Even the staunchest carnivores know that vegans do not eat meat, dairy, or eggs. Some even know that vegans don’t wear animal-derived fabrics like leather and wool, or use cosmetics tested on animals. But there’s one item that often leaves people confused: honey. Is honey vegan, or is honey OK for vegans to eat?
One of the most interesting things about honey is the fact that a bee produces just a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in their entire lifetime, according to Perfect Bee. So one teaspoon of honey in your morning tea is actually the life’s worth of 12 bees. Whoa.
Read on for everything you need to know about honey, and why vegans look at it the way they do.
Is Honey Vegan?
Veganism is defined as a lifestyle that aims to exclude animal exploitation and cruelty whenever possible and practicable, according to the Vegan Society. That said, veganism is a means to an end — that end goal being the demise of factory farming, namely of “farm” animals (of which 56 billion are killed every year) and fish (of which trillions are killed every year). So since bees are animals, no, honey is not vegan.
However, as the Vegan Bros put it, even though honey is not vegan, quitting honey should never be the central platform of vegan activism — because telling people that ingredients like honey aren't vegan could turn people off from actually trying to go vegan. So if someone wants to go vegan but still eat honey, we should still applaud their actions — because they are still massively reducing the number of animals they eat and lowering their environmental impact.
Do Some Vegans Eat Honey?
A person who lives a mostly-vegan lifestyle except they still eat honey (or other insect-derived products) is sometimes cheekily referred to as a “beegan.” Bee-derived products that vegans do not eat include honey, beeswax, bee pollen, mead, propolis, and royal jelly; interestingly, there are a few other insect-derived products that aren’t technically vegan, such as carmine, gelatin, shellac, and confectioner's glaze.
Why Don’t Vegans Eat Honey?
Because bees are animals (fun fact: all insects are part of the animal kingdom), and honey is made by bees, vegans do not eat honey. Even in small, local, family-run beehives, beekeepers must still keep bees in captivity and take their honey — which is their food — from them. Instead of letting bees eat their own honey, beekeepers (in both small farms and in commercial beekeeping) often feed bees sugar or high fructose corn syrup — which, as Mother Earth News explains, lacks the nutritional benefits, pH, and enzymes that honey provides to bees. Even if a beekeeper left enough honey for their bees to feed themselves before extracting some to sell, the beekeeper would still be taking what isn’t rightfully theirs.
Additionally, beekeepers also selectively breed bees to boost their productivity; like with other animals, selective breeding leads to a smaller gene pool, less species variety, and frequent disease, according to the Vegan Society. Not to mention, beekeepers often cruelly treat the queen bee — they clip off her wings to stop her from flying away, and they artificially inseminate her, not unlike what happens to animals on factory farms, according to PETA. And in the winter, some beekeepers kill all their bees and destroy the hives, and start things up again in the spring, when it is easier and cheaper to keep bees alive.
Removing honey from your diet may not be the most important principle of veganism, but it is easy to see why many people refuse to use honey after learning about the way bees are used in honey production.
How Do Bees Make Honey?
Bees have a very intricate (and interesting!) honey-making process, as explained by Perfect Bee. It starts with bees flying around to various plants and collecting their nectar, a sugary fluid that plants naturally produce. Bees use their proboscis (a straw-like tongue) to suck the nectar out of the plant. Bees hold the nectar in a pouch on their body called their second stomach, honey pouch or the pollen basket. When that pocket is full, the bees know that it’s time to return to the hive, and they fly back.
Once back at the hive, bees pass the nectar they collected to a fellow bee, who suck the nectar out of their stomach, and chew it for about 30 minutes. Once the nectar is broken down into a simple syrup, the bee spits up the nectar into the hive, forming a honeycomb. (If you’ve ever heard someone cheekily call honey “bee vomit,” that’s why — though honey isn’t actually bee vomit, it has been spit up by bees.)
Then, the bees often use their wings to fan the honeycomb, which helps thicken up the honey. Once the honeycomb is ready, the bees excrete a substance from their wax gland, known as beeswax, to help set the honeycomb in place, so they can store the honey to eat throughout the winter, or any period of time when there is limited pollination in their area.
Bees naturally do all of that just to feed themselves, since honey contains all the vitamins and minerals that they need. When beekeepers take honey from bees, they are taking the bees’ food source, and leaving them with paltry substitutes like high fructose corn syrup.
Is Honey Sustainable?
As mentioned above, a bee produces just a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in their entire lifetime. Not to mention, it takes 2 million flowers to make just 1 pound of honey, according to Perfect Bee. So while that process may be sustainable for the bees to nourish themselves with, it’s certainly not sustainable for feeding humans.
Is Honey Bad for the Environment?
Like many other industries, there’s evidence that the honey industry has harmful effects on the environment. As explained by NPR, farmed honey bees compete with wild bees for nectar, which can hurt wild bee populations. Wild bees are vital to ecosystems and to the planet because they pollinate so many plants and crops, and some even think that bees are one of the most important insects on Earth. So unfortunately, when people buy honey thinking that they are saving bees, their purchase may actually harm bees in the long run.
As Jonas Geldmann, a conservation researcher at the University of Cambridge, told NPR: "The way we're managing honeybees, in these hives, has nothing to do with nature conservation."
Vegan Alternatives to Honey
Luckily, there are plenty of honey alternatives on the market, many of which you can find in the average grocery store. A few popular liquid sweeteners include maple syrup, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, date paste, molasses, and Bee Free Honee, which is made from apple juice and mimics honey in taste and texture. You can also use regular sugar, such as table sugar (just make sure it’s not filtered through bone char), coconut sugar, beet sugar, or date sugar; additionally, you can even sweeten things like oatmeal and smoothies with dates or other fruit instead of using honey.
Are Honey Mustard or Honey Nut Cheerios Vegan?
Often, products with honey in the name — such as honey mustard or Honey Nut Cheerios — do contain honey, and therefore are not vegan. However, sometimes products with honey in the title actually don’t contain honey — honey is just used in the name, but a cheaper, plant-based alternative is used as a sweetener, such as sugar or corn syrup. So if you decide you no longer want to use honey, make sure to always read the labels of foods with honey in the name, since they sometimes don't actually contain honey.