Veganism is a way of living that aims to minimize animal exploitation and cruelty. Therefore, vegans avoid eating animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy, as well as foods that are made from them. However, many people wonder whether this extends to foods made from insects, such as honey.
Personally, this is not a hill I would die on, but I do exclude honey from my consumption, for the sake of consistency.
In the legal world, any legal analysis begins by answering threshold questions. The threshold questions here are: 1) whether a bee is an animal; and 2) whether honey is made in a way that is exploitive or harmful.
Are bees animals?
Insects are a class of invertebrates within the arthropod phylum that have an outer covering, a three-part body (head, thorax, and abdomen), three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes, and antennae. Insects represent more than half of all known living organisms, between six and ten million, potentially representing over 90% of the differing animal life forms on Earth. Insects play a vital role in our ecosystem which includes many functions such as soil turning and aeration, dung burial, pest control, wildlife nutrition, and pollination.
Bees are insects related to wasps and ants. There are nearly 20,000 known species of bees on every continent except Antarctica.
How do bees make honey?
Honey bees fly from their hive to collect pollen and nectar. The nectar is used to make honey.
Nectar is extracted from flowers using a bee’s long, tube-shaped tongue and stored in its second stomach, called its “honey stomach,” (lol). When full, the honey stomach weighs almost as much as the bee does.
During the flight back to the hive, bees secrete enzymes that transform the chemical composition and pH of the nectar, making it more suitable for long-term storage. Once the bee returns to the hive, she will puke up the contents of the honey stomach, a process called trophallaxis, and pass it on to a house bee. The house bee will then process the nectar internally by chewing the nectar, adding more enzymes to break the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars. Then, the nectar is placed into the beeswax cells. So basically, the bees are barfing the honey up, eating it again, and then barfing it up. Yum.
Initially, the nectar collected and stored still contains a high water content. The bees will begin to dehumidify the nectar by fanning it with their wings. This is cute. This process removes most of the moisture from the nectar, turning it into thick syrupy honey. Once this process is complete, the bees seal off the cell with a plug of wax.
Honey is Survival Food for Bees
A bee will only produce around 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in their lifetime. To make one pound of honey it takes bees visiting 2 million flowers. This fact actually makes me really emotional.
Bees store pollen and honey during the active summer period. This cache of food stored in the honeycombs is what the bees survive on during times when the hive cannot forage for flower blossoms, such as in winter. The honey can be stored almost indefinitely and can feed around 20,000 workers plus the queen bee. In one year, a colony of bees eats between 120 and 200 pounds of honey.
Honey Harvesting – Is it Harmful to the Bees?
If you’ve learned anything about animal agriculture so far, the answer is always yes.
Conventional beekeepers aim to harvest the maximum amount of honey, aiming to have high honey yields to make a profit. 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 micro-nutrients of honey.
In conventional beekeeping, honey bees are specifically bred to increase productivity. 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 thousands of other pollinators we and other animals rely on, disputing the common myth that honey production is good for our environment.
In addition, hives can be 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. Look, I don’t know much about bees, but that seems gross to me.
Unfortunately, like all animal agriculture, the honey industry is profit-driven where the welfare of the bees is often secondary to commercial gain.
Honey is touted as a health food, a skin-care helper, or a great way to sweeten food. But now that you know how harmful commercial bee keeping is, your next question may be how to avoid it. Several plant-based options can replace honey. The most common vegan alternatives are:
- Maple syrup. Made from the sap of the maple tree, maple syrup contains several vitamins and minerals and up to 24 protective antioxidants (10).
- Blackstrap molasses. A thick, dark-brown liquid obtained from boiling sugar cane juice three times. Blackstrap molasses is rich in iron and calcium.
- Barley malt syrup. A sweetener made from sprouted barley. This syrup has a golden color and flavor similar to that of blackstrap molasses.
- Brown rice syrup. Also known as rice or malt syrup, brown rice syrup is made by exposing brown rice to enzymes that break down the starch found in rice to produce a thick, dark-colored syrup.
- Date syrup. A caramel-colored sweetener made by extracting the liquid portion of cooked dates. You can also make it at home by blending boiled dates with water.
- Bee Free Honee. A branded sweetener made from apples, sugar, and fresh lemon juice. It’s advertised as a vegan alternative that looks and feels like honey.
Bee Health = Planetary Health
Albert Einstein said, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” The bees are dying and humankind is to blame.
Bees are dying by the millions every year, and Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller is one of the culprits. Roundup is the #1 selling weedkiller in the world, and its main ingredient, glyphosate, has been linked to widespread bee deaths and is a probable human carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization.
One in three bites of food we eat relies on bees for pollination. Peaches, tomatoes, apples, cherries, coffee, chocolate… all rely on bees. Unfortunately, pesticides and Monsanto have gotten the green-light by: lobbying to repeal a ban on bee-killing pesticides in wildlife refuges, blocked consumer labeling of glyphosate, merged with Bayer to create a global pesticide giant, and killed off scientific studies of bee-killing pesticides.
This topic should get its own post but I encourage you to do your own research regarding helping our bee friends. First up, if you have a lawn, don’t use Roundup!!! Also, don’t kill bees, for many reasons. If you find one in your house or coming to your picnic, say hello and guide them to a place where they won’t bother you. There are many other ways you can encourage bees, other than letting them borrow your car.