Reading Time: 6 minutes Some of the brutal practices involved in honey production include insemination and the ripping off of queen bees' wings. Their population is in incline, which puts the environment in danger. Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Honey dates back centuries of years, but its roots are not as organic as many mass-produced brand labels make out. Whilst honey bees carry out most worldwide pollination, their population is in decline. Many scholars and scientists blame the use of pesticides and intensive farming methods. But is honey vegan?

Nature’s sweet sauce with ‘magical’ properties was even once used as an ingredient in embalming fluid, as well as in cakes and cheeses across history. It’s been linked to a host of health benefits, as it contains antioxidants that have been proven to help lower blood pressure.

A lot of vegans avoid it altogether. This is because it involves animal exploitation. As The Vegan Society states, ‘honey is made by bees for bees’. Many vegans consider it the same as cow’s milk, or consuming eggs as the product made by the animal is not intended for humans.

What is honey?

Bees make honey by collecting nectar from flowers. Then, it is transported back to the hive and turned into honey. It is ‘fundamental’ to a hive’s wellbeing, according to the The Vegan Society.

Honey is made when honey bees collect nectar from flowering plants and turn it from complex sugars to simple sugars inside their stomachs.

The honey bees spend the entire spring and summer season making honey so that it can be stored inside the hive for winter.

“They only eat nectar and pollen from flowers, so when there are no flowers or it’s too cold to get to them, the bees will starve. 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.”

This is according to Alison Benjamin, co-author of A World Without Bees and Good Bee: A Celebration Of Bees And How To Save Them.

There are more than 20,000 species of bees on the planet, she says, and their life span is just a few weeks – long enough for them to reproduce. All species are reliant on the food they collect from flowering plants.

Bees and the environment

Some species of bees face ex(Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Benjamin adds: “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…

“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. 

“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.”

There are more than 90 million beehives across the world, according to Statista. Despite the necessity honey has on bees’ survival, production is a vast multi-million-dollar market and their population is dwindling.

Furthermore, out of 2000 wild bee species in Europe, one in ten is facing extinction, The Soil Association states.

However, further statistics conducted by Bee Culture show a steady rise in honey consumption, as well as in price.

Why vegans don’t eat honey

For most vegans, eating honey is not an option. This is because bees are insects and animals and vegans avoid products made of and by animals.

Equally, many members of the vegan community care for the environment – which insects play a huge part in conserving. It is agreed among many scholars and scientists that a decline in pollinators spells disaster for the environment.

A host of fruits and vegetables would not be able to grow without them, claims Professor Johanna Brunet. ‘Humans depend on plants and plants depend on pollinators. A balance must be maintained in order to sustain life on earth and protect human survival and health’, she says.

How are bees harmed in the honey industry?

As a result of a study into pesticides used on crops, scientists claimed a leading cause behind bee population decline globally is the insecticide, Neonicotinoid. Furthermore, the Science journal authors found the chemical was present in the honey itself.

Whilst investigating for her book, Benjamin discovered millions of honey bees had died due to pesticides, parasites, and poor nutrition. This is a result of the way humans farm, using modern and intensive agriculture, she adds. On a large scale, this causes problems with disease. Benjamin adds: “In the US, large-scale beekeepers regularly report at least a third of their colonies die each year. 

“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.”

In addition, specifically breeding honey bees to create honey affects the population of other bees, according to The Vegan Society. This has led to a well-documented decline in bumblebee species. Some beekeepers harvest as much honey as possible and instead replace the hive with a sugar substitute. This lacks the nutrients found in honey.

‘Abused for profit’

A leading cause behind bee population decline is the use of pesticides on crops (Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

PETA‘s director, Elisa Allen, deplores the honey production process and say’s they are ‘abused for profit’.

She adds: “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.

“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.

“It’s easy to avoid honey by choosing delicious vegan options, such as agave nectar or maple syrup.”

Royal jelly, a substance similar to gelatine, is also often harvested from the glands of queen honey bees. It is used in cosmetics. 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’.

What about almonds and avocados?

However, some argue that anyone who eats almonds or avocados should consider the equally harmful processes used to produce them. 

For example, millions of honey bees are transported around the US to pollinate almond trees, an article published by Scientific American outlined. The same practices are used to pollinate avocados.

It states: “Forcing bees to gather pollen and nectar from vast swaths of a single crop deprives them of the far more diverse and nourishing diet provided by wild habitats. The migration also continually boomerangs honeybees between times of plenty and borderline starvation.”

Benjamin agrees that eating almonds ‘is just as bad for bees’.

She recommends consumers who want to buy honey should do so if it’s to support local beekeepers, who only own a small number of hives and ‘treat the bees well’. Small-scale farmers ‘only take the surplus’, she claims, and ensure the bees have enough for winter.

Vegan substitutes for honey

There are lots of substitutes for honey on the market. These include maple syrup, date syrup, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, coconut nectar, and vegan honea.

Vegan honey substitutes are largely made from natural sources. For anyone questioning whether to eat honey, you can try these instead.

Types of vegan honey

Maple syrup

Maple syrup is a natural sweetener used widely across the globe (Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Made from the sap of the maple tree, maple syrup is a sweetener with Canadian roots.

For a vegan twist on the classic steamed pudding, you can make this Vegan Steamed Maple Syrup Pudding recipe here.

Buckwud 100% Pure Organic Maple Syrup is available from Holland and Barrett.

Date syrup

Date syrup is commonly used in Middle Eastern cooking (Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Dates are frequently used in cakes and sweet treats. Additionally, they can be made into syrup by soaking, boiling, and sieving.

To make your own date syrup, follow Lazy Cat Kitchen‘s recipe via her website.

Agave Nectar

The Blue Webbar Agave plant is native to Mexico, and produces a sweet sap used to make Agave Nectar. (Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Agave Nectar comes from the sap of the Blue Webbar Agave plant. It contains less glucose than refined sugars. Additionally, it is naturally sweeter in taste, which means less has to be used to achieve the same taste.

The Groovy Food Company has not one but eleven agave nectar flavors in its range. These include Rich & Dark, Caramel, Chocolate, as well as Honey Flavor and Blueberry.

You can use the Rich & Dark flavor to make these vegan Tahini & Turmeric Granola Bars.

Brown rice syrup

Brown rice syrup has a higher glycemic index than most other sweeteners (Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

You can whip up your own granola using this sweetener, which as its name suggests is derived from brown rice. It has a higher glycemic index than most other sweeteners.

For the grain-free granola recipe, visit Naturally Ella.

To order your own organic brown rice syrup, visit Biona.

Coconut nectar

Coconut flapjacks made from coconut nectar (Credit: The Coconut Company)

This nectar comes from the sap of coconut trees. Minimally processed, it is widely considered purer than syrups made from coconut sugar.

Add it to dried fruit, dates, and oats to make these Coconut Flapjacks.

You can order Coconut Nectar from The Coconut Company.

Vegan honea

Vegan honea is an alternative which often contain prebiotics, which can help improve gut health (Credit: Instagram

Honea is often made from natural flavorings including apple juice, lemon juice, and molasses. Some vegan honea brands are made with prebiotics which has been proven to help support gut health.

Plant-Based Artisan’s vegan honea range includes a Luxury Honea Butter flavor. The brand boasts a drizzling of its Vegan Honea over friend plant-based chicken.

You can order Plant-Based Artisan’s Vegan Honea online

Emily is a News and Features Writer for Plant Based News. She has previously worked as a journalist in Devon, UK, reporting on local issues from politics to the environment.