Humans have been enjoying honey for nearly 8,000 years as not only a delicious natural sweetener that never expires (even if it crystalizes), but also as an antioxidant-rich natural remedy with several health benefits, as well as a facial cleanser (seriously). And while its popularity has only increased in recent years, the rise of veganism—basically choosing not to eat anything that comes from animals and trying to avoid using animal stuff in general—has some consumers asking more nuanced questions like: “Is honey vegan?”
There is so much confusion around this topic as many people don’t fully understand how honey is made and how honey production impacts bees. This can make educated decision making a real challenge. Here we’ll dive into all things honey to determine whether beekeeping is exploitative (disqualifying honey as a vegan food) or if it’s okay for vegans to eat honey. Plus, we’ll highlight some honey alternatives for those who want to skip the sticky stuff altogether.
- Nissa Coit, former honey bee researcher, Learning Network associate and adjunct lecturer at Sterling College
What is honey and how is it made?
First, let’s get a better understanding of how honey is made. “Forager honey bees collect nectar when they visit flowers, which they store in an organ called the crop. Here, enzymes in their saliva modify the nectar,” explains former honey bee researcher Nissa Coit a Learning Network associate and adjunct lecturer at Sterling College.
“Upon returning to the hive, the honey bees spread the nectar on the walls of the wax cells, and fan their wings to evaporate off the water,” she says. As this moisture evaporates, the sugars in the nectar thicken and develop into honey.
As an aside, Coit explains that these wax cells are made from glands in the bees’ bodies, so consuming beeswax products would be akin to drinking cow’s milk (aka very not vegan).
Honey provides energy and essential nutrients for the bees to survive and thrive, especially in the winter when flower nectar isn’t available. The nectar from a staggering two million flowers is required to make just one pound of the popular sweetener, according to the Canadian Honey Council; however, healthy bee colonies produce more honey than they need, sometimes two to three times more.
But back to the question at hand…is honey vegan and is it considered an animal product?
While honey bees do not produce honey from their bodies the way that a cow produces milk, they do labor to produce it, and their bodies modify it, according to Coit. “Essentially, eating honey is stealing a bit of their labor, rather than a product produced by their actual bodies,” she says.
If this was the only factory to consider, theoretically, vegans could enjoy the sticky stuff. But even with small-scale, local, holistic honey production, bees are almost always harmed in the harvesting of honey, which does not align with the principles of veganism. So, no, honey is not vegan.
The ethical implication of honey production and how it impacts bees
In practice, Coit says that whenever a beekeeper inspects the hive, even just to check on them or administer medicine, some bees will likely be killed in the process, from being squished or even just from stinging you. “In fact, in order to reduce the number of pesticides required to deal with invasive, parasitic mites, a beekeeper must sacrifice several hundred bees to a alcohol mite shake test,” she says. To put this into perspective, there are tens of thousands of bees in a colony, according to Coit.
Unfortunately, bee losses are much higher with industrial beekeeping. “Reliance on beekeeping to pollinate monocropping agricultural operations harms both the environment, the bees themselves, and the resilience of our food systems,” Coit explains. This is because these agricultural tycoons contribute to deforestation and utilize harmful pesticides, both of which not only harm bees but rob global soils of the nutrients needed to produce nutritious food and diverse, healthy plant life. These factors can also increase the incidence of bee disease resulting in major losses for even small-scale, ethically-practicing beekeepers. In fact, U.S. beekeepers lost over 48 percent of their honey bee colonies between 2022 and 2023.
You may be wondering what People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has to say about honey. The organization suggests avoiding the sweetener for the following reasons it writes on its website: “Profiting from honey requires the manipulation and exploitation of the insects’ desire to live and protect their hive. Like other factory-farmed animals, honeybees are victims of unnatural living conditions, genetic manipulation, and stressful transportation.”
Why we need bees
Bees serve a much larger role than just producing honey, however, as they pollinate many more plant varieties than just flowers—including those that feed us. In fact, around 30 percent of the global human food supply is pollinated by bees. Aside from sustaining the food supply, bees also work to maintain global ecological diversity and ecosystem health by pollinating the unique plants that make up these environments. These landscapes would look drastically different without these important animals. And that reality is not so far fetched as “one in six bee species is regionally extinct and more than 40 percent are vulnerable to extinction,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
Exploring honey substitutes
Whether you want to steer clear of honey due to concerns for animal welfare, an accidental fake honey purchase, or otherwise, there are plenty of honey substitutes that you can turn to.
These alternatives are similar to honey in that they are either viscous (i.e. thick and gooey) liquids or have added nutrients to improve their health impact. While they’ll all result in a bit of a blood sugar spike (just like honey), they won’t have the same level of pro-inflammatory impacts as refined cane sugar.
- Agave nectar
- Maple syrup
- Date syrup
- Coconut nectar or sugar
- Golden syrup
- Rice syrup
- Barley malt syrup
Should you be wondering: Is there a vegan version of honey? You’re in luck. A slew of bee-free honey brands are available including Blenditup’s Organic Vegan Honey made from apples and Plant Based Artisan’s Original Vegan Honea. These swaps offer more of a honey-like flavor than the other alternatives listed here.
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