Is Honey Vegan and Ethical? The not so sweet truth

Bees are very social and cooperative insects. They have a unique and complex form of communication based on sight, movement and smell that even scientists do not fully understand.

Bees communicate with each other through complex “dance” movements. And studies have shown that they have the ability to think abstractly, in addition to distinguishing their family members from other bees in the hive.

But bees are perhaps best known for their honey.

Nature’s sweet sauce has unique properties. It appears in everything from cakes to cheese to tea (it was even once used as an ingredient in embalming fluid). Honey is associated with a number of health benefits, as it contains antioxidants that have been shown to help lower blood pressure.

But what exactly is honey? Is it harmful to the bees to do this? And is it vegan?

Since honey comes from an animal, it is not considered vegan. As the Vegan Society points out, “honey is made by bees for bees.” Natural production of honey is not intended for human consumption like cow’s milk and chicken eggs. (For the best vegan honey alternatives, scroll to the bottom of the article.)

How and why bees make honey?

Adobe Stock Bees collect nectar to make honey

Bees feed on pollen and nectar, but honey is their only food source during the winter months. Alison Benjamin is a co-author A World Without Bees and The Good Bee: A Celebration of Bees and How to Save Them. He explains: “When there are no flowers or it’s too cold to reach them, the bees will starve.”

And so they collect nectar from flowering plants to make honey, which is then stored in the hive for a rainy day (literally). “Nectar is the carbohydrates that make them fly. Pollen provides the protein they feed their larvae so they can grow into strong, healthy adult bees,” Benjamin explains.

A honey bee will visit up to 1,500 flowers to collect enough nectar to fill its stomach. Back at the hive, the bee regurgitates and chews the nectar, converting it from complex sugars to simple sugars.

This process is repeated thousands of times throughout the spring and summer. Still, a single bee produces only one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime—and according to The Vegan Society, every ounce is “essential” to their hive. (Note that it takes the pollination of two million flowers and about 55,000 miles of bee flight to produce one pound of honey.)

“Honey does not feed an individual bee, but a colony of about 10,000 worker bees and a queen in winter,” explains Benjamin.

How bees help the environment?

The weeks and miles spent by bees also benefit the ecosystem.

“When bees visit flowers for food, they transfer some of the pollen from the male part of the flower to the female part, allowing seeds and fruits to reproduce, so they are very important to agriculture and the ecosystem,” says Benjamin.

“They pollinate one in every three mouthfuls of food we eat, as well as nuts, berries and seeds for birds and mammals in the food chain, and the planet’s trees and other vegetation that store carbon in the atmosphere.”

A bee collecting pollen from some purple flowers outside
Kosolovsky Vasil / Adobe Stock Bees pollinate about a third of the world’s food

Indeed, bees pollinate all kinds of fruit, including apples, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries. Blueberries and cherries are 90 percent dependent on bees, and almonds require 100 percent honey bee pollination at flowering.

This is a controversial topic in itself; millions of honey bees are transported around the United States to pollinate almond trees Scientific American. The same practices are used to pollinate avocados.

Benjamin warns that “forcing bees to collect pollen nectar from large areas of a single crop deprives them of the more varied and nutritious diet that wild habitats provide.” He notes that translocations “continually boomerang honeybees between periods of abundance and borderline famine.”

A world without bees

It’s not just our food; pollinators play an important role everywhere we look. “When you look at the benefits of pollinators to our natural world, the numbers are staggering,” says the Xerces Society, an environmental nonprofit. “Pollinators keep plant communities healthy and productive… Without pollinators, a nature walk or a garden walk would be a very different experience.”

Johanne Brunet, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shares a similar opinion. “People depend on plants, and plants depend on pollinators,” says Brunet. “A balance must be maintained to sustain life on Earth and to protect human health and wellness.”

Why is the number of bees decreasing?

A tractor spraying pesticides on crops on a farm
Adobe Stock Insecticides poison millions of pollinating insects like bees every year

According to Statista, there are over 20,000 bee species and over 90 million beehives in the world. But the number of bees is decreasing.

The Soil Association reports that one in 10 of Europe’s 2,000 wild bee species are threatened with extinction. And globally, an estimated one in six bee species are regionally extinct, and more than 40 percent are vulnerable to extinction.

Pesticides are one of the factors responsible for this decline; the insecticide neonicotinoid is thought to be the main cause of the decline in bee populations. In fact, studies show that the chemical can already be found in honey itself.

Mass bee deaths

While researching for his book, Benjamin discovered that millions of honeybees were dying due to pesticides, parasites and poor nutrition. This is partly due to the intensive farming methods that people have adopted. “Large-scale beekeepers in the United States routinely report that at least one-third of their colonies die each year,” notes Benjamin.

“Malnutrition is also a problem because bees will be transported from one monoculture after another to pollinate — often thousands of miles apart in the United States — but that doesn’t provide them with a healthy diet, so it will weaken them again. ”

Often, beekeepers replace the honey they remove from the hive with a sugar substitute. This practice prompts the honeybees to work hard to replace the missing honey. Meanwhile, sugar substitute honey lacks the nutrients, fats and vitamins that bees need to be healthy.

Is honey production cruel?

Elisa Allen, director of PETA UK, claims the honey industry is “abusing bees for profit”.

“They’re genetically manipulated, their hives are smoked, their wings and legs are ripped off when they’re out of the way so people can steal their fuel and their life’s work, honey. and it rightfully belongs to them, not us,” says Allen.

“Many beekeepers use inhumane methods to ensure their safety and meet production quotas, including clipping the queen’s wings to prevent her from leaving the colony and killing drones to extract sperm to fertilize the queen.”

Honey bees move around the queen bee in the hive
Michal Bednarek / Adobe Stock Many bees are mistreated or killed in the honey industry

Royal jelly, also called “propolis”, is a gelatin-like substance used in cosmetics. The queen is collected from the glands of honey bees. Benjamin says it’s the “most cruelly produced” product because it can only be produced on an industrial scale by bees, because “it’s just treated like a royal jelly machine.”

11 Vegan Substitutes for Honey

There are many natural honey substitutes out there. You can also buy vegan honey products online. Read on for 11 honey swaps that are bee-free but just as sweet as real honey.

1. maple syrup

This sap from birch trees is a sweet treat. Bake with it, top your pancakes with it, or add it to your favorite marinades for sweet perfection.

There are many options online, such as Kirkland Signature’s Canadian maple syrup or Buckwood’s organic maple syrup.

2. Agave nectar

Agave nectar comes from agave plants, which are succulents native to Mexico. It has a neutral flavor and works like honey in many recipes. Syrup contains less glucose than refined sugars and is the perfect way to sweeten a cup of tea.

Groovy Food Company produces a wide variety of agave nectars in flavors such as Blueberry, Cinnamon, Strawberry and Vanilla.

3. Rice syrup

A sweet and sticky natural sweetener made from whole grain brown rice, rice syrup is a macrobiotic staple. The flavor may be too strong for tea or pancakes, but use it as honey in recipes.

It has a higher glycemic index than other sweeteners and can be purchased online.

4. Barley malt

Like brown rice syrup, barley malt is a concentrated sweetener from whole grain barley. Also great in baked goods.

5. Coconut nectar

Vegan coconut oil crust
The Coconut Company Coconut flapjacks made with coconut nectar

This nectar comes from the sap of coconut trees. It is considered cleaner than syrups made from minimally processed coconut sugar. You can find coconut nectar made by The Coconut Company here.

Add it to dried fruit, dates, and oats to make these vegan Coconut Flapjacks.

6. Date syrup

Dates are often used in cakes and sweet dishes. In addition, they can be made syrup by soaking, boiling and straining. Biona makes organic date syrup, or try making your own using Lazy Cat Kitchen’s recipe.

7. molasses

A naturally rich source of plant-based iron, molasses is quite sweet. It also has a strong bite that makes it taste different. Use it in your favorite baking recipes, but cut it in half with a more neutral sweetener like rice syrup or agave nectar.

8. Sorghum syrup

Sorghum syrup is made from the grassy sorghum plant and is similar to molasses. It can be used to add sweetness to baked goods.

9. Vegan honey

A hand holds a bowl of plant-based artisanal Vegan Honea on top of blueberries in a bowl
Vegan honey is an alternative that often contains prebiotics that can help improve gut health

Honea is often made with natural flavors, including apple juice, lemon juice, and molasses. Some plant-based artisan vegan honea products are made with prebiotics proven to support gut health.

10. Fruit syrups

Concentrated fruit syrups can work as a substitute for honey in baking recipes. Or mix with maple syrup for a sweet addition to your pancakes, waffles or French toast.

11. Raw sugar

Replacing liquid honey with raw sugar in baked goods takes a little finesse, but it can be done. You usually only need to increase your fluid content.

See here for more ways to protect bees.

This article was originally published on April 2, 2021. Last updated on September 3, 2022.

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