Practical Issues > Health Index > Vegan Index
Do Vegans Eat Honey?

May 25, 2011

President Obama is visiting the Queen of England, and gifted Her Majesty with a jar of honey collected from White House beehives. At the same time, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that the winter of 2010-2011 resulted in the destruction of 30 percent of all beehives nationwide.

Eleven years ago, after having completely abstained from cheese, ice cream and pizza for 24 months, I made the decision, to discontinue eating meat, chicken, and fish. I continued to consume honey.

In my own mind, I became a vegan, although I admit to not being a "strict" vegan. I innocently ate cookies or bagels and muffins made with eggs, or enjoyed a slice of toast in a diner that might have been baked with traces of milk powder. I probably also ate some products containing milk chocolate, never asking the server whether the icing or filling was of the dairy variety. Today, I carefully read labels. I educate myself about product ingredients. I do not eat the muffins that I know contain eggs. I do not eat the halvah that I know to contain honey.

Is honey vegan? I am often asked this question, and respond by first stating that I do not eat honey. I then offer a brief explanation about how bees are abused during the collection of their honey. Finally, I offer an alternative. I have found that maple syrup is a great substitute. I use maple syrup in my tea with lemon. I'm drinking a cup as I write this now, long before I leave for the gym...long before the sun comes up. Many years ago, I heard an author and activist lecture about the vegetarian diet. Her name is Joanne Stepaniak. Joanne is the author of The Uncheese Cookbook, Raising Vegan Children, The Vegan Sourcebook, and many other wonderful texts. Recently, I came upon her response to that same question about honey. I have yet to read or hear a better elucidation of this topic. In Joanne's words:

"Regardless of how careful we are, it is impossible to live a totally harm-free life. All animate sentient beings inflict some form of injury or death to others simply by their existence. Humans displace or destroy large and small life forms whenever we erect buildings, plant seeds, dig crops, burn wood, fly airplanes, drive cars, operate factories, walk on grass, or bat our eyes. This is simply an aspect of being alive.

The difference between vegans and nonvegans, however, is the element of intent. Vegans consciously strive to do no harm to any sentient life, including insects. This does not mean that vegans do not hurt others inadvertently, but that it is never their aim to do so.

Honey is made from sucrose-rich flower nectar that is collected by honeybees and then regurgitated back and forth among them until it is partially digested. After the final regurgitation, the bees fan the substance with their wings until it is cool and thick. This mixture, which we call honey (which is essentially bee vomit), is then stored in the cells of the bees' hive and used as their sole source of nutrition in cold weather and other times when alternative food sources are not available.

During the collection of flower nectar, the bees also pollinate plants. This is part of the natural process of life and is necessary and unavoidable. Even though humans inadvertently benefit, the bees do not pollinate plants in order to serve human needs; it is simply a secondary aspect of their nectar collecting. The honey that bees produce is stored in their hives for their own purposes. When humans remove honey from the hive, they take something that is not rightfully theirs.

To collect honey, beekeepers must temporarily remove a number of the bees from their home. During the course of bee management and honey collection, even the most careful beekeeper cannot avoid inadvertently injuring, squashing, or otherwise killing some of the bees. Other commodities may be taken from the hive as well, including beeswax, honeycomb, pollen, propolis, and royal jelly.

Bees are not harmed by the process of pollination -- it is something they would do whether or not humans were involved or reaped any profit. If one were to stretch the point, using honey could, in a broad sense, be considered analogous to dairying. Furthermore, there is no reason to take honey from bees other than to sell it. Utilizing bees to pollinate crops in no way necessitates ravaging their hive. Although the issue of honey is not deemed the most pressing concern of many vegans, honey is nevertheless considered an animal product. Because there are numerous alternatives to honey, from a vegan perspective there is no justifiable rationale for using it. Furthermore, the vegan position on honey is definitive. Honey was prohibited for use by vegans according to the 1944 manifesto of the British Vegan Society (veganism's founding organization), a position consistent with the requirement for full (vegan) membership in the American Vegan Society since its inception in 1960.

Sweeteners are not necessary for human health. There are virtually no essential nutrients (in fact, there are hardly any nutrients at all) in sweeteners, so our use of them is purely for personal pleasure. Although the labor force is typically exploited on sugar plantations, even humans with minimal choices have far more options than the honeybees. Humans can live quite well without sugar or honey. As a rule, extensive use of sweeteners is found only in affluent societies. If vegans want to indulge in sweets, there are many substitutes available: organic, unbleached cane sugar (somewhat kinder to the environment, but not necessarily better for the workers); beet sugar; maple sugar; maple syrup; concentrated fruit syrups; rice syrup; barley malt; and sorghum syrup, among others. We do not need to choose between exploiting humans or bees in order to satisfy our sweet tooth. Concerned vegans can avoid harming either by eliminating sweets from their diet or by choosing compassionate alternatives."

Robert Cohen

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