops. There’s no getting around it – we need pollinators, especially honeybees, to survive.
Honeybees and Commercial Farming
Honeybees can be prolific pollinators of single crops and are extremely important to monocultures. They can and will fly 1.5 miles in all directions from their hive and they also demonstrate floral constancy. That means that once they find a type of flower they like, they’ll constantly seek it out until they can’t find it anymore. Then honeybees switch to a different kind of flower. That’s how honeybee colonies can be brought into hundreds of acres of almond trees in bloom and be perfectly happy for a time. Once the flowers drop and the nut begins developing, those bountiful acres become a desert to bees. There’s no food within their range anymore. Before that happens, beekeepers load the hives onto trucks and take them to another crop in flower, sometimes hundreds of miles away.
Ultimately, the vast swathes of farmland and orchards that supply our supermarkets provide neither habitat nor diversity in food sources for wild pollinators or even domestic honeybees to flourish. To thrive, they’d need mixed farmland with fringes of wild spaces, control of parasites, and no use of chemical agents on plants or soil.
In my colonies, things are a bit different. They aren’t moved and live in a semi-wild part of the countryside near an organic garden. That means that they’re settled and have a more diverse diet. They still behave in the same way as commercial bees – obsessed over single types of flowers at any given time. The difference is that each worker can decide which flower she likes most. When beans bloom in my garden, so do borage, lavender, and countless wildflowers. Honeybees, individually and as a group, choose which one at any given time is best for the health of their colony. Or which one is the sweetest!
Declining Honeybee Populations
Honeybees are native to many parts of the world, including Europe and Asia. However, most bee populations are now domesticated rather than wild. Over the years, both groups have been hit hard by disease, parasites, climate change, loss of habitat, and chemical pesticides and herbicides. The “weeds” they love are systematically removed from fields and home gardens alike. Many factors, all relating to human activity, have led to the decline of wild and domesticated honeybees worldwide.
The transport of bees across borders has also led to the spread of disease and parasites, such as the varroa mite. This pest causes at least five bee diseases including one that deforms the bee’s wings. It’s also accepted to be a culprit behind colony collapse disorder, which sees entire populations of honeybees perish. Both wild colonies and those living in beehives suffer from varroa, which can be managed by beekeepers.
I’m not aware of any data that shows just how many wild colonies of honeybees currently exist. What is known is that, compared to the past, it’s very uncommon to find them. In fact, wild honeybee colonies in the United States have almost disappeared, and even domestic bees die in droves every year. 2019 was a terrible year, and in that year 40% of all honeybee colonies in the USA died. To make up for lost colonies, honeybees are imported into North America every year. Primarily from New Zealand but also from Canada.
Honeybees Aren’t Native to North America
This talk of moving bees across borders can lead to another argument against keeping honeybees. Honeybees are not native to North America, and some people are against supporting them. They’ve had a lot more press than native insects, but there’s a thought that honeybees could be out-competing native species. The fact is that modern crops aren’t native either and that there’s no way that food could be produced without honeybees. At least not as farming stands today. If you’re American and like eating food, then a lack of honeybees in the USA is a very worrying thing.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t help native bees and pollinators too. Planting shrubs, trees, and plants that give cover to insects is one way. Leaving your outdoor spaces a little untidy when it comes to stones, bricks, and natural materials is another. There are thousands of species of bees and some build homes in the soil, others in walls and masonry, and others nest in hollow wood.
History and Evolution of Beehives
In the past, meaning before the mid-nineteenth century, honey was taken from wild bees or harvested from skeps – old-fashioned beehives. They’re the type that looks like upside-down baskets and are often featured on honey labels. The sad thing about them is that extracting honey from skeps means killing all the bees inside. For hundreds of years, people couldn’t figure out how to get the honey out otherwise.
Then in 1851, the ingenious Lorenzo Langstroth found a way to create a partitioned beehive. A series of stacked boxes with beeswax frames inside spaced to give bees 5/16th of an inch to move between them. They allowed frames of honeycomb to be taken out, the honey harvested, and then the frames placed back in the hive. You can also place Queen excluders between the boxes, a screen that allows smaller worker bees through but not the Queen bee. That means that honey frames are free of any eggs or baby bees. The invention of modern hives means that frames of honey can be taken out without hurting the bees.
How is Honey Extracted from Beehives
Honey harvesting begins after the bees have made enough honey and have capped it. The beekeeper then removes the frames. There are different ways of doing this, but I use a clearing board. It’s a board with two bee-escapes that I’ll set below a super (a boxed partition). Bees can leave through the escapes but can’t come back through. With luck, I’ll come back two days later, and there are no bees left on the comb. Usually, a handful is left, and I use a smoker and a soft brush to usher them down into the hive. Puffs of smoke don’t hurt bees but calm them. I have an entire piece and video showing how to extract honey from honeycomb.
Do Beekeepers Rob Bees of Honey
One of the reasons that the vegan lifestyle forgoes honey is the claim that beekeepers rob bees of honey. Bees indeed make honey, and beekeepers harvest some or all of it from the hive. However, honeybees make honey – lots of it. So much so in good years that you can harvest fifty to eighty pounds of honey from a single colony with plenty left for the bees! Some beekeepers take the maximum amount of honey, but I only take the surplus. A good beekeeper always ensures that their bees have plenty of their own honey to last them through the winter. Honey that they’ve made from foraging flowers has more essential nutrients for them and is what they need.
As a bit of background information, honeybees, in their activities, are honey-making machines. If the flowers are bountiful and conditions are right, a colony can expand and create far more honey than they can possibly eat. One way to understand just how much they make is the occasional story of someone who’s had to have a honeybee colony rehomed from their home. Often there are a hundred or more pounds of honey in the comb behind their walls or in their floorboards!
Ethical Honey Harvesting
When I take honey from my bees, I never take it all. By taking the excess, I reduce the amount of space that they have to keep warm in winter (another topic!), and I rarely have to feed my bees. On the rare occasion that I need to, I feed my bees their own honey back. It’s been many years that I’ve fed them with fondant or sugar water. For the honey that I harvest, I give the bees a good home and attention throughout the year to ensure they’re happy and healthy.
Small-scale beekeepers, like myself, can pay much more attention to their colonies than commercial outfits. Arguably, the pressures of beekeeping as a business can lead to more stress and less concern for honeybees as individuals or individual colonies. But again, you cannot escape the reality of how necessary they are if you eat food from the supermarket.
Other Types of Honeybee Products
It’s not just honey that beekeepers can harvest from colonies. Beeswax is another product as is bee pollen, propolis, and royal jelly. Some beekeepers will even sell live bees for people to use in bee sting therapy or for beauty treatments. Not all beekeepers do though and I only harvest honey and beeswax cappings from my hives. If you wish to avoid using honeybee products do keep your eye out for those products though.
Vegan Alternatives to Honey
I’m a beekeeper, and I love honey from my bees. I love honey from other small-scale beekeepers too, and for more than just fellowship. Small-scale beekeepers are helping keep honeybees from extinction in the face of modern agriculture, disease, and parasites. Real honey tastes incredible too. Each drop contains the natural essences of countless flowers, and that not only comes through in the flavor but honey’s healing properties.
I really am trying to make my case for ethical beekeeping and honey but realize that you may want to avoid both. Fortunately for you, there are many alternatives if you’re using honey just as a sweetener. There are many other uses for honey that you’d need to investigate options for, though. It has a lot of health benefits and is used in skincare, soapmaking, and even medicine.
Vegan Sweeteners to Use Instead of Honey
As a sweetener, you can take your pick of alternatives to honey. Do keep in mind that when using them some recipes will need reworking and to be used in different ratios or particular ways. When changing a recipe to accommodate vegan alternatives, make sure that you look into how much you should use for a substitution.
Stevia is a great substitute for honey, in my opinion, since it’s very sweet, has almost no calories, and it’s entirely plant-based. You can even grow stevia at home. Maple syrup is another alternative to honey with sticky sweetness and similar uses. It’s sap that’s harvested from maple trees in winter.
Dates and date syrup can add sweetness and stickiness, too, and they’re often an essential ingredient in vegan desserts. Ordinary cane sugar is vegan, as is molasses, brown rice syrup, coconut nectar, and agave nectar. Agave nectar is often called agave syrup and is harvested from the agave plant.
Avoiding Crops that Harm Bees
While a person can avoid eating honey, it takes much more effort to avoid eating food that honeybees are responsible for making. That includes apples at the supermarket, even the organic ones. You’d have to stop eating almonds or drinking almond milk. If you can forego having kiwis, watermelon, and cantaloupe, then you’re doing well too.
Buying your produce from smaller organic farms is another option. They may have their own bees, but they probably farm in a way that supports native pollinators too. Just ask them questions and learn more about how and why they farm. They’ll likely be passionate about their farm and would love to talk to you about it.
There’s also an entire movement that helps promote the support of ethical agriculture. Regenuary urges people to eat food produced using regenerative farming methods. Food from farmers using techniques to feed people while supporting wildlife, animal welfare, and regenerating the land.
Unfortunately, while many food crops can be completely vegan, they can also be destructive to the environment. Soy is one of the worst offenders. Regenuary helps people learn which crops and farming practices harm the soil, air, water, and life. It’s another way to support the environment through our food choices.
Help Support Honeybees and other Pollinators
I hope that this piece has broadened your understanding of modern beekeeping and honey. I’ve set out to answer the question of do vegans eat honey, but I also hope that it conveys that not all honey and beekeeping is the same. Like most things in life, beekeeping and honey is not a topic that’s black or white. It’s up to you to decide whether you wish to eat honey but know that there’s a way to do it that supports honeybees, cottage industry, and beekeepers who care about their bees. If you’d like to learn more, here’s more that you can do to help honeybees and native pollinators in your region:
- 50+ Flowers and Trees to grow in a Bee-Friendly Garden
- Save our Bees: how to ID and help Bees in the Garden
- What to do if you See a Swarm of Bees
- How to Extract Honey from Honeycomb