In the modern world, we accommodate for many different diets, thanks to the range of agricultural practices, increased awareness about how our food is produced and where it comes from, and concerns about our planet’s future.
This increased awareness and knowledge were simply not available to our ancestors and even if it was, they didn’t really have a lot of choice about what they ate.
This is not a problem for modern humans, causing us to look more critically at the food industry, often with shock and, sometimes, disgust.
With the concerns of mass agriculture becoming ever more prominent year on year, it is only natural that people are turning to a more vegetable dominant diet.
More people are replacing a meat dinner with a vegetarian alternative a couple of times a week, which seems small but is a massive aid to our planet and in the long run, could turn into a more sustainable diet.
However, with all these substitutions and improvements in our diets, there is one food that confuses people no end about whether it could be vegan, and that food is honey.
The sweet, delicious syrup is genuinely something to marvel at, especially coming from one of the world’s smallest animals, yet is it vegan and ethical? Or is it exploitative and harmful to eat?
This is one of the most controversial questions surrounding vegan cuisine and something we seek to answer today.
What Is Honey?
First off, let’s start with exploring a little bit what honey is for those who may never have tried it before.
Honey is a sweet syrup that is produced by bees for use as either emergency sugar rations to support their metabolism during foraging, or as a long-term food supply for the hive as a whole.
To make honey, bees need to collect nectar from flowering plants. It will use a long mouth tube, called a proboscis, to suck honey into a special storage stomach called a honey stomach.
Once full, the bee will deliver this nectar to the hive bees, who digest and regurgitate the liquid to another hive-bee.
The bees then pass the liquid back and forth for about 20 minutes until it reaches a good quality, at which point it can be stored in a honeycomb.
Once in the honeycomb, the natural yeasts of the honey begin to feed on the sugar, and it begins to ferment.
With the bees maintaining the temperature of the hive at around 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) and fluttering their wings to increase airflow, fermentation is prevented until most of the water has evaporated, at which point the honey is mostly sugar and fermentation cannot happen.
Once this point is reached, the bees cap the cells with wax and the honey is ready to go, either for the bees or for the beekeeper putting them on supermarket shelves.
The fact that honey is such a rich food source produced by such a small animal is incredible in and of itself, but the fact that it can last literally hundreds of years is stunning.
Is Honey Vegan?
Now onto the real question of today: is honey vegan? To most people who subsist on a vegan diet, no.
Honey is not considered vegan friendly by most vegans, because it is still acquired through animal exploitation.
Veganism at its core concept is a practice of abstaining from the use of any animal products. Whether that be strict veganism, ethical veganism, or environmental veganism, that is the fundamental principle of the practice.
If this is the case, why is it such a controversial topic? Well, the issue arises not from a schism in the view of the fundamental principles of veganism, but in the view of bees themselves:
Bees Might Be Viewed As Inferior
Bees are creatures that are far removed from our own genetic family, even more so than you might think.
For example, the last common ancestor that humans and chimps had was between 4 and 13 million years ago, for rats and humans maybe 80 million years at a push, which for both is an incredibly long time, long before either species existed.
However, the last common ancestor for any insect and human existed between 500 and 600 million years ago.
That’s right, the last time you were closely related to bees was half a billion years ago.
At that point, nothing lived on land yet, and life had only just begun.
We are so far removed from insects that the last common ancestor between us was close to or was the first creature on earth to possess bilateral symmetry – being the same shape on both sides of its body.
As such, people tend to view insects as alien, disgusting, or inferior to any other family of animals. Due to this, some people believe that it doesn’t matter if bees are exploited, as they are not as important or as alive as other animals.
Bees Produce More Honey Than They Need
Bees produce a lot of honey for their small body size. Granted this is only a drop of honey, but considering that colonies are about 20,000 to 40,000 strong this can be a huge amount.
They are creatures that work tirelessly to keep their larders full as well, making sure the colony has enough food to survive the winter. Often, they overwork and generally produce 2 to 3 times the amount of honey they need.
Now, this would be great if it could be harvested in an ethical way. A lot of beekeeping operations are large-scale, and it’s just impossible to not disturb the hive while collecting honey.
It would be better if we knew of the concrete effects of harvesting honey on the hive and the bees, but a lot of the time it’s hard to see or tell whether there is a reaction without it being a drastic change in behavior.
There is a lean towards ‘balanced beekeeping’, where the hive is disturbed as little as possible and the bees are treated more ethically, in the modern-day and this has been met with some success.
The problem is there hasn’t been enough of a study of balanced beekeeping to see whether this is truly ethical for the bees, so we just don’t know.
Vegan Alternatives To Honey
There is no need to fret if you have to give up honey to maintain your diet, there are lots of alternatives that you can choose from without hurting our buzzing, little friends:
- Agave Nectar – Nectar extracted from the Agave plant.
- Maple syrup – Syrup extracted from the maple tree. Some of these use animal products, so be careful.
- Molasses – A syrup that is a by-product of the production of sugar cane, without the bone products you find in some sugar refinement.
- Date syrup – A syrup made by heating dates in water.
These alternatives should hold up to whatever you want to use them in.
They may not have the exact flavor of honey, but they are just as good.
It is unfortunate that honey is not vegan. It really is. I know people will still contend that it is, but even across the broad spectrum of views on veganism, it cannot be vegan in its current form either.
It relies on the exploitation of bee populations, which is wholly against vegan ideology.
Who knows, in the future, there may be ways to extract honey without hurting the bees or there may be a way to make honey without bees at all, thus bringing it back into the fold of safe vegan products.
We can only dream.