Since the time of the pharaohs, humans have used honey for its medicinal and nutritional properties — but bees have been using it for much, much longer than that. People often assume that honey is nothing but bee backwash, a natural secretion rendered from pollen that bees don’t really need to survive. We use this justification to steal honey away from these industrious insects, without ever understanding why bees make honey in the first place.
Why do bees make honey?
This energy is not just used for flying outside the hive. Bee wing beats also regulate the temperature within the hive itself, keeping it warm even during cold snaps and actually turning the collected sugars from pollen into honey.
How is honey made?
According to the National Honey Board, bees collect flower pollen from flowers, which they bring back to the hive for storage. Once inside the honeycomb, the nectar gets broken down into simple sugar, which, when fanned by the bees’ constant wingbeats, eventually starts to evaporate. The resultant, thickened substance is what we know as honey.
Beekeepers collect the honey by scraping off the beeswax and spinning the honeycombed frames in a centrifuge, which forces the honey out of the comb. The liquid is then strained and bottled. Each honey has a different flavor, texture, and color depending on the pollen that those bees collected to make it.
Do bees need honey to survive?
This is the million-dollar question. The baseline scientific answer is yes, in temperate climates, bees do need that honey to last them through the winter. However, when we speak of collecting honey, we’re not talking about breaking into a wild hive and taking it. We’re talking about agriculture, bee husbandry. Thus, as with most agriculture, there are several schools of thought: those of the farmers and those of the animal activists.
In the first camp, unsurprisingly, are the beekeepers. says that the agricultural practice has been done for centuries and that the best beekeepers leave more than enough honey for bees to survive. Then there’s the fact that beekeepers have a vested interest in the continued survival and health of their bees. Sustainable beekeeping is as important as any other form of sustainable agriculture and there is proof of care and appreciation for the bees and the product they make.
The PETA camp has a different opinion, however. The animal rights group submits that taking honey from bees is morally wrong and wholly unnecessary. PETA’s argument is that each bee colony needs about 60 pounds of honey to make it through the winter and that even the most sustainable modern beekeepers take much more than that.
In addition, PETA notes that many beekeepers take nutritious honey from the bees while leaving a cheap sugar substitute in its place in order to keep the insects going during the winter months. Not to mention, humans do not need to eat honey to survive, but bees do.
Is there such a thing as vegan honey?
The point might be moot, however, as several companies are already finding ways to do humans have spent centuries trying to figure out: make honey without bees. For one thing, there are many other liquid sweeteners that can do the same job as honey in your tea or baked goods, such as agave syrup, maple syrup, and date syrup. Additionally, the team behind Vegan Honey Company makes plant-based honey by collecting nectar and pollen themselves. If such a thing is possible, then perhaps the future might be a little sweeter for everyone, the bees included.