The zoologist Jordi Casamitjana explains some of the reasons honey is not considered a vegan-friendly product
I don’t remember how it tastes.
Since I discovered organic maple syrup when I visited Canada in 2006, my memory has replaced the taste of honey with the taste of this cruelty-free version. Not surprisingly, as, essentially, we are talking about a very similar product originally coming from plants: concentrated sab/nectar. What I do remember about honey is its stickiness and overwhelming sweetness (too sweet for me), while maple syrup seems to have the perfect amount of both physical properties. For me, soya ice cream with strawberries, walnuts, and organic maple syrup (it must be organic to ensure that no filtering with animal products was used) has become a truly divine treat only to be consumed in extremely exceptional celebrations.
I don’t need to eat honey and I feel the alternatives I occasionally use in food are far superior to it. And I do not need to use honey for cosmetics or similar products as I never used them in the first place. So, completely removing bee products from my life when I became vegan more than twenty years ago was very easy — and I have never missed them.
However, I know that some plant-based people, and some people who call themselves vegans, still consume honey and bee products, and even worst, some of the latter exploit “their own” bees on their backyard “farms” and they even say they are beegans (bee + vegan). I never understood why, as honey is not an essential product in any way. It does not contain any essential nutrients that cannot be easily obtained with other plant-based products, and its taste and texture are easily replicated.
I find it quite bizarre that some vegans who would never eat an egg or wear leather insist that their lives would be ruined if they are not allowed to eat some honey. For me, it is as bizarre as if vegans were insisting to be able to eat some seafood (wait, they exist! the so-called ostreovegans who insist they need to eat oysters and mussels to survive), or eat the eggs of some birds (wait, they also exist! the so-called veggans who insist they need to eat eggs from the hens they keep in their backyards). Ok, these all sound bizarre to me, but if you are one of them you may not get the point I am trying to make. What about vegans who insist they need to eat cheese made from cow’s milk raised in counties that have names that start with the letter “c” (such as Cheshire or Carmarthenshire)? That would be weird, would it not? Well, this is how I feel when I hear about beegans, veggans and ostreovegans.
Unfortunately, I cannot just dismiss them as if they were some sort of flat-earthers because they are having an unwelcoming diluting effect on the important concept of veganism, and this may lead to more animals suffering and dying at the hands of humans — and that’s not on. Considering that one of my favourite animals is social wasps — and I studied them for years — it would be inconsistent on my part if I did not try to publicly defend bees, their cousins.
I, therefore, must argue why those humans who consume honey (which could be called honeyvores) are wrong in calling themselves “vegans” and expecting we will accept them in the vegan community with open arms as we accept eco-vegans, social justice vegans, spiritual vegans, straight-edge vegans and even health vegans (not all vegans accept all these, but I do anyway).
So, for what is worth, I will have to explain why vegans don’t consume honey.
What the Vegan Founders Say
One of the advantages of being vegan is that the Vegan Society can be used as a reference of standards as far as vegan practice is concerned. It’s handy to still have available for consultation the organisation that created the word “vegan” and first defined veganism. When doubting if something is suitable for vegans or not, it is worth checking with the Vegan Society, because although this does not mean you have to agree, it does mean you will have a good idea about what the “orthodox” lifelong vegans are likely to think about it.
So, what does the Vegan Society say about honey? It has rejected it from the very beginning, even if with time the honeyvores beegans fought back. In 1944 (when the society was created), honey was considered non-vegan by the majority of its members (although it has been reported that some founding members, such as Mable Cluer, continued consuming it). This is what Donal Watson, the most well-known founder of the society, wrote in 1945:
“At the committee meeting, the question of the use of honey called for special consideration and the decision to eliminate it from the vegan diet will, in the mind of some readers, call for justification. Those of us who eliminated dairy products before honey met with considerable criticism from people who, perhaps in defence of their own milk drinking, contended that the production of honey entailed exploitation “far worse” than that associated with the production of dairy produce, for the simple reason that it concerns inconceivable numbers of creatures.
Whether the exploitation is worse or not does not affect the fact that honey is an animal product (coming from the stomach of the bee), and that exploitation is involved in its production for human use. This was proved by the very concise reply received by a member who wrote to Mr. A.W. Gale, proprietor of Honeybee Honey asking whether the honey sold under this name was in excess of the bees’ requirements…
…Consideration was given to the suggestion that humanely disposed vegans might keep their own bees and take only the surplus honey, thus reducing the exploitation, but it was argued that to permit the use of honey produced under such improved conditions would leave it difficult to argue against the use of milk produced under better conditions. The annual consumption of English honey is only about one tenth of a pound per head, therefore its elimination cannot be a serious deprivation, and certainly it cannot imperil health.
The committee agreed, therefore, that by eliminating honey Veganism would gain by the greater consistency of its constitution.”
I believe all these arguments are sound and still relevant, and the founders’ decision was right. However, there have been reports that, a few years later, after pressure from the honeyvores, the “rules” were relaxed and honey was not so frowned upon by vegans for a while, but since 1988 (the year the official definition of veganism was finalised), it has been officially considered “non-vegan”.
Today, the Vegan Society’s policy on this is as follows: “Honey is probably the product most frequently mistaken as vegan-friendly. There is a common misconception that honey bees make their honey especially for us, but this couldn’t be much further from the truth. Honey is made by bees for bees, and their health can be sacrificed when it is harvested by humans. Importantly, harvesting honey does not correlate with The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism, which seeks to exclude not just cruelty, but exploitation.”
Not convinced yet? Ok, we can go much further in time and see what other prominent vegans (although they could not define themselves using this word as it had not been invented yet) thought about consuming honey. Abul ‘ala Al-Ma’arri was one of the greatest non-religious poets of the early 11th century in the Golden Age of Islam (he was from where today we call Syria), and he was a proper ethical vegan by today’s standards who lived until his eighties without using any animal product. In one of his poems, he wrote…
“Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up, and do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals, or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught for their young, not noble ladies. And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs; for injustice is the worst of crimes. And spare the honey which the bees get industriously from the flowers of fragrant plants; for they did not store it that it might belong to others, nor did they gather it for bounty and gifts. I washed my hands of all this, and wish that I Perceived my way before my hair went grey!”
He already knew consuming honey was wrong…over 700 years ago.
What Ethical Vegans Say Today
Bees are sentient beings with the capacity to suffer. If other arthropods, such as decapod crustaceans, have been officially recognised as sentient beings, it should be obvious that social bees, with their very sophisticated societies, high intelligence, and complex communication (the famous dancing to tell their sisters where there is nice food, how far is it, and how much is there, has been well-known since the 1970s) are also sentient. There have been plenty of studies showing how bees feel pain, and some suggest that they are not just sentient, but also possess consciousness. Therefore, like any other sentient being, if they are exploited against their will, and if they are stressed, injured, or killed by humans during such exploitation, vegans should not participate in it —and the most common way to do that is not to purchase or consume the products of such exploitation.
I am an ethical vegan (meaning that I follow the official definition of veganism to the full) and I have not consumed honey since I became vegan in 2002. But this is not because of my affinity for wasps (you can read about it in my article “The Thing About Wasps”). Most of the ethical vegans I know don’t consume any honey or bee products either, so it is not just me (dietary vegans who only apply veganism in their diet are much more likely to consume honey, and plant-based people who only care about their health and fitness even more, but in my experience, most of these don’t consume it either). Why? Because it’s cruel exploitation of sentient beings, which ethical vegans try to avoid. I summarise the main reasons in my book “Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world”. This is what I wrote:
“You may have noticed honey is on the list of ingredients I avoid, and you may think this is controversial because some vegans eat it. It’s very straightforward, really. From the very beginning, the Vegan Society included honey in the list of substances not suitable for vegans, as it comes from animal exploitation. When bee farmers remove honey from a hive, they replace it with a sugar substitute significantly worse for the bees’ health. In conventional beekeeping, bees are selectively bred to increase productivity – as in any other type of farming – which changes their genes and increases their susceptibility to disease. Hives are also sometimes killed to keep costs down, individual bee workers are often harmed or accidentally killed during the careless process of removing the honey, and queen bees are sometimes mutilated to prevent them leaving.
Bees collect nectar for one reason alone, to feed their colony in winter when no flowers are around. When honey is constantly stolen from their winter reserves (whether by commercial or backyard beekeepers), bees are under stress all the time, trying to get the levels back up. For bees, making honey from nectar is a huge task. They fly to up to 1,500 flowers a day to collect enough nectar to fill their stomachs (they have two), and a bee produces only a twelfth of a teaspoon in their lifetime. Also, when beekeepers use smoke to ‘appease’ the bees before opening the hive, what they may be doing is actually giving them more stress – the bees think fire is approaching and eat honey in a panic in case they need to escape and find another place to live. Because they are busy doing this, and their sense of smell may be numbed making them less likely to smell an ‘alarm’ pheromone, they may be less inclined to sting the beekeeper. No ethical vegan can ignore all this, and maple, agave, apple or other syrups are perfectly adequate substitutes for honey.”
Like in factory farming, commercially produced honeybees are bred in great quantities in particular locations, which increases the chances of developing new diseases and spreading them. According to the World Organisation of Animal Health (WOAH), Colony Collapse Disorder is a term coined to describe the disappearance or death of entire colonies, and several viruses, including Israel’s acute paralysis virus, have been associated with it (as has the presence of pesticides in the environment). Six bee diseases are listed by the WOAH: Acarapisosis, American foulbrood, European foulbrood, Small hive beetle infestation (Aethina tumida), Tropilaelaps infestation, and Varroosis.
The latter is caused by a mite, and this disease is found throughout the world except Australia and the south island of New Zealand. The infection spreads by direct contact from adult bee to adult bee, and by the movement of infested bees and bee brood. To avoid these diseases, large-scale producers treat their hives with antibiotics (which end up in the honey people consume). Beekeepers often respond to infestations by burning all their hives — a cruel genocidal-like act.
Why Environmentalists Should Not Consume Honey Either
The Vegan Society has even more arguments against the use of honey than the ones I listed in my book, and some of them would be very relevant to environmentalists. For instance, they mention how the mass breeding of honeybees affects the populations of other competing nectar-foraging insects, including other wild bees (such as the many species of solitary bees there are).
Like cows or pigs, domestic honeybees are now genetically modified farmed animals bred for human interests, and breeding large numbers of them, and moving hives from one area to another (the so-called migratory beekeeping), is something commercial beekeepers often do. And like in factory farming, the environment pays the price. Farmed hives can overwhelm an area, pushing other native wild bees away from food sources. They can also help non-native plants outcompete native plants that native bees need, can damage flowers, and can take nectar from a plant without pollinating it as the plant evolved to be pollinated by another species.
Because of the honey industry, the number of native bumblebees has declined. This is not only because they are competing for food, but also because honeybees spread diseases into the wild. A study from 2019 found that viruses in managed honeybees are spilling over to wild bumblebee populations through the shared use of flowers, and the authors recommend that commercial apiaries may need to be kept away from areas where there are vulnerable native pollinator species, like the endangered rusty patched bumblebee.
In September 2021, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the American bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus), whose populations have plummeted by nearly 90%, may warrant endangered species protection. The decline of this species is part of a downward trend in many of the 46 species of bumblebees and 3,600 species of native bees in the US.
The Bumblebee Conservation Trust in the UK writes on its website about the causes of declining of wild bumblebee populations: “The effect of reducing the quality of the available habitat is exacerbated by increased competition, for example with kept honeybees, or commercially reared bumblebees.”
Additionally, the honey itself is not the wonderful product honeyvores think it is. Much of the world’s honey comes from bees that pollinated mono-cultured crops prone to contamination by pesticides and herbicides. A large-scale study found that 75% of samples of honey taken worldwide were contaminated with pesticides. Also, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database, about 82% of honey is made of sugar in enough quantities to damage your teeth.
Honeyvorism and Veganism Are Not Compatible
In summary, exploiting bees to produce honey for humans is not good for people’s health, it’s not good for the environment, it’s not good for local wild bees, and it’s definitively not good for the farmed honeybees either, who will be suffering from their exploitation. And even if you try to avoid most of these harms by only keeping a bee colony in your backyard, if you still forcibly steal the honey from their colony against the bees’ will, you are still harming them.
As we vegans want to avoid any harm being done to anyone that can be harmed (the ancient concept of ahimsa), this is why we do not consume honey. As simple as that.
However, I know that people’s mental circumstances sometimes force them to stick to some food they know they should not eat, but somehow, they can’t help it. This compulsion may be connected to something very deep in their psyche that prevents them to replace bee honey with any golden sticky sweet animal-free alternative (ginger syrup, rice syrup, agave syrup, date syrup, dandelion syrup, maple syrup, apple-based Vegan Honea, or Coconut nectar). Not to worry. Even in these cases, a bee-free solution can be found. The California start-up MeliBio uses precision fermentation processes to produce what they call molecular identical honey to that produced by bees but without the use of any bee (not even bee cells).
If that is not enough, if despite all the alternatives and the available information about the harm the honey industry is causing, people who describe themselves as vegan still consume honey made from bees, I would not class them as vegan unless they are forced by someone else to consume it — perhaps by their parents. Unless I am missing something, I believe this means they do not care enough. They may not care about the bees because they may think they are not sentient, despite the evidence. They may not care about the environment because they may not believe in the research that shows how the honey industry affects it. And they may not care that much about their health either because for them sweetening their taste buds is more important.
For me, this lack of caring is what makes honeyvores and beegans not vegan. We, vegans, may not be perfect, and we may not always be able to avoid indirectly harming other sentient beings with our choices. But at least we care, and when we find better ways to avoid harm, we are eager to try them. That is what makes us vegan, the constant attempts to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty, regardless of how successful we are in achieving such exclusion. But if you do not try, if you look for excuses for not trying, and reject vegan-friendly alternatives of honey over animal honey, you should not be surprised if vegans would question your entitlement to the vegan identity — this may sound like vegan gatekeeping, but it is the good kind of gatekeeping.
We, vegans, do care about horses and donkeys and this is why we do not ride them, we care about elephants and fishes and this is why we do not visit zoos and aquaria, we care about dogs and cats and this is why we do not treat them as property, we care about sheeps and goats and this is why we do not wear wool, and we do care about bees and this is why we don’t consume honey.
I care about bees. The social ones in big hives being messed about by people, and the solitary ones trying to survive on their own in a hostile world. Bees make me smile. I remember meeting them with joy while they are busy working in the countryside. I remember greeting them with happiness welcoming spring in London’s parks. I remember seeing them with admiration when they protect their mother during migrating swarms.
But I don’t remember how honey tastes, and this is a good thing.