Is honey vegan? No. Here’s why:
The simplest explanation for why honey is not vegan is by definition. “Vegan” describes something that has no ingredients derived from living or killed animals. Honeybees are insects and insects are part of the animal kingdom. Those are scientific classifications that are taught in middle school biology. Just as cow’s milk is not considered vegan because the cow produced it for it’s offspring, bees produce honey for their hive. You may say that you think it is ethical to consume honey, but you can’t change the definition of “vegan.”
But when we look at what is entailed in honey production and its harvesting by humans, as well as scientific discoveries about bees, you might agree that there are not that many differences between using honey and other animal-derived ingredients.
What is honey and how is it made?
Honey is a substance made by bees to feed themselves. The process of making honey involves several steps. Some people think honey is simply plant nectar that has been transported by bees but in fact, the bees process the nectar to turn it into honey.
First, a honeybee flies to a flower and uses its proboscis (tongue) to suck up and ingest the flower’s nectar. The bee stores the nectar in its honey stomach which is separate from its food stomach. In the honey stomach, an enzyme produced by the bee called invertase, starts to transform the nectar into honey. The bee visits between 100 and 1500 flowers before filling up its honey stomach. When full, the honey stomach weighs almost as much as the bee itself.
Once the bee has a full load of nectar, it flies back to its hive. There the bee will regurgitate the nectar and enzyme mixture and transfer it to other worker bees. These worker bees chew the nectar mixture, thereby reducing its water content. The bees then put the mixture into a honeycomb cell for storage (honey comb is made by worker bees from wax in their abdominal glands). Bees then fan the storage cells with their wings to reduce the water content even more, resulting in honey. Once the honey is ready, the bees cap the cell with wax, sealing it off. It takes at least eight bees their entire lives to produce a single teaspoon of honey.
Why do bees make honey?
Bees make honey as food for themselves. They store extra honey in honeycomb cells for the winter. Unlike other bees, honeybees do not hibernate. They huddle together in their hive and eat their stored honey. Honey is the perfect source of energy and nutrients for honeybees.
Issues with harvesting honey
Most honey comes from large scale commercial operations. In these operations, bees’ lives are valued only insofar as they are profitable, and their rate of survival only matters in relation to profits. In other words, it only matters if so many bees dies that it effects a company’s ability to profit off the honeys the bees create. Queen bees may be artificially inseminated, killed and replaced, and bees may be shipped via the post office in boxes, or trucked all over the country to gather more pollen to produce more honey. Beekeepers may take all of the honey to sell and feed the bees with sugar water which lacks fats, proteins, and enzymes present in real honey. Bees winter store of honey may be taken so that the bees produce honey sooner than they would on their own.
But do bees feel pain or care?
The jury is still out on this. But, realizing that within our lifetime scientists went from believing fish and lobsters don’t feel pain to proving that they do, why not err on the side of caution?
What about honey from a local beekeeper?
Just like a cow may produce more milk then her calf can drink, a honey bee might make extra honey. But basing an industry on these leftovers is not scalable and there’s really no way to take this extra product without disrupting the animals in some way. Even when beekeepers claim to only take extra honey, this is an issue.
There are vegan beekeepers
Vegan beekeepers provide homes for bees but do not harvest honey or honeycomb for commercial use or for their own use. But humans can benefit from vegan beekeeping in other ways besides knowing their helping bees. When honeybees fly from flower to flower ingesting nectar, they inadvertently transfer pollen between male and female flowers, thereby pollenating plants. They’re not always as efficient at pollinating as other native pollinators like hummingbirds, but still, they may help your plants a bit.
Vegan alternatives to honey
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In general, when you think about what you know about bees, pollenating crops, and the honey industry, think about where the information is coming from. If you read a study about bees, check if it’s from a honey industry website or a really independent scientist.