Health & Nutrition

The Sticky Debate About Honey

Why some vegans eschew honey while others don’t

If there’s one hot-button issue among vegans, it’s honey. While some vegans will eat it and use it, others won’t, which can cause some heated debates among this group. So why not just get right to the point: Is honey vegan?

The basic buzz on honey

Honey bees collect nectar from flowering plants, which they regurgitate into honeycomb cells. With a little fanning from their wings to remove excess moisture, the end result is honey. The amazing fact? Making one pound of honey requires 556 worker bees, and the average worker bee will only make one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, according to the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association. Because honey is so high in sugar, it then becomes an energy source for the bees, helping fuel the roughly 12,000 beats their wings take every minute.

Of course, bees have been making honey ever since their existence, and it’s said they’ve been around for about 30 million years. How long humans have been eating honey isn’t entirely clear, but honey has certainly found its way into the human food system, showing up on breakfast tables, getting baked into breads and muffins, and being mixed into granolas. Honey’s also a popular medicinal cure.

The case against honey being vegan

The first argument against honey not being vegan (though it certainly is vegetarian) is the obvious one: Honey comes from an animal, and vegans eschew any animal-based products. “Animals aren’t ours to use, steal from or manipulate as we see fit,” says Amber Canavan, senior campaigner and spokesperson for PETA in Portland, Ore.

And while you might not equate bees with farmed animals like chickens, pigs and cows, there is cruelty in the raising of bees. “They’re killed and harmed in the process,” Canavan says. She points to commercially bred honey bees who are kept crammed in file-cabinet type hives. When hives are ready for harvesting, it’s nearly impossible to open the hive and get honey out without crushing numerous bees who are trying to protect the hive, she adds.

Now move to queen bees, who are often treated like female cows in the dairy industry, being artificially inseminated by force, Canavan says. Beekeepers might even clip the wings of queen bees so they can’t escape and move the hive. And speaking of moving, bees are often trucked around the country, especially in the commercial industry, to pollinate plants in a given destination. Because honey bees aren’t native to this country, moving them around like this could introduce issues for local pollinators, she adds.

Related: How to Choose Sugar Substitutes

Finally, taking honey from the bees may threaten the bees’ health, according to The Vegan Society. Not only is their honey supply then decreased, “many commercial beekeepers will take the honey off and feed them high-fructose corn syrup, which isn’t good for their health,” says Paul Cronshaw, co-founder and director of operations for the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association in California, vegan and “hive” keeper whose hives are cruelty- and chemical-free.

Putting honey on the table

In spite of the above arguments, there are vegans who do consume and use honey, Cronshaw being one of them. “My philosophy is that the bees are using honey as a survival food in a house that I’m providing, and I take only a minimal amount for rent,” he says, adding that this was the first year he’s taken from them in years because of the now-ended drought in California. As a result, the bees produced more honey this year and were able to pay more rent.

What’s his rationale for using honey? “I use honey for medicine and other reasons,” he says. Those reasons include helping with sore throat, improving oral health, and aiding with wound healing. Case in point: He was bitten on the hand by a dog recently and used Manuka honey to heal while honey helped him survive a foot injury on a nine-day backpacking trip in the Sierras a few years ago.

And while nobody’s advocating supporting commercial beekeepers, supporting local ones can help the bee population survive. Numerous studies, after all, point to the collapse of bees who help pollinate numerous food crops. Although honey bees aren’t in danger of extinction, they are in decline, albeit a big slower because humans are their shepherds or keepers, he adds.

If you do decide to use honey, Cronshaw recommends connecting with local beekeepers to find out how they practice beekeeping. Most local beekeepers aren’t trucking their hives around the country, aren’t using harmful fillers after taking the bees’ honey and are working hard not to kill bees. “You can raise bees without killing them,” he says.

The good news is that you don’t have to eat or use honey if you don’t want to. “There are so many alternatives on the market now,” Canavan says. Not only can you choose from things like maple syrup, stevia, blackstrap molasses and agave syrup, there’s even vegan “honey.” You can also help local pollinators by planting plants they like and creating a pollinator-friendly yard.