Is honey vegan? Or, at least, is it okay for vegans to eat it?
Honey and all other bee products: beeswax, bee pollen, royal jelly (bee milk), propolis, and bee venom – are all products of intensive labor from hardworking insects. And the reality of how humans procure it is not all that sweet.
A Bee’s Life
Bees are highly social and cooperative insects. They have a unique and complex form of communications that is based on sight, motion, and scent that even scientists don’t fully understand.
Bees are known to communicate with each other through intricate ‘dance’ movements.
Research has shown that bees are capable of abstract thinking, as well as distinguishing their family members from other bees in the hive.
Humans rely on bees for nearly one-third of our food supply. They pollinate some vegan staples like all manner of fruit including apples, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries. Blueberries and cherries are 90 percent dependent on bees; almonds require 100 percent honey bee pollination at bloom time.
According to the Xerces Society, pollinators, including bees, produce nearly 75 percent of crops and roughly 80 percent of all flowering plants for an annual monetary contribution in the U.S. of more than $24 billion. In other words, without bees, manual pollination would be prohibitive. A single apple could wind up costing as much as a pair of shoes.
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,” the Xerces Society notes. “Pollinators keep plant communities healthy and productive. Around 80 percent of Earth’s flowering plants depend upon pollinators for reproduction. A nature walk or stroll through a garden would be a very different experience without pollinators.”
Colony Collapse Disorder
Bee populations are facing grave danger as a condition called Colony Collapse Disorder has taken a toll on colonies around the world. The condition causes bees to become disoriented, abandon their hives, and die.
The exact cause of CCD isn’t clear, but leading experts link the disorder to pesticide exposure — a risk so significant, that in 2018 the EU banned a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. The most widely used class of insecticide, neonicotinoids have long been linked to bee fatalities. Evidence suggests neonics may harm developing baby bee brains, weaken immune systems, and render bees incapable of flying.
According to a 2019 report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation, there is a “rapidly growing body of evidence” that links neonicotinoids to environmental contamination and “large-scale adverse effects on bees and other beneficial insects”.
Bees feed on pollen, but honey is their single source of food during poorer weather and winter months. Honey contains essential nutrients for bee survival.
In order to fill their stomachs, honey bees will visit up to 1,500 flowers to collect enough nectar. When returning to the hive, the bee, along with other ‘house bees’, will regurgitate and chew the nectar, in a process that results in honey.
Each bee produces just a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in his/her lifetime – and every ounce is fundamental to the hive.
It takes the pollination of two million flowers to produce a single pounds of honey.
Farmers are known to replace the honey they remove from a hive with a sugar substitute, which is damaging to the bees’ health. The cheap sugar replacer lacks the nutrients, fats, and vitamins in honey.
This practice prompts honey bees to overwork themselves to replace the missing honey.
During the removal of the honey, many bees die after stinging the farmers.
Another common practice is culling entire hives after harvesting the honey, in a bid to keep costs down. They often destroy the hives using cyanide gas.
Bees are also killed or have their wings and legs torn off by haphazard handling.
Beekeepers will clip the queen bee’s wings to prevent her from leaving the hive and producing a new colony elsewhere. That would slash productivity and profit. Queen bees are also often artificially inseminated.
Honey bees are bred in order to increase productivity. However, breeding sometimes involves the import of different species of bees in a hive – which increases the susceptibility to disease and large-scale die-offs.
Vegan Honey Alternatives
Honey can be easily replaced with vegan alternatives that are just as sweet and versatile.
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.
The sweet syrup from the agave cactus, agave nectar has a neutral flavor and works like honey in recipes. It’s also the perfect way to sweeten a cup of tea.
Tapped from maple trees, this sap is a sweet lover’s delight. Don’t buy the processed stuff, though. Stick with pure Grade A maple syrup for an absolutely delicious treat. Bake with it, top your pancakes with it, or add it to your favorite marinades for sweet perfection.
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.
Like brown rice syrup, barley malt is the concentrated sweetener from whole grain barley. It’s great in baked goods, too.
Sorghum syrup is made from the grassy sorghum plant and resembles molasses. It can be used to add sweetness to baked goods.
Concentrated fruit syrups can work as honey substitutes in baking recipes or even mixed with maple for a sweet topping to your pancakes, waffles, or French toast.
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.