Is Honey Vegan & How Possible Is Ethical Beekeeping?

A bee figurine holding a jar of honey, questioning whether or not honey is vegan.

Honey is a pretty controversial topic among vegan and ethical consumers.

On one hand, it’s made in surplus and can be harvested with minimal cruelty.

But, honey is also often manufactured with total disregard for bees and the environment.

Mix all of that together with a confusing and seemingly ever changing definition of “minimal impact capitalism” and you’ve got quite a debatable topic.

First of all, some basics on honey:

The evolution of honey production

Honey is produced by many different species of bees.

It’s collected as nectar from flowers, condensed, and used as a carbohydrate source for young growing bees.

Apis mellifera – the most widely-recognized honeybee – are sentient animals (self aware) that produce the majority of honey harvested for human consumption.

And since this is an animal we’re talking about, honey is an animal product.

bees and honeycomb

Therefore, by the definition set out by the Vegan Society, honey is not vegan.

But there’s more to an ethical philosophy than its principles, and even if honey is non vegan by definition, it’s important to understand how it fits into a human-centric world.

Let’s start by comparing some examples of honey farming.

Ancient beekeeping

The use of beeswax in clay pots from West Africa shows signs of prehistoric honey collection by humans from at least 3500 years ago.

Ancient cave paintings within the Cuevas de la Araña cave network, found in eastern Spain, appear to show honey collection and apiculture dating as far back as 8000 years ago.

apiculture: the practice of beekeeping and harvesting bee products

And since animals like chimpanzees, our closest relatives, routinely harvest honey, it’s safe to assume that this has been a practice that predates modern humanity entirely.

The oldest beehives would have been made from reeds and dung or mud, making it very difficult to find any preserved evidence; though it’s likely the advent of agriculture brought with it early apiculture, around 10,000 to 20,000 years ago.

Since then, it’s taken on many different forms:

Traditional beekeeping

Traditional beekeeping often involves log, calabash, clay, or papyrus hives set up to collect wild bees and provide a shelter for them.

traditional beehives

In many of these cases, the hive is then destroyed to get to the honey, or damaged to the extent that the bees choose to flee and find a new home.

So, traditional beekeeping is usually a destructive practice that doesn’t favor the bees in any way.

Modern african beekeeping

More hive designs like the Kenyan Top Bar Hive (KTB) are employed in many African countries and provide invaluable, recurring resources in the form of honey, beeswax and “bee bread” which is made from the brood of the colony.

But even more than this, the bees are one of the best weapons against crop-raiding elephants.

A top bar beehive with a newly added colony.
Image by Peter Burgstaller via Flickr

With more modern, yet low-tech approaches, beekeepers can learn how to create a comfortable environment for their bees that also encourages them to stay longer, and form stronger, more productive colonies.

This drive toward a more harmonious existence can promote pollination and seems to have no negative impact on other local pollinators, and it also creates a reliable habitat for the bees in a mutually-beneficial arrangement.

Western commercial beekeeping

In contrast to the above methods, the European honeybee subspecies has become an industrial commodity in the West.

This form of beekeeping produces most of the honey for worldwide consumption, and also contributes to the pollination of around a third of the crops we eat.

However, it achieves this in a very different way. Industrial beekeeping involves vast monoculture bee farms with very little opportunity for the bees to live their natural lives.

commercial beehives

These honeybees have become less aggressive and less inclined to fly away than their African counterpart, and absconding is further discouraged by the clipping of the queen’s wings.

Their natural comb development is replaced with a guided, high-yield frame, and queens are excluded from the honey section so as not to contaminate it with a brood of younglings.

These bees are forced to live in conditions they would otherwise choose to avoid, and moved across entire nations to pollinate crops in areas where crop monocultures have wiped out local pollinators due to heavy pesticide use.

Further, these vast monocultures of honeybees displace other native pollinators – ultimately reducing the biodiversity of plants and the animals that rely on them, as well as fostering diseases and parasites that threaten bees worldwide.

From the destructive and short-sighted methods of traditional African beekeeping, it seems that we’ve come full circle, through more harmonious practices and back to the cruel exploitation of bees.

Honey harvesting kills bees

In all cases, beekeeping – even simple inspections for maintenance of colony health – is almost guaranteed to kill bees.

The most careful and conscientious beekeepers will still accidentally harm at least a few individuals, and every sting will result in a bee’s death.

honeycomb harvesting

For the reasons of exploitation and death, then, beekeeping does appear to be something that goes against the vegan philosophy.

But as with (almost) every moral judgment, nothing is absolute.

We can dive a little deeper into the ethics of making honey, but keep in mind that you’ll likely end up coming to your own conclusions about the topic anyways.

A closer look at ethical beekeeping

As the reference text for most vegans, it’s important to start with the official stance of the Vegan Society in order to begin discussing ethical beekeeping.

The Vegan Society defines veganism as:

“A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals… In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

Obviously cruelty is one component of beekeeping that rules it out as a vegan option.

But what if you could design a hive that harms no bees, and ensure that all their needs are met?

And when talking about honey, they have this to say on the matter:

Honey is made by bees for bees, and their health can be sacrificed when it is harvested by humans… harvesting honey does not correlate with The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism, which seeks to exclude not just cruelty, but exploitation.

So, even if you could guarantee the safety and happiness of each bee (you can’t), the very nature of gaining an advantage from an interaction with an animal makes the product non vegan.

Bee exploitation

It’s hard to imagine a world without exploitation.

In ecology, far from being a dirty word, exploitation is essentially the use of a resource or trait to maintain or increase reproductive fitness – a necessary part of the balance of an ecosystem.

Honeybees exploit certain flowers to collect pollen and nectar; and the same flowers exploit the bees’ labor to sexually reproduce.

honeybee harvesting nectar

Problems with exploitation arise when one side of the deal is heavily skewed and causes unnecessary cruelty.

For example, impoverished countries are often exploited for their cheap workforce and weak political standing to produce things for the wealthy without the need for safety regulations or fair wages.

All of our food requires the exploitation of animals in one way or another. All plants are either pollinated by animals, fertilized by them, or both.

Without animal input, there would be nothing to recycle into new plants.

In a healthy ecosystem, this exploitation should be mutually-beneficial between plants and animals, and maintain a stable ecosystem.

Bee cruelty and suffering

Cruelty towards bees and the distress caused by exploitation could be collapsed into a much simpler, single factor of suffering.

Suffering is an important focal point when considering ethics towards animals, and unfair exploitation creates suffering.

Whether we like it or not, we are part of the global ecosystems; for better or worse – we are the most significant influencers on them.

So, the argument then becomes a matter of somehow measuring cruelty and balancing it against alternatives. While this makes some decisions a lot easier, for honey there are still complications.

Benefits of ethical beekeeping

In the future, it may be possible to harvest honey and beeswax without harming bees. But for now, it’s not.

Regardless of how we all feel about beekeeping, there are some clear benefits that arise when it’s done right.

Bees inspecting honey production within their beehive.

Here are some of the major benefits of ethical beekeeping:

  • Healthy honeybee colonies
  • Locally sourced high-calorie food
  • A lucrative, low-tech skill for low-income communities
  • Increases in pollination
  • Increases in crop yields
  • Increased biodiversity
  • Beeswax: a versatile and healthy product for candles, cosmetics, and medicine
  • Propolis: a bee product that has numerous medicinal and therapeutic applications

Both the ancient and most cutting-edge honey farming practices fail to accomplish these things, so they can be removed from the equation entirely.

But, it’s certainly possible for honey farming to be included in a sustainable agricultural system using a fusion of modern and traditional farming techniques that lead to a dramatic reduction in net cruelty and suffering.

Vegan honey alternatives

Agave nectar is often used as a vegan alternative to honey, but it’s usually grown in monocultures and treated with a cocktail of fertilizers and pesticides, contributing to the current insect apocalypse – which includes bees.

Of course, that’s just a single example of a honey alternative, but other options like maple syrup can suffer from the same issues.

agave plantation

In our attempts to relieve ourselves of the direct exploitation of animals, it can be tempting to carve out a sterile space in which to grow cruelty-free crops.

Growing crops puts us in direct competition with wild animals; a problem that’s usually solved by removing them with toxins.

The most sustainable agricultural practices make use of (or exploit) natural biodiversity, taking advantage of various natural processes in animals and plants to make a product that can be consumed with minimal destruction to the environment and its inhabitants.

It’s important to remember to examine even vegan alternatives with the same scrutiny – because as you can see, avoiding exploitation at all costs can often open the door to even more questions.

So, is honey vegan?

The simple answer is no – honey isn’t vegan.

But ethical honey farming is also one of the best examples of animal agriculture that could one day be entirely cruelty-free.

Compared to something like silk production, where there’s essentially no benefit to the animal, beekeeping has the potential to blur the lines of animal exploitation. Especially as we enter the age of technologies like lab grown meat.

This doesn’t let grotesque machines like the dairy and fishing industries off the hook, but as a vegan consumer you should still be aware of the impact of things like shipping agave sweetener around the globe.

Final thoughts

Honey isn’t vegan, but there is hope for the future of ethical beekeeping, compared to other animal products.

If you’re feeling a bit lost still, don’t worry – it’s normal and even productive to question things.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic of honey and beekeeping in general in the comments below!

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