Honey: The not so sweet reality behind why honey isn’t vegan

Read Time:   |  4th July 2016

Charlotte Willis and Elena Orde from The Vegan Society explain why, despite much debate, honey isn’t vegan-friendly…


Honey is probably the product most frequently mistaken as being vegan-friendly. There is a common misconception that bees make their honey specially for us, but this couldn’t be much further from the truth.

It is in fact made by bees for bees, and their health is sacrificed when it is harvested by humans. When we delve a little deeper into the process of how honey is made, it becomes quite clear that it falls well outside of The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism as a ‘way of living which seeks to avoid all exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals.’

Unethical Practices

Recent claims that consuming it will help the bee population to thrive are simply not true. When commercial farmers remove it from a hive, they replace it with a sugar substitute which is significantly worse for the bees’ health since it lacks the essential nutrients, fats and vitamins of honey. The bees then exhaust themselves by working to replace the missing honey.

Honeybees are specifically bred to increase productivity. Already an endangered species, this selective breeding narrows the population gene pool and increases susceptibility to disease and large scale die-offs. Diseases are also caused by importing different species of bees for use in hives.

These diseases are then spread to the thousand of other pollinators we and other animals rely on, disputing the common myth that honey production is good for our environment.

In addition, many hives are culled post-harvest to keep the farmer’s costs down. Queen bees often have their wings clipped by beekeepers to prevent them leaving the hive to produce a new colony elsewhere, which would decrease productivity and lessen profit.

In the USA alone, the amount of honey produced rose by 19% from 2013 to 2014, and its’s popularity shows no sign of slowing. The honey industry, like many other commercial industries, is profit-driven where the welfare of the bees is always secondary to commercial gain.

What is Honey?

It is a bee’s single source of food and essential nutrients during the winter. A bee will visit up to 1,500 flowers to collect enough nectar to fill its ‘honey stomach’; a second, separate stomach in which enzymes begin to break down the nectar into honey. After returning to the hive, this is regurgitated and chewed by ‘house bees’ to complete the honey-making process. The hive works as a collective to provide each member with an adequate supply, each bee producing just a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime: significantly less than most people expect. It’s fundamental to a hive’s well-being.

Sadly, most commercial beekeepers often steal the bees honey and replaced with high fructose corn syrup instead, so they don’t get to enjoy the fruits of their labour which is fundamental to their wellbeing.

Environmental Effects

Rather than helping with the current bee crisis, mass breeding of honeybees actually negatively affects the populations of other competing nectar-foraging insects. Overwhelmed by the ever-inflating quantities of farmed bees, the numbers of the endangered native bumblebees and various bird species have declined.

The importing of honey into the UK also increases our carbon footprint through the emissions associated with transport. Of all the amount consumed in the UK, 90% of it is imported, mostly from China and Turkey.

Vegan Alternatives

Unlike bees, humans can thrive without honey in their diets. Luckily, there are a whole host of readily-available vegan alternatives for those with a sweet tooth that means we can leave the honey for the bees…

  • Maple syrup
  • Coconut syrup
  • Agave nectar
  • Date paste or syrup
  • Stevia
  • Apple ‘honey’
  • Dandelion ‘honey’
  • Molasses
  • Golden syrup

Written by

Charlotte Willis

Charlotte Willis

Charlotte Willis is an author, editor and content creator, whose interests and work promote sustainable living, in every sense of the word. Charlotte is a marketer for ethical brands, author of Vegan: Do It! A young person’s guide to living a vegan lifestyle, a regular contributor to sustainability and plant-based publications, and is studying clinical psychology with the view to revolutionising women's holistic, natural and mental healthcare.


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