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 is 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.
What is honey?
Honey is the honey bees’ single source of food and essential nutrients during poorer weather and the winter months. The honey bee, the genus of bee used in commercial honey production, will visit up to 1500 flowers in order to collect enough nectar to fill its ‘honey stomach’; a second, separate stomach in which enzymes begin to break down the nectar into honey. After returning to the hive, this is regurgitated and chewed by ‘house bees’ to complete the honey-making process. The hive works as a collective to provide each member with an adequate supply, each bee producing just a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime: significantly less than most people would expect. Honey is fundamental to the hive’s wellbeing.
DID YOU KNOW? There are thousands of species of bees that pollinate many different plants. There are only seven recognised species of honey bee, and they only pollinate specific crops.
Claims that consuming honey helps the honey bee population thrive are not true. When farmers remove honey from a hive, they replace it with a sugar substitute which is significantly worse for the bees’ health since it lacks the essential nutrients, fats and vitamins of honey. The bees then exhaust themselves by working to replace the missing honey. During the removal of honey, the bees can die after stinging the farmers.
Honey bees are specifically bred to increase productivity. Already endangered, this selective breeding narrows the population gene pool and increases susceptibility to disease and large-scale die-offs. Diseases are also caused by importing different species of bees for use in hives.
These diseases are then spread to the thousand of other pollinators we and other animals rely on, disputing the common myth that honey production is good for our environment.
In addition, many hives are culled post-harvest to keep farmer costs down. Queen bees often have their wings clipped by beekeepers to prevent them leaving the hive to produce a new colony elsewhere, which would decrease productivity and lessen profit.
In the USA alone, the amount of honey produced rose by 19% from 2013 to 2014, and honey’s popularity shows no sign of slowing. The honey industry, like many other commercial industries, is profit-driven where the welfare of the bees is always secondary to commercial gain.
Mass breeding of honeybees affects the populations of other competing nectar-foraging insects, including other bees. Overwhelmed by the ever-inflating quantities of farmed bees, the numbers of native bumblebees and various bird species have declined.
The importing of honey into the UK also increases our carbon footprint through the emissions associated with transport. Of the honey consumed in the UK, 90% of it is imported, mostly from China and Turkey.
Unlike bees, humans can thrive without honey in their diets. Luckily, there are a whole host of readily-available vegan alternatives for those with a sweet tooth. Date syrup, maple syrup, molasses, butterscotch syrup, golden syrup (pictured: right) and agave nectar are all viable options, whether you need a product for baking, cooking, as a sweetener for drinks, or to eat a spoon of out of the jar at the end of a long day.
If you wish to support bees, please do not buy beeswax or honey: donate to a suitable conservation charity instead, or consider starting a bee sanctuary.