People are often confused when it comes to the question of is honey vegan? In this article, Elena Orde from The Vegan Society explains why honey isn't vegan and shows you what honey alternatives you can use instead.
Many people believe that taking honey from bees is a harmless process, so are often confused why vegans don’t eat honey.
The truth is that honey is made by bees for bees, and their health is compromised when it’s taken and harvested by humans – therefore honey is not vegan.
According to the definition, veganism is a ‘way of living which seeks to avoid all exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals.’ When we examine the process of how honey is made, it becomes clear that it does not meet The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism.
As we explore the cruel and unethical practices of honey production, it is clear why honey is not vegan.
How do bees make honey?
Honey is the bee equivalent to our food and water. It provides them with energy, nutrients, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
According to Viva!’s Lex Rigby, a worker bee may visit up to 1,500 flowers in a single day to collect nectar, but only produces about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her entire lifetime.
As she moves from flower to flower, the nectar collected is stored in a ‘honey stomach’ –a separate stomach in which enzymes begin to break down the complex sugars, turning nectar into honey.
The bee will then return to the hive, and regurgitate the contents of its honey stomach for the other worker bees to chew and process further. Yep, honey is practically bee vomit. Not so appealing when spread on toast now is it?
Working as a collective, the bees work tirelessly to ensure that each member of the hive receives their supply of honey. As each bee produces only a small amount of honey in its lifetime, just a twelfth of a teaspoon, it’s fundamental to a hive’s well-being.
Honey is the bee’s main source of energy and without it, they starve. The colony works as a collective to ensure each member has an adequate supply and enough is stockpiled for winter – when flowering plants are scarce.
One of the major issues with commercial honey production is that most beekeepers replace the stolen honey with high fructose corn syrup. This means that the bees are unable to enjoy the rewards of their hard work which is vital to their wellbeing.
Bees visit up to 1,500 flowers collecting pollen which they then regurgitate in the hive for other bees to process. Image: Francis Fu via Getty
How do bees work in a beehive?
Bees live in complex, highly cooperative systems, where thousands of individuals work together to function as a whole, explains Lex Rigby. They are ‘eusocial’ organisms –a term mostly associated with insects that live in colonies, where only some individuals are capable of reproduction.
Typically, a hive consists of three kinds of bees: one sexually developed queen, a few hundred reproductive males (drones) and several thousand female worker bees.
Each member of the colony has a specific task and cannot survive without the support of the others. The queen’s job is to lay the eggs that spawn the next generation. She lays two kinds of eggs – fertilised and non-fertilised.
The non-fertilised ones develop into drones, while the fertilised eggs will grow into females. During peak spring and summer production, she’ll lay around 1,500 eggs per day.
Worker bees lay eggs too, but they are not fertilised and only produce drones. These males reach sexual maturity about a week after hatching and die instantly upon mating. Drones live between a few weeks to four months and depend on worker bees to feed them.
With another 9,000 hungry larvae needing food and around 20,000 older larvae and pupae needing to be kept warm, tens of thousands of worker bees are required to maintain a colony’s health and wellbeing.
The female workers do all the cleaning, nest-building, food collecting, brood-rearing and predator defence. In the summer, their lifespan is about six weeks, but workers reared in the autumn may live as long as six months to ensure the colony’s winter survival.
Bees live in complex, highly cooperative systems, where thousands of individuals work together to function as a whole. Photo © mindrei via Adobe Stock
Why vegans don’t eat honey
Bees produce honey for one main reason: they require a source of energy, food and nutrients to help them survive hibernation and overwintering. Without this, they will starve.
Honey farmers remove the maximum amount of honey from the bee’s hives before they hibernate to reach a high product yield, leaving the hives stripped of this life-sustaining honey.
Some farmers replace the stolen honey with a sugary syrup, which lacks the essential nutrients bees need for longevity and health.
The consequence? These bees will either die, reduce in numbers due to hunger, or famish later in their lives due to nutrient deficiencies. This is because the sugar substitutes are lacking the essential nutrients, fats and vitamins of honey.
Additionally, over the winter period, beekeepers wanting to save money, will ‘cull’ their hives – burning the colony alive, drowning the bees by pouring soapy water over the hive, or gassing them to death with carbon dioxide. As an ethical vegan, none of these practices are acceptable.
As humans, we do not need to eat their honey. There are no nutrients in honey that can’t be obtained otherwise from alternative food sources.
Farmers often replace stolen honey with sugary syrup that doesn't have the nutrients bees need. Photo © Serban Tunde Irina via Getty
Is honey production unethical and harmful to bees?
In response to declining bee populations, proponents of the commercial honey industry argue that farming bees helps the environment and supports wild numbers. Yet, like all animal farming, the main aim of beekeeping is to maximise profits by prioritising productivity.
Farmed bees are selectively bred to favour high yields, through artificial insemination. To extract semen from the drones, they are caught and either crushed or squeezed until their sperm is secreted. It’s a process that inevitably results in death. To stop the queen from leaving the commercial hive and colonising in other hives, she’ll also have her wings clipped, demobilising her from her natural progression.
Commercial honey bees are often specifically bred to maximise productivity, which narrows the bee’s gene pool and increases the likelihood of inter-species diseases developing.
What’s more, hive populations are often culled after a season of honey collection, as it is far more cost-effective for larger farmers to kill an existing hive and buy in a new one than to keep a hive fed over hibernation periods.
Considering the added pressure of disease from pesticide use, and an ever-reducing amount of free-flowering land due to agricultural practices, we really aren’t giving our bees a chance to flourish.
Honey that farmed bees produce is taken for human use, so the bees are fed sugar water that lacks essential nutrients. It’s a poor trade-off. Without the antioxidants in honey, bees are left in a poor nutritional state and more susceptible to disease. Mass hive dieoffs in the UK over recent decades have been, in part, blamed on this.
Bees are fed sugar water that lacks essential nutrients and antioxidants, leaving them susceptible to diseases. Photo © Kosolovskyy via Getty Images
Why we need bees to protect the planet
Let’s put these quantities into perspective: in its lifetime each bee will produce just a 12th of a teaspoon of honey. Think about how many bees are needed to make just one jar? During their journeys across miles of land, these bees pollinate the very crops that keep us alive and fed.
Each bee is an important member of our farms, veg patches and local ecosystem. Approximately one-third of the food we eat is dependent upon bee pollination, along with thousands of species of wildflowers, trees, and plants.
Despite what honey manufacturers will tell you, keeping bees and eating honey is not the way to preserve our bees – just as fishing is not the way to preserve our fish stocks.
Avoiding eating honey, products that contain honey, and buying sustainable organic produce wherever possible helps protect our precious hives from collapse.
Bees are vital to our ecosystem as approximately one-third of the food we eat is dependent upon bee pollination. Photo © Sumiko Scott via Getty
How to spot hidden honey when reading ingredients labels
Honey is often snuck into all sorts of seemingly vegan products. When used in food, honey rarely shows up as an emboldened allergen, so take caution when reading food labels.
Common foodstuffs that list honey as an ingredient include granola and cereals, granola bars, yoghurts, and sugar-free items. You’ll also find it in some brown breads, flavoured herbal teas, throat sweets and over-the-counter cold medicines.
Make sure you also look out for baked goods, chewing gum, sugar-free drinks and salad dressings. As for beauty products, also look out for these bee by-products:
- Bee propolis: A gel used by the bees to seal the hive together. It’s often added to face creams and certain oral supplements.
- Royal jelly: A substance enriched with proteins, fats and vitamins. It is fed to all bees to nourish them and concentrated around the Queen Bee and her larvae. Royal jelly can be infused into skin products designed to anti-age or help repair scarring. Also found in haircare products such as shampoos and conditioners.
- Manuka honey (Mel): Manuka honey is in all sorts of products. While Manuka honey is healing to the skin, there are alternatives such as aloe vera.
- Beeswax (cera alba): Beeswax is often used in lipsticks, lip balms, makeup and cosmetics. Always read the ingredients list of non-vegan makeup brands.
Honey and beeswax is often added to products under other names such as royal jelly so make sure you check the labels. Photo © Oscar Wong via Getty
10 vegan honey alternatives
Here is a list of the best vegan honey alternatives to try with all the sweetness but no sour effects on our ecosystems:
- Agave syrup: Extracted from cacti, this syrup has a low glycaemic load and is perfect in hot drinks.
- Maple syrup: The classic syrup for vegan baking and home cooking.
- Yacon syrup: Extracted from a root similar to a sweet potato and naturally probiotic, yacon syrup is great drizzled on porridge and pancakes.
- Date syrup: Easy to make yourself by boiling dates and blending them together.
- Honea: A vegan substitute made by Plant Based Artisan, mimics runny honey without the use of bees! This is a great alternative and comes in a few varieties.
- Molasses: Molasses is a thick, dark syrup that is a byproduct of the sugar-making process. It is rich, slightly bitter, and has a slightly sweet flavour.
- Golden Syrup: Golden syrup is a thick, amber-colored syrup with a buttery, caramel-like flavour. It’s delicious used as a sweetener in baking and desserts, as well as a topping for pancakes and waffles.
- Stevia: Stevia is a natural sweetener extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant. It is significantly sweeter than sugar and honey, but has no calories and does not raise blood sugar levels. However, it can have a slightly bitter aftertaste if used in large amounts.
- Rice syrup: Rice syrup is a good alternative to honey for vegans with a mild, nutty taste, and is also lower in fructose than honey and other natural sweeteners.
- Barley malt: Barley malt is a sweetener made from sprouted barley that has been dried and roasted. Barley malt can be used as an alternative to honey in some recipes, as it has a similar sweetness and viscosity. However, it has a distinct malty flavor that may not be suitable for all dishes.
There are many tasty options when it comes to finding vegan honey alternatives like maple syrup and agave. Photo © Getty
Conclusion: Why honey isn’t vegan
As vegans seek to end animal exploitation, honey is not part of a vegan diet. This is because taking honey from bees does not meet the definition of veganism and is detrimental to their health.
Instead, vegans will opt to sweeten their food with a wide range of readily available honey alternatives which do not involve taking honey from bees.
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