Bees are highly social and cooperative insects. They have a unique and complex form of communication based on sight, motion, and scent that even scientists don’t fully understand.
Bees communicate with each other through intricate “dance” movements. And research has shown that they are capable of abstract thinking, as well as distinguishing their family members from other bees in the hive.
But bees are perhaps best known for their honey.
Honey 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 linked to a host of health benefits, as it contains antioxidants that have been proven to help lower blood pressure.
But what exactly is honey? Are bees harmed to make it? And is it vegan?
Since honey comes from an animal, it is not considered vegan. As The Vegan Society states, “honey is made by bees for bees.” Just like cow’s milk and chicken eggs, the natural production of honey is not intended for human consumption. (Scroll to the bottom of the article for some of the best vegan honey alternatives.)
How and why do bees make honey?
Bees feed on pollen and nectar, but honey is their single source of food during the winter months. Alison Benjamin is the co-author of A World Without Bees and Good Bee: A Celebration Of Bees And How To Save Them. She explains: “When there are no flowers or it’s too cold to get to them, the bees will starve.”
And so, they collect nectar from flowering plants to make honey, which is then stored inside the hive for a rainy day (literally). “Nectar is the carbohydrates that fuel their flight. Pollen provides the protein they feed to their larvae so that they can develop into strong, healthy adult bees,” Benjamin explains.
A honeybee will visit up to 1,500 flowers to collect enough nectar to fill their stomach. When returning to the hive, the bee regurgitates and chews the nectar, turning it from complex to simple sugars.
This process is repeated thousands of times throughout the spring and summer. Yet a single bee produces just a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in their lifetime – and every ounce is “fundamental” to their hive, according to the The Vegan Society. (Notably, it takes the pollination of two million flowers – and around 55,000 miles of bee flights – to produce a single pound of honey.)
“It is not an individual bee that the honey is feeding but the colony – made up of a queen and about 10,000 worker bees in the winter,” Benjamin explains.
How do bees help the environment?
The weeks and miles of work put in by bees benefits the ecosystem, too.
“When bees visit the flowers for their food, they transport some of the pollen from the male part to the female part of the flower, allowing it to reproduce seeds and fruits which is why they are so important for agriculture and the ecosystem,” Benjamin says.
“They pollinate one in every three mouthfuls we eat, as well as nuts, berries, and seeds for birds and mammals in the food chain, and the trees and other vegetation on the planet that sequesters carbon in the atmosphere.”
Indeed, bees pollinate all manners of fruit including apples, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries. Blueberries and cherries are 90 percent dependent on bees, and almonds require 100 percent honeybee pollination at bloom time.
This is a contentious topic in itself; millions of honeybees are transported around the US to pollinate almond trees, according to Scientific American. The same practices are used to pollinate avocados.
Benjamin warns that forcing bees to gather pollen nectar from “vast swaths of a single crop deprives them of the far more diverse and nourishing diet provided by wild habitats.” Transferring the animals also “continually boomerangs honeybees between times of plenty and borderline starvation,” she notes.
A world without bees
It’s not just our food; pollinators play critical roles everywhere we look. “When we look at the benefit of pollinators to our natural world, the numbers are staggering,” maintains the Xerces Society, an environmental nonprofit. “Pollinators keep plant communities healthy and productive … A nature walk or stroll through a garden would be a very different experience without pollinators.”
Professor Johanne Brunet, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shares a similar view. “Humans depend on plants and plants depend on pollinators,” Brunet says. “A balance must be maintained in order to sustain life on earth and protect human survival and health.”
Why are bee populations declining?
There are more than 20,000 species of bees and more than 90 million beehives across the world, according to Statista. But bee populations are dwindling.
Out of the 2,000 wild bee species in Europe, one in 10 is facing extinction, The Soil Association states. And globally, an estimated one in six bee species is regionally extinct, whilst more than 40 percent are vulnerable to extinction.
Pesticides are one factor driving this decline; the insecticide neonicotinoid is thought to be the leading cause of falling bee populations. In fact, research shows the chemical can now be found inside honey itself.
Mass bee deaths
Whilst investigating for her book, Benjamin discovered millions of honeybees had died due to pesticides, parasites, and poor nutrition. This is, in part, due to the intensive farming methods adopted by humans. “In the US, large-scale beekeepers regularly report at least a third of their colonies die each year,” Benjamin notes.
“Lack of nutritious food is also a problem because the bees will be transported to one monoculture after another to pollinate – often thousands of miles apart in the US – but it’s not providing them with a healthy diet, so this again will also make them weak.”
Oftentimes, beekeepers replace the honey they remove from a hive with a sugar substitute. This practice prompts honeybees to overwork themselves to replace the missing honey. Meanwhile, the sugar replacement lacks the nutrients, fats, and vitamins in honey that bees need to be healthy.
Is honey production cruel?
PETA UK’s director, Elisa Allen, maintains that the honey industry “abuses bees for profit.”
“They’re subjected to genetic manipulation, their hives are smoked out, and their wings and legs are torn off as they’re pushed out of the way, all so that humans can steal their honey – which is their fuel and their life’s work and rightly belongs to them, not us,” Allen says.
“Many beekeepers use inhumane methods to ensure their own safety and to reach production quotas, including cutting off the queen bee’s wings so that she can’t leave the colony and killing drones to extract semen in order to inseminate the queen.”
Royal jelly, also called “bee milk,” is a substance similar to gelatine that is used in cosmetics. It’s harvested from the glands of queen honeybees. Benjamin says this is the “most cruelly produced” product as it can only be produced on an industrial scale by bees “treated purely as royal jelly machines.”
11 vegan substitutes for honey
There are lots of natural honey substitutes out there. You can also purchase vegan honey products online. Read on for 11 swaps for honey that are bee-free but just as sweet as the real thing.
1. Maple syrup
Tapped from maple trees, this sap is a sweet-tooth’s delight. Bake with it, top your pancakes with it, or add it to your favorite marinades for sweet perfection.
There are plenty of options available online, like Kirkland Signature’s Canadian Maple Syrup, or Buckwud’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. The syrup contains less glucose than refined sugars and is the perfect way to sweeten a cup of tea.
The Groovy Food Company produces a wide range of agave nectars, with flavors like 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 atop pancakes, but use it just like you would honey in recipes.
It has a higher glycemic index than most other sweeteners, and can be purchased online.
4. Barley malt
Like brown rice syrup, barley malt is the concentrated sweetener from whole grain barley. It’s great in baked goods, too.
5. Coconut nectar
This nectar comes from the sap of coconut trees. Minimally processed, it is widely considered purer than syrups made from 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 frequently used in cakes and sweet treats. Additionally, they can be made into syrup by soaking, boiling, and sieving. Biona makes an organic date syrup, or try your hand at making your own using Lazy Cat Kitchen’s recipe.
A naturally rich source of plant-based iron, molasses is exceptionally sweet. It’s got a strong bite to it, too, making its flavor distinct. Use in your favorite baking recipes, but ideally halve it with another more neutral sweetener like rice syrup or agave nectar.
8. Sorghum syrup
Sorghum syrup is made from the grassy sorghum plant and resembles molasses. It can be used to add sweetness to baked goods.
9. Vegan honea
Honea is often made from natural flavorings including apple juice, lemon juice, and molasses. Some vegan honea products – such as those developed by Plant-Based Artisan – are made with prebiotics proven to support gut health.
10. Fruit syrups
Concentrated fruit syrups can work as honey substitutes in baking recipes. Or, mixed with maple for a sweet topping to your pancakes, waffles, or French toast.
11. Raw sugar
Swapping out liquid honey with raw sugar in baked goods takes a bit of finessing but can be done. You typically just need to up your liquid content.
For more ways to help protect bees, see here.
This article was originally published on April 2, 2021. It was last updated on September 3, 2022.
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