Honey is for bees, not vegans

[Image: A honeybee perches on a red flowering plant with waxy leaves.]

Honey is a perennial topic of debate among vegans. On the face of it, whether or not to eat honey should be a simple matter: Bees make honey, bees are animals, vegans avoid exploiting animals to the extent possible, eating honey is avoidable, therefore vegans should not eat honey. Yet many vegans continue to rationalize that eating the food made by these amazing animals is consistent with vegan ethics.

I know, because I was one of those vegans myself. From 2011 to 2014, I called myself vegan because I did not consume any flesh, dairy, or eggs. But I still occasionally ate honey, mostly in products like bread. When asked about it, normally by people who were not vegan and had no interest in animal rights or welfare, I gave various excuses, but eventually admitted that I just couldn’t get all that worked up about the plight of bees.

Even then, I knew that eating an animal product was inconsistent with a vegan diet, but I didn’t yet see animals as people, not property. In addition to eating honey, I still used some animal-derived clothing and other products, and visited a zoo once or twice. I stopped doing all of that, to the extent possible, when I became an animal rights activist in 2014. I could no longer justify exploiting any animal – including insects – if I could reasonably avoid it.

I’m bringing this up now because I read a recent article by KD Angle-Traegner about additional reasons to avoid honey; namely, the use of honey in animal testing. The same author had previously posted a more comprehensive guide about the problems with honey, which I recommend reading, as it addresses many common questions and objections. Whether you’re vegan or not, having additional information on this subject cannot hurt; it’s troublesome, though not surprising, that the author notes that many people have unfollowed her on social media just for posting about honey. (If you’re tempted to do the same to me, go ahead; I don’t self-censor to get more “likes.”)

The timing of this article’s publication was fortuitous because I’ve been watching the series Inside Man by Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame) on Netflix, and had just gotten up to the episode where he investigated honey and bee colony collapse. I like Spurlock’s documentary style, but as with other episodes of this series where he’s covered issues involving our fellow animals, it was difficult for me to watch because of the overt speciesism. To the commercial beekeepers Spurlock worked with (more for pollination services than for honey), these animals were nothing but mindless automatons, and when they died off in massive numbers, the only mourning was for the loss of income. Even the smaller beekeepers he visited actually hunted and captured wild bees to breed them with their existing “stock.”

Whether on a large or small scale, to me, beekeeping is forced labor, indistinguishable from dairy or egg farming. Bees make honey and royal jelly to feed themselves, not humans. The fact that bee pollination is responsible for a large portion of the plants we eat just makes it even more unfair to take their food away from them. If large-scale agriculture cannot be sustained without commercial beekeeping, that’s just more evidence to me that humans are taking up far too much space on this planet.

While I do not consider eating honey to be compatible with veganism, my point of writing this post is not to shame people who call themselves vegans despite eating honey; as I said, I was once one of those people myself. My goal is to provide information about animal exploitation so that people can make informed decisions about what products and services they buy. While I have no authority on who merits the title of “vegan,” I expect that if I buy a food or other product that is labeled “vegan” at a grocery store or restaurant, it should not contain honey, pollen, royal jelly, or beeswax. These are animal products, period.

Bees are remarkable, hard-working animals. Let them keep the product of their labor.

  1. This has been a really tough issue for me throughout my decade of veganism, but not for the reasons you list. Bees are one of my favorite insects as much as one can favorite a diverse group of beings. I have thought it is wrong to take from them. But, in researching colony collapse and many other things regarding bees, consuming honey started to resemble taking in pets.

    Having collars on dogs and controlling where they get to go and what they get to do is not ideal. But, it is better than them being killed in shelters or on the streets because of how we have damaged and bred them.

    I have read that large bee farms harm bees, but small apiaries are important to support in order to prevent colony collapse. There was evidence against this point but not as much as there was at the time against not having apiaries. So, I came to the conclusion at that time (after going back and forth on honey at least 20 times) that purchasing local small apiary honey would support apiaries in helping bee populations to survive what we have done to them. And while taking honey was not ideal, it was better than bees going extinct.

    I am completely willing to be wrong on this, as I have said my mind keeps changing. But, I did want to add that for some of us it is not as simple as not caring about bees.

    • I appreciate your input. The problem I have with this argument is I’ve heard similar rationalizations for everything from keeping backyard hens (and eating their eggs) to hunting deer (and eating their flesh) to prevent overpopulation. I have no doubt that many beekeepers truly care about bees and feel they are doing what’s in the animals’ best interest, but I still cannot consider honey to be a vegan product.

      • That makes a lot of sense. I definitely hear you. I’m in agreement that it’s not vegan as it comes from an animal nonconsensually. I assume you meant people who keep backyard hens for eggs and their flesh, not rescue. I did read the links that are in your writing. I know some companies finally admitted pesticides contributed to colony collapse. But I admittedly haven’t researched this in years.

        • Right – giving sanctuary to hens and other animals is fine, but taking eggs and other products from them is not. It’s not a consensual arrangement, and can never be. And in the case of hens, they will actually eat their own eggs to recover nutrients depleted from generations of selective breeding to lay many times more eggs than their bodies can naturally handle.

          The Inside Man episode I mentioned talked about pesticides, and about how banning bee-killing pesticides in other countries resulted in a dramatic drop in bee deaths. Though of course this was framed in terms of benefits to humans, not to the bees themselves. They also talked about illegally-imported honey being contaminated with pesticides, and showed how difficult it is to trace the claimed origins of honey brands when some companies filter out all of the pollen.

  2. Thank you for revisiting this issue and for linking to my articles on the topic. Honey has been marketed for years as an all-natural and by-product of the necessary pollination of our plants- but that isn’t really all that true. Because of this, most people don’t realize that bees aren’t our natural pollinators and that backyard beekeeping isn’t keeping our pollinators as safe as we need them to be. Your comment, “The problem I have with this argument is I’ve heard similar rationalizations for everything from keeping backyard hens (and eating their eggs) to hunting deer (and eating their flesh) to prevent overpopulation.” is spot on and it’s a much needed addition to the conversation.

  3. vegans have always supported the exploitation of honeybees, because most of their food wouldn’t exist unless a beekeeper trucked his bees to the field where it was grown. the certified grass seed used to grow your lawn was honeybee pollenated in order to be certified. without honeybee exploitation, we’d all starve. btw, a bee isn’t an organism, the colony is the organism.

    • While we do currently exploit bees to pollinate crops for an overly large (and wasteful) human population, I’m not convinced that the human species would starve without these commercial beekeeping services (which have not “always” existed). As far as bees not being individual organisms, that’s just nonsense. Please provide scientific references for your statements.

      ETA: I haven’t lived in a house or apartment with a lawn in over 20 years, so I don’t really give a shit about “certified” (?) grass seed…

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