Despite not being an authority on veganism in the slightest, as a beekeeper, I am often asked if honey is vegan. The answer to this question I think depends on said vegan’s reason for choosing a vegan diet. Are they vegan for health reasons? Were they motivated by the environmental benefits? Or is it a matter of animal rights? Before I delve into the moralities of beekeeping and harvesting honey, let me touch briefly on the process.
How is honey made?
Honey is made from nectar. Bees go from flower to flower sucking the nectar out through long, straw-like tongues. They store this nectar inside themselves, in what is called a “honey gut”. This second stomach allows them to carry the nectar back to their hive where it will be turned into honey. While the nectar is inside the bee, its sugars are altered by enzymes and then it is deposited into the hexagonal cavities that make up honeycomb, known as cells. Once the nectar is in the cells, worker bees fan their wings and stir the nectar with their tongues to reduce the water content. Nectar starts out at around 80% water and the bees reduce it to around 17% water. Once it’s at the correct moisture level, the honey is ready to be stored and the bees build a beeswax cap over it to preserve it.
Why do bees make honey?
Bees make honey because it is their food. A typical hive will make the majority of their honey in the spring and summer (when nectar is plentiful), store it and then feed on it during the winter months. If the conditions are right (plenty of flowers, a healthy bee population and space to build), the bees are capable of making much more honey than they need to survive a single winter. A single colony can produce as much as 200lbs of honey in a year, but only needs 40-100lbs to survive the winter (depending on their geographical location and the severity of the winter).
How is honey harvested?
There are several different techniques for harvesting honey. The most common is called extraction. Beekeepers have engineered their hardware so that individual combs, which only contain honey (no baby bees) can be removed from the hive undamaged. The beekeepers then remove the worker bees from the honeycomb and bring the combs inside for extraction. The methods for removing the bees from the combs vary greatly. Hobbyist beekeepers with only a few colonies have time to take care and tend to use more gentle methods, such as gently sweeping the bees off with a bee brush. Commercial beekeepers, on the other hand, typically manage thousands of colonies and don’t have time to take such care. Their methods may include blowing the bees off the combs with a leaf blower or driving the bees out with a malodorous essential oil mixture. In all cases it is likely that some bees will be crushed and killed by either carelessness or accident. There are simply too many bees unwilling to part with their honey to avoid these casualties. Once the bees have been separated from the honeycomb, the beekeeper cuts the beeswax capping off the cells and places the combs in a machine that spins the honey out using centrifugal force. The empty combs are then returned to the bees to clean, repair and refill with honey. Responsible beekeepers will leave their bees with enough of their own honey to survive the winter and will only harvest what they perceive to be excess. However, many commercial operations will take the bulk of the honey and replace it afterwards by feeding the bees sugar water or corn syrup. Man-made sugar mixtures are widely regarded among beekeepers as a suitable alternative to nectar. Personally, I disagree with this practice and consider it an unnecessary abuse and exploitation of the bees. You can read more about the complexities of feeding bees in a previous post of mine.
Not all beekeepers are created equal. Many try to simplify this fact by painting commercial beekeepers as evil factory farmers and backyard beekeepers as angelic bee guardians, but even this is not accurate. I have seen horrible practices amongst ignorant hobbyists and I have met commercial beekeepers with tremendous respect for their bees who are willing to sacrifice profits for the well being of their colonies. The problem is that unless you know and trust your beekeeper, you have no idea what’s being done to the bees who make your honey. So instead of making these kind of sweeping statements regarding one type of beekeeper versus another, I will simply list the practices that regularly occur in beekeeping that may be offensive to vegans. It should be noted that not all beekeepers use these methods.
Beekeepers will crush bees when inspecting hives for health and during honey harvests. As I mentioned above, this is usually done through carelessness or by sheer accident. Personally, I go to great trouble to avoid crushing bees whenever possible, but will typically crush 1-6 by accident during an average inspection.
Beekeepers typically kill queen bees and replace them with new ones once every 1-3 years. It should be noted that this practice is done for the greater good of the colony. Old, sick or infertile queens must be replaced in order for a colony to thrive. In unmanaged hives, worker bees will often do this themselves.
Beekeepers will take honey. Honey is the bees’ food source and they work very hard to make it. Although they do often make more than they need, there really is no benefit to the bees when we take their honey. Personally, I consider it a fair trade in exchange for a safe place to live. Bee rent if you will.
Beekeepers will take pollen. Pollen is another food source for the bees and they work tirelessly to collect and store it.
Beekeepers will take beeswax. When a beekeeper harvests honey, they may also harvest the entire comb structure, melt it down and strain out the beeswax. Occasionally, this practice does benefit the bees. Removing unused combs and reducing the nesting cavity makes it easier for bees to keep warm in the winter. Removing older combs allows the bees space to build fresh combs which are considered by some to help with colony health.
Beekeepers will take propolis. Propolis is a sticky glue which also has medicinal uses within the hive. It can be harvested with minimal damage, but it does take a tremendous amount of work to make on the bees’ part.
Beekeepers will take royal jelly. Royal jelly is harvested by removing the queen bee from a group of young bees and stimulating the young bees to make new queens. Each new queen larvae is fed a small amount of royal jelly which is a nutrient-rich enzyme mixture that bees excrete. Each larvae receives a glob roughly the size of a pinky fingernail. In order to harvest it, the queen larvae are killed and the jelly is taken. This is a specialized part of beekeeping and the majority of beekeepers do not attempt to harvest royal jelly, but if you buy royal jelly products, this is how it was harvested.
Beekeepers will feed sugar water or corn syrup to replace stolen honey. Personally, I only feed when nature cannot provide enough forage for my bees, but others feed because they have taken more honey than the bees can spare and they view this as a suitable replacement.
Beekeepers will artificially inseminate queens. Beekeepers who breed bees often artificially inseminate queens in order to control genetics.
Beekeepers will treat their bees for parasites and disease with pesticides and antibiotics. Some beekeepers are treatment-free, others treat modestly and most blanket treat hives on a schedule, but all believe they are doing what is best for the health of their bees.
Beekeepers will move their colonies for pollination services. Most large scale farms and orchards hire beekeepers to place beehives temporarily on their land for pollination. The bees are weakened by many stressors associated with this practice.
So is honey vegan?
By simple definition, many would say no. Honey is an animal product after all. However, if you find yourself unwilling to give it up, you may consider your reasons for choosing a vegan lifestyle. If you are a strict vegan and object to the very idea of taking another animal’s food then, of course, honey is not part of your diet. If you are simply worried about animal abuse, on the whole honey is not vegan, but you may be content to eat honey from your own backyard hive or from a beekeeper you trust now that you know that not all beekeepers mistreat their bees. If you are an environmental vegan I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t eat honey. If you are vegan for health reasons, the health benefits of honey are numerous and it is one of only two natural sugars (the other being maple syrup).
Regardless of whether you choose to eat honey or not, I think it is important to realize that we are all still part of a system that exploits honey bees. Commercial beekeepers place bees in orchards and on farms so that they can pollinate the fruits, nuts and vegetables that we all consume. Thousands of beehives are loaded on semi trucks and moved all over the country for pollination services. The bees are subject to confinement during travel, which causes stress and health problems. When they arrive at their new location, they are exposed to pesticides and fungicides en masse. Their nutrition is limited due to widespread monocropping. On top of all that, their honey is often taken from them. In their weakened state, diseases and pests spread easily through the colonies of which there are usually too many and too close a proximity. This brings us to the importance of knowing where your food comes from. Find out where and how it was grown. Support small, local farms with sustainable practices.
Weighing the Pros & Cons of Beekeeping
As a beekeeper and a genuine lover of bees, it is my belief that I do more good for bees than harm. Aside from providing them with a place to live, I rescue a lot of colonies that would otherwise be exterminated. I educate the public about the importance of bees. I partner with organic farms and backyard gardeners to provide year-round pollination. I strive to keep my bees healthy with minimal interference. In exchange for all this, yes, I do take honey, but only when the bees can afford to spare it. One of the wonderful things about beekeeping is that it connects us with the natural world. Beekeepers tune into the seasons and what flowers are blooming. They worry about their neighbors using pesticides and about climate change. Bees have the magical ability to engage us with our food system and with our ecosystem. I believe they inspire us to make more responsible choices.