Veganism is a concept that’s somewhat difficult for meat-eaters – and even vegetarians – to fully understand.
That’s largely because there are several different reasons why vegetarians avoid eating meat and fish. People who go vegan, though, are doing it purely for moral and philosophical reasons which lead to much stricter dietary (and often, lifestyle) guidelines.
In a nutshell, vegetarians are free to eat foods like eggs and milk which are produced by the animals they won’t eat. Strict vegans, on the other hand, will not even eat any by-products of meat, fish – or even insects.
So there’s a relatively simple answer to the question of whether vegetarians and vegans eat honey. Vegetarians, and some people who follow a plant-based vegan diet, do. But strict vegans do not.
The more interesting question is why going vegan means swearing off honey – since a common belief is that bees make honey for human consumption. To get a better understanding of why honey is off-limits in a vegan diet, you need a better understanding of the guiding philosophy behind veganism, and how it differs from vegetarianism.
Why People Go Vegan or Vegetarian
Strict vegans see veganism as much more than just a dietary preference. The Vegan Society explains it this way:
“Veganism is a way of living, which seeks to exclude…all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.”
So the rigorous definition of veganism doesn’t simply say “you can’t eat meat or fish.” A vegan lifestyle seeks to prevent all forms of animal cruelty and exploitation. It focuses less on human dietary choices, and more on animal rights. That’s the reason why most strict vegans won’t wear clothes made from animal products like wool and leather. (There are some people who describe themselves as “dietary vegans” and don’t apply vegan philosophy to the clothes they wear.)
That illustrates the big difference between veganism and vegetarianism, made even clearer by this definition from the North American Vegetarian Society:
“Vegetarians are people who abstain from eating all animal flesh including meat, poultry, fish and other sea animals. An ovo-vegetarian (diet) includes eggs, a lacto-vegetarian (diet) includes dairy products, and an ovo-lacto vegetarian (diet) includes both eggs and dairy products.”
In other words, vegetarianism is defined by what people can eat, not by how animals are treated. It’s true that many become vegetarians because of their concern for animals (and some definitions specify opposition to the “slaughter” of animals), but many others choose a vegetarian diet for its perceived health benefits or for religious reasons.
This makes it clear that vegetarians can eat honey. But one big question remains. Why would most vegans consider it cruel just to collect and eat a product made by honeybees?
The Reason Bees Make Honey
One major reason why strict vegans don’t eat honey has to do with the misconception mentioned earlier. Bees do not produce honey for us to eat. They produce it for themselves.
The process is complicated and fascinating. Worker bees collect nectar during pollination, then bring it back to the hive where house bees suck the nectar out of the pollinators’ honey stomachs, chew it to break it down and spread the resultant honey syrup throughout the honeycomb, where it’s capped with beeswax for protection.
That’s an enormous amount of work. A single honey bee only creates about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey during her entire life, and an entire colony may produce as few as 20 pounds of honey per year.
Why do bees do all of that work? Quite simply, they need the honey for food and energy. Without the essential nutrients in honey, honey bees would starve during the winter months because they don’t hibernate or die off like most other species. That honey is also crucial in the event of “colony collapse,” a mysterious phenomenon which sometimes sees most of the worker bees in beehives leave; only nurses are left behind to care for the queen bees and the immature insects, who need the stored honey to survive.
Here’s how vegans look at it: human consumption of honey depletes the supply that honeybee populations need to survive. That makes it cruel to “sacrifice” those colonies by eating the honey that bees need to weather the winter.
Vegans have other ethical concerns about the consumption of honey as well. They center on the way that beekeepers and the commercial honey industry operate.
Beekeeping, Honey and Vegans
Generalizations are always unfair, so it’s important to note that many beekeepers are completely ethical in the way they treat their bees and go about honey production. However, there are definitely “questionable” practices used in many large-scale operations.
Understandably, honey producers want to bottle and ship the maximum amount of product. That leads some of them to harvest as much honey from a hive as they can, without leaving any honey for the bees to consume when the weather gets cold. What do they do instead? Some commercial beekeepers replace the harvested honey with sugar substitutes like high-fructose corn syrup or sugar water which don’t contain the nutrients that bees need. In worst-case scenarios, some commercial operators just kill off the entire hive after all of its honey has been harvested.
The health of their colonies is a secondary concern for many commercial beekeepers; it’s not unusual to see bee farms with conditions that are unnatural or unhealthy, creating stress and disease. But there are other issues as well.
The sugar substitutes just mentioned can weaken bees’ immune systems and make them more susceptible to pesticides. Additionally, some producers selectively breed their bees to increase production, and that can cause genetic mutations which lead to depleted bee populations. It can also mean that “imported” bees bring diseases, spreading them to other pollinators throughout the environment.
There’s another environmental concern for vegans. Honey farming can be quite lucrative when done in large-scale, so beekeepers often mass breed honey bees – and when enormous numbers of “farmed” bees are let loose to pollinate and forage, they’re competing with smaller populations of native bees and other foragers. Over time, that has led to a decrease in the world’s population of wild bees.
There’s one more concern. Queen bees normally leave their hives, taking a number of workers with them, when a new queen is born. Some beekeepers, however, clip the queens’ wings to prevent them from leaving and maintain the productivity of the existing hive. Others will kill and replace the queen when they believe she’s “outlived her usefulness.”
To repeat, not all beekeepers and commercial farmers practice some or all of these practices. But many do, and they’re anathema to vegans who are concerned with the health and wellbeing of bees and the environment in general.
Vegan Alternatives and Choices
Honey is primarily used as a sweetener for cooking and baking, although it’s also popular as a sugar substitute in tea or as a quick, energy-boosting snack. Fortunately for vegans, there are many products which can be used as substitutes. Molasses, maple syrup, date syrup, agave nectar, barley syrup, malt syrup and butterscotch are among the products that vegans use to replace honey in recipes or everyday use.
When strict vegans avoid honey because of the concerns detailed above, that doesn’t mean they’re only avoiding the display of honey bears in the supermarket or the organic raw honey sold at farmer’s markets.
There are a number of related non-vegan products that are either created by bees, or manufactured from honey or its by-products. They include royal jelly, propolis and bee pollen (all used to treat medical issues or in supplements), beeswax and mead. All are off-limits to those who live a vegan lifestyle.
There’s one more, related issue that’s become a subject of debate in the vegan community: should fruits and vegetables like avocados, apples, cucumbers, blueberries and even almonds be considered vegan? That would seem counter-intuitive, since those products grow naturally on trees, vines or bushes. But here’s the argument.
The number of bees required to pollinate all of those fruits and vegetables is huge, and in many areas of the United States there aren’t enough bees to do the job. So many commercial farmers practice what’s known as “migratory beekeeping,” transporting bee hives into their fields so the bees can pollinate crops during the times when their fertility is at its highest.
Is that cruel to the bees? Scientific American has looked into the process, and has concluded that it is. (1) The bees are deprived of their natural, diverse diet when they can only gather nectar from one crop; once the field’s nectar has been harvested, the bees are left to starve (or eat unhealthy sugar substitutes) until their hives are relocated; and the transport of hives across states or regions needed for migratory beekeeping leaves the bee population more susceptible to disease.
When questioned about this dilemma, PETA has said, in effect, there’s no way for vegans to build a meal plan that avoids all foods farmed with migratory practices. A spokesman tells the Washington Post: “Average shoppers can’t avoid produce that involved migratory beekeeping any more than they can avoid driving on asphalt, which has animal ingredients,” and that “It’s impossible to be 100 percent ‘pure.’” (2)
When it comes down to reality, vegans have to make their own decisions on what to eat and what to avoid. But most believe the issue is clear when it comes to honey: vegans shouldn’t eat it.