IS HONEY VEGAN?

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.

2014-07-15 14.51.03Controversial Beekeeping Practices

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.

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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. 

me square

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.

28 Comments

Susan T Rudnicki

I am so glad you decided to make this your new post! I get this question quite often. I have been refused from exhibiting at certain venues that have strict vegan rules, and the education I have tried to offer (well summarized in your last part “Pros and Cons”) was dismissed. I do not eat animals, but honey produced at my apiary certainly does not look like the model used to exclude honey from many vegan websites. MOST importantly, many folks do not realize the extent that urban bees are exterminated, and I ask if this understood, how do they feel knowing that?
Most information sites on vegan eating take the facts based on a industrial model. This includes re-queening every 6 mos., and taking propolis, pollen and royal jelly (anathema to me!).

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Diana Attuso

Interesting that you would be excluded from a vegan event. After reading this post I think my response would be “Oh so you don’t eat almonds or any other plant that is ‘force’ pollinated by bees?” My desire would be for them to see the hypocrisy of their actions. I’m sure most of them don’t understand how bees are exploited in order for them to have their vegan foods. Maybe that should be the education they get?

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Scott

I know that opinions vary greatly regarding the feeding of sugar syrup to bees. For my part, I believe it is akin to feeding your toddler a diet of Twinkies. Of course, if the only food available to feed your toddler is Twinkies – in order for them to survive – that’s what you’ll do. But you wouldn’t do that simply because you wanted your toddler’s food. I have had occasion to feed my bees sugar syrup in order for them to survive, but I used only organic cane sugar (beet sugar is genetically modified) and used ascorbic acid to lower the pH from around 6 to 4.2 (the pH of honey). Introducing a sugar syrup with a pH of 6 can vastly alter the microbiological environment of the hive. For example, Varroa mites thrive much more readily in an environment that has a pH of 6 than they do in an environment with a pH of 4.2. (The bees know best.) Just my 1.5 cents’ worth.

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Emily Scott

I’m interested in the idea that “varroa mites thrive much more readily in an environment that has a pH of 6 than they do in an environment with a pH of 4.2.” Since they are living in the environment of the brood cells and on the bees, not in the syrup/honey, what does this mean? Are there any studies that have made a connection between feeding syrup and helping varroa thrive?

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Emily Scott

The studies seem to me to suggest that bees are healthier on a honey diet than sugar alone and being healthy helps them cope more effectively with mites.

I agree with and understand this idea, but that’s subtly different from the cause being PH levels alone. After all, what are the PH levels of various nectars before bees add invertase and convert them into honey? It’s hard to find a reliable source for this, but I doubt the PH levels of all nectars are identical to honey, yet no-one would claim that placing nectar within a hive would help mites thrive.

As you mention in your post, there are extra trace minerals, acids and enzymes within nectar which could well be the main reason behind honey’s health benefits for bees. You also mentioned that the study http://alaskahoneybee.com/dev/bee-links-and-resources/impact-different-feed-intestine-health-honey-bees/ found bees fed on acid inverted sugar syrup had a shorter lifespan than bees fed on standard non-inverted sugar syrup (with honey being the most beneficial diet) – which makes me wonder if inverting syrup may do more harm than good.

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Hilary

Hi Emily, I think that is a good point you make regarding the specifics how the PH works. To my knowledge there hasn’t bee a study that tries to study just the effects of PH. I did find the typical range of nectar PH while I was researching for this post. The range was all over the place. I can’t remember exactly but it was a wide span. You might want to email Michael Bush with this question. He’s very responsive and this is sort of his theory. Thanks for the article link. I read that one, too. I did briefly mention the findings about inverted syrup in the last sentence of that paragraph, but with all the information it’s easy to miss. I was surprised to see that inverted syrup might actually be worse for the bees!

Diana Attuso

Hey Scott, so I have a question for you. I’m just getting into beekeeping next spring and of course all the ‘mentors’ around me are old school and don’t think there is any difference between sugars. And say oh just use the cheep refined sugar. But I’m thinking it would be better to use Turbinado as that has a higher nutrient content. In fact I was thinking of doing an experiment where I offered them two entrance feeders at the same time one with refined sugar and one with Turbinado and see if there is a consumption difference. BTW I like your Twinkie analogy. 🙂

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Andrew Dewey

Thank you for writing a clear and accurate post! One thing for you to think about is that not all nectars make for great over wintering honey. Dark, fall honey from Asters is notorious for having a high ash content that the bees are not able to fully digest. And at least where I live, it is too cold in the winter for bees to leave their hive in order to void. So adopting a strategy to put Ash laden fall honey in supers (where it can be easily harvested) rather than in the brood chamber (I NEVER take honey from the Brood Chamber – that “belongs” to the bees!) is smart beekeeping!

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Susan T Rudnicki

Hi, Andrew—where are you keeping bees?
Very interesting what you say about asters. Mine bloom 3 times a year and are a great bee favorite—as all the asteraceae tend to be. Hilary and I are in Southern California, where the bees are almost never quiescent. They are making brood and drones and foraging all year. We also do not have singular, heavy nectar flows like most temperate climates. The diversity of flora in the urban environment here contains many Southern Hemisphere plants—So. Africa and Australia/New Zealand —which bloom in Winter.

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michelle

What a great post! It’s something I’ve been asked and have tried to untangle myself. As you point out it really depends on the motive of the vegan and is tied up with the intent of the beekeeper. You make an excellent point about the food produced by the pollination of the bees from commercial operations. It’s ironic that vegans worry about eating honey but not the foods pollinated by bees trucked in during pollination season. I’d say that modern commercial farming is doing far more damage to the bees than the local beekeeper harvesting honey in the fall.

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Diana Attuso

My thoughts exactly! I think vegans need to be educated about how their almonds are made. I then ask them if they think almonds are vegan.

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extragrunty

Diana,
Would you ask a vegan if apples are vegan? Or pears, or oranges, or plums, or… Yes, bees are required to pollinate these plants (and many others). The end food product however is grown by the plant and harvested from the plant (almond from an almond tree, carrot from a carrot seed). Honey is produced by and harvested from bees. Eggs are produced by and harvested from chickens/ducks/emu/etc. Milk is produced by and harvested from cow/goat/sheep/camel/yak/etc. Someone who identifies as vegan should be well aware of this.

The issue of mass commercialization and the treatment of the bees used in these processes has nothing to do with the definition of vegan. The choice to avoid certain producers due to treatment of bees used for pollination would be a personal choice, not one that would be required by the definition of vegan.

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Hilary

Are most vegans vegan just to meet this definition? Or do they not also have other motivations such as environment, animal welfare, health etc.? That is where the commercialization and treatment of bees is relevant.

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Diana Attuso

I haven’t read your post yet but I will. My first reaction to the question: “Is honey vegan?” was: Of course not! For the same reason milk in not vegan. It is made by bees as a result it is, by definition, an animal product there fore not vegan. It is, however, vegetarian. Now off to read the post. 🙂

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Diana Attuso

Great post! By definition vegan – is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products. (period) So no honey is not ‘vegan’. As a carnivore I have been educated extensively about veganism and why they think it is a superior diet. LOL

I could go on but how about if I just give you this post:
http://rawfoodsos.com/for-vegans/

For those of you who are interested, veganism is probably one of the worst diets for health that people could be on. That is all.

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Sara Andrews

Would love to have some sources for “veganism is probably one of the worst diets for health that people could be on.”

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Matt

Diana, you make some wild claims that veganism is “probably the worst diet for health that people could be on” which is unfounded, unless you can provide sources.

Actually veganism is ridiculously healthy. Having read through all your comments and noting your obvious knowledge and well-written presentation of ideas, I am very suprised that you would say something like that.

Either: 1) I am completely wrong an everything I have learned from peer reviewed sources was wrong, or 2) you are wrong.

I want to know your reasons for making such a claim.

For my arguement I will just put this link here for now: http://alwa.org.au/health/

also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kpwcs-45tNM

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susan rudnicki

I am often amused by my friends and family showing mock concern for my health and wondering how athletes could ever manage on a vegan diet. I just send them this link—http://www.greatveganathletes.com/ When they learn that Dave Scott, winner of the Ironman Triathelon in Hawaii multiple times, is a vegan, they are set back a bit in their certainty in eating meat and dairy. A lot of meat eating is habit, culture and fitting in with the group.

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extragrunty

Some definitions to start out:
http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/vegan
http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/vegetarian
http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/pescatarian

Honey, BY DEFINITION, is not vegan because it is made by an animal. Just like eggs and dairy products are made by animals. No, the animals aren’t killed, but they do produce it. Hence vegetarian not vegan. A vegetarian can say they are dairy free, or egg free or honey free in addition to being vegetarian. But if they eat eggs, dairy or honey they can’t technically call themselves vegan. (People who call themselves vegetarian and still eat chicken/fish/seafood drive me nuts. If something is killed for your to eat it you’re not vegetarian by definition.)

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Li

Interesting post. I think people make their own definitions for things and that’s OK. I have seen a wide variation in practices by people who consider themselves to be “treatment free”, for example. I guess it’s the same with vegans and vegetarians. One of my adult children is a vegetarian and another is a vegan. The main reason for these lifestyle choices is objecting to the cruelty and environmental damage caused by factory farming. I think either would be OK with honey from a bee-centric beekeeper. As far as a healthy diet, my vegan son is six foot four inches tall and was a vegetarian from a young age and switched to vegan at 18. But even as a child he didn’t eat meat or drink milk yet still grew to be a substantial individual. It’s curious that people seem to feel threatened by others food choices and definitions.

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