But What About Honey? Can Vegans Eat It?
There are a lot of hard-and-fast rules in the vegan community, things that we all know to be true.
No food with faces. No food that once had a mother. No animal secretions.
It’s all relatively straightforward, except for one very grey area that it seems we haven't been able to come to an agreement on.
Is honey vegan?
The answer you get depends a lot on who you ask. I’m willing to say that honey is the single fuzziest food in the vegan community – some are 100%, adamantly against it, while others believe that there is a place for the syrupy stuff in a vegan diet.
Like any deeply passionate issue, there are a lot of layers to the vegan stance on honey, but if you dig into the nature of honey and the true goals of a vegan lifestyle, it becomes clear that honey does not, in fact, have a place in the vegan diet.
To understand the reason why honey is inherently not vegan, we need first to peel back the layers.
The Buzz About Honey
I mean, you know the basics of honey – it’s sweet, it’s syrupy, bees make it. But, if you’re like most people, that’s about the extent of your honey knowledge, so it’s no wonder people often ask if vegans can eat honey.
In reality, honey is food for honeybees and is their sole source of nutrition during the winter months. The bees also work darn hard to make the stuff, with a single bee visiting upward of a thousand flowers within a four-mile radius (!!!) collecting nectar to make honey. Only female honeybees forage for the hive.
Once back at the hive, the bees drop the nectar, which has been mixed with an enzyme in the bee’s mouth, into the honeycomb, hexagonal cells that the bees create themselves from wax. The hardworking little bees fan the cells with their wings, which helps water evaporate and turns the nectar solution into a thick, sticky substance. At this point, the bees add a wax “lid” over the honeycomb cells to store the honey.
Each bee works hard to provide for the hive, producing just a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its entire lifetime. That’s a lot of work for a twelfth of a teaspoon! However, the bees work collectively to ensure that there is enough sustenance for all members of the hive.
So, honey is not a food produced by the bees’ bodies, such as cows’ milk or chickens’ eggs. However, it is a product that the bees pour extraordinary effort in to feed the members of their hive. The purpose of honey is to feed bees, not to feed humans.
What Veganism Means
Veganism goes beyond simply avoiding animal cruelty – the very definition of veganism is also to abolish the exploitation of animals for the benefit of human beings. We do not consume cows’ milk because cows make it for calves, so why would we consume honey when bees make honey for bees?
Imagine for a moment that it is going to snow tomorrow. You’ve just returned from a long trip to the grocery store, and your pantry and refrigerator were stocked full of healthy, nutritious food for you and your family. You go to sleep exhausted – you’ve spent a long time at the store, carried everything home, and, not to mention, spent a lot of money. However, to your shock and surprise, you wake up the next morning, and everything is gone – refrigerator empty, crumbs in the cupboards.
Someone has entered your home and stolen the food you worked so hard for. You feel panic set in – it’s snowing, and you don’t have anything to eat. Ultimately, when humans harvest honey for their consumption, this exact thing is happening – they are robbing the hive of their sole winter food source.
The assumption that bees create honey for people is a perfect example of exploitation, as it puts the momentary pleasure of eating honey over an entire hive’s health and well-being. Exploitation is defined as “the action of making use and benefiting from resources”, and honey is the most precious resource the bees have – it is a key component to the hive’s survival.
What is a moment of gustatory pleasure for a human, is chaos and famine for the hive, and the already dwindling bees often exhaust themselves to resupply the honey stores.
This is a terrible price for the hive to pay simply because people like the way honey tastes. As vegans, we imagine that humans are on an equal ground along with the rest of the animal kingdom – by assuming that we are entitled to the food made by bees, we are exploiting them for our personal gain.In many ways, honey is the quietest cruelty.
When we talk about the abuse of dairy cows and egg-laying hens, there are horrific photos and video to go along with it – downed cows separated from their calves, sickly looking hens with their feathers pulled out from stress and overcrowding.
For a multitude of reasons, cruelty against bees doesn’t quite hit us in the heartstrings the way abuse of “cuter” animals like cows, chickens, and pigs do.
The Cute Factor
It’s no surprise that a photo of baby piglets is going to elicit more “awwws” than a photo of baby bees – when it comes down to it, we’re biologically programmed to like cute things because they remind us of our own young, which provokes our desire to take care of something.
Features that we see and love in our own young also occur in baby animals – big eyes, round bodies, soft textures that make you just want to pick them up and squeeze ‘em.
Unfortunately for bees, they don’t fit our perception of “cute”, and therefore, don’t provoke that innate need to care and protect.
We’re programmed to like soft, cuddly things, and bees are…well, definitely not soft and cuddly. In fact, they can be the opposite – hard and sharp and stingy. You can see this immediately in our visceral reactions – humans have very different reactions to being approached by a group of puppies as opposed to a swarm of bees.
But we as vegans know that perception and “cuteness” should not be what ultimately earns a non-human animal its rights – we bring to light the unfairness that we slaughter pigs, cows, and chickens for food, but people buy Christmas gifts for their pet dogs and cats.
By not including bees in the blanket of protection, we would be buying into the idea that only “cute” animals, or those whose worthiness is based on our perception, are deserving of being treated with dignity and respect.
ASIDE: For fun, here's a cute video of a baby being "attacked" by a puppy.
With the cuteness out of the way - we shall continue...
The Secret Life of Bees
It might be difficult to imagine bees as “like us”, but more and more research shows that bees are capable of abstract thought, and even experiencing things like emotions.
Through behavioral tests, research teams have found that stressed bees – much like stressed monkeys, dogs, and humans - tend to see the world through a more pessimistic lens. In a series of stress tests, the scientists found huge differences between chemicals released by stressed bees, as well as sugar production between stressed and unstressed bees.
While this certainly doesn’t prove bees’ emotional experience, it should give us pause that this small thread of similarity has appeared between bees and humans.
Remember that when it comes to animals that are more “like us,” we have no problem ascribing very human emotions to non-human animals – you might describe your dog as “friendly” or tell your friend that your cat goes through “separation anxiety.”
It would be illogical, and with the heavily clouded human bias, to say that dogs and cats experience feelings, but the incredibly complex honeybee does not.
While an animal’s ability to experience human emotions should not be a defining aspect of whether or not a species has rights, it is certainly more difficult to be comfortable with the exploitation of creatures that remind us of ourselves than those we view to be completely different.
We can exercise our empathy to put ourselves in their tiny bee shoes and think about how distressing (and catastrophic) certain actions might be, and the feelings that come along with it.
The Basis of Need
When comparing an action and its consequences for different groups, it is helpful to imagine both sides on a scale, with the amount of suffering and hardship as weight.
On one side, you have the suffering that would occur by humans who do not get to eat honey – perhaps your tea would not taste as good with sugar instead of honey, or you would miss out on the anti-bacterial benefits of honey (which it does have).
On the other side, you have the suffering that would occur for the bees without honey. The removal of their honey has catastrophic results, compromising the health and survival of the entire hive.
If we imagine these outcomes as weights on either side, it is clear that the human side would get one or two weights for a minor inconvenience, while the scale would be tipped wildly in the direction of the bees.
In the case of honey, it’s all about need – in the end, humans do not require honey for life, whereas it is a life-giving substance for a beehive. To put the wants of a human over the needs of an entire beehive would be a speciesist decision, and therefore, not in line with vegan values.
What Can I Use Instead of Honey?
There are so many sweet and delicious options for vegans to use instead of honey that does not involve bees at all. We can choose from a wide variety of sweeteners, including but not limited to:
Made by processing the sap of maple trees, maple syrup comes in a variety of grades, colors, and concentrations based on what you need it for. Maple syrup’s uses go far beyond pancakes, and it can be used in baking, beverages, and serving as glue to hold together homemade no-bake cookies and granola bars.
Date syrup is a luxurious sweetener you can purchase in health food stores or make at home by blending plump Medjool dates, water, and lemon juice. It is delicious on top of oatmeal or vegan yogurt, and high in essential vitamins and minerals like zinc, magnesium, vitamin A, and vitamin K.
Molasses is the thick, dark brown syrup that comes from the refining process of raw sugar. This comes in all kinds of grades and concentrations, from mild, sweet light molasses, to assertive and bittersweet blackstrap molasses. Molasses is a perfect sweetener for baking and is a fantastic source of iron.
Also called light treacle, golden syrup is made from the processing of sugar cane or sugar beets into sugar. It is very similar to honey in appearance and taste and has longtime been a replacement for honey where honey has been unavailable or prohibitively expensive.
Gaining popularity as a sweetener even in the omnivorous world, agave nectar comes from the wild-looking blue agave plant. It is sweeter than honey and tends to be a little less thick. Because it dissolves quickly, it is the perfect sweetener choice for cold beverages such as iced tea and cocktails.
Though there is a lot of grey area in the vegan community about the “veganism” of honey, once we start to dive down into the mechanics of honey production, it becomes very clear that this is a much more black-and-white issue. A lot of the fuzziness comes from a lack of knowledge around why bees make honey in the first place.
By definition, vegans do not consume the flesh of animals, the products made by their bodies or by their efforts, and do not choose to benefit from the exploitation of them.
Though bees do not produce honey the way cows produce milk, they ultimately create honey for the same reason – food for their families.
To be vegan is to understand that humans do not have a right to the products made by animals, and honey is no exception to this. The bees create honey for the benefit of bees, and not for the pleasure and profit of human beings.
To be vegan to the fullest extent of the word means forgoing any product that comes from an animal to the absolute best of your ability.
Of course, the very existence of human beings, and the ways we live will no doubt cause some amount of human suffering, be it that our homes displace animals or what have you.
But on the scale of effort, forgoing honey is one of the easiest changes you can make. As we do not require this food for survival, and the vast amount of vegan alternatives available cheaply and accessibly, there is simply no reason to continue to exploit the bees for honey, or even to be in a gray area about the subject matter.
For vegans, there are so much kinder, cruelty-free ways to keep life sweet.
Leave the honey for the bees.