Is honey vegan and is it ethical? The not-so-sweet truth

Bees are very social and cooperative insects. They have a unique and complex form of communication based on sight, movement and smell that even scientists don’t fully understand.

Bees communicate with each other through intricate “dance” movements. And research has shown that they are able to think abstractly and distinguish their relatives from other bees in the hive.

But bees are perhaps best known for their honey.

Nature’s sweet sauce has unique properties. It’s in everything from pastries to cheese to tea (it was even once used as an ingredient in embalming fluid). Honey is linked to numerous 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.” 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?

Adobe Stock Bees collect nectar to make honey

Bees feed on pollen and nectar, but honey is their only food source during the winter months. Alison Benjamin is the co-author of A world without bees and Good Bee: a feast of bees and how to save them. She explains, “If 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 kept (literally) in the beehive for a rainy day. “Nectar are the carbohydrates that fuel their flight. Pollen provides the protein they give to their larvae so that they can develop into strong, healthy adult bees,” explains Benjamin.

A honeybee will visit up to 1500 flowers to collect enough nectar to fill their stomachs. When the bee returns to the hive, it vomits and chews the nectar, changing it from complex to simple sugars.

This process is repeated thousands of times throughout the spring and summer. Yet a single bee produces only a twelfth teaspoon of honey in its lifetime — and each ounce is “fundamental” to their hive, according to The Vegan Society. (Notably, the pollination of two million flowers — and about 55,000 miles of bee flights — to produce a single pound of honey.)

“It’s not an individual bee that feeds the honey, but the colony — consisting 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 done by bees also benefit the ecosystem.

“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 fruit, which is why they are so important to agriculture and the ecosystem, Benjamin says.

“They pollinate one in every three bites 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 trap carbon in the atmosphere.”

A bee collecting pollen from some purple flowers outside
Kosolovskyi Vasyl / Adobe Stock Bees pollinate about a third of all food in the world

Indeed, bees pollinate all fruits, including apples, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries. Blueberries and cherries are 90 percent dependent on bees, and almonds require 100 percent pollination by honeybees during bloom.

This is a controversial topic in itself; millions of honeybees are transported across the US to pollinate almond trees, according to Scientific American. The same practices are used to pollinate avocados.

Benjamin warns that forcing bees to collect pollen nectar from “expanses of a single crop deprives them of the much more diverse and nutritious diet provided by wild habitats.” Transferring the animals “constantly boomerang honeybees between times of plenty and borderline hunger,” she notes.

A world without bees

It’s not just our food; pollinators play a vital role everywhere we look. “When we look at the benefit pollinators have for our natural world, the numbers are staggering,” claims the Xerces Society, a nonprofit environmental organization. “Pollinators keep plant communities healthy and productive…A nature walk or a 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. “People depend on plants and plants depend on pollinators,” Brunet says. “A balance must be maintained to sustain life on Earth and protect human survival and health.”

Why is the bee population declining?

Tractor sprays pesticides on crops on a farm
Adobe Stock Insecticides poison millions of pollinating insects, such as bees every year

According to Statista, there are more than 20,000 species of bees and more than 90 million beehives around the world. But bee populations are dwindling.

Of the 2,000 wild bee species in Europe, one in ten is threatened with extinction, according to The Soil Association. And globally, an estimated one in six bee species is regionally extinct, while more than 40 percent are vulnerable to extinction.

Pesticides are one of the factors driving this decline; the neonicotinoid insecticide is believed to be the main cause of declining bee populations. In fact, research shows that the chemical can now be found in honey itself.

Mass bee deaths

While researching for her book, Benjamin discovered that millions of honeybees had died from pesticides, parasites, and poor nutrition. This is partly due to the intensive farming methods used by humans. “In the US, large-scale beekeepers regularly report that at least a third of their colonies die each year,” notes Benjamin.

“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 doesn’t provide them with a healthy diet, so this will help them.” make you weak again.”

Often beekeepers replace the honey they get from a beehive with a sugar substitute. This practice prompts honeybees to overload themselves to replace the missing honey. Meanwhile, the sugar substitute lacks the nutrients, fats and vitamins in honey that bees need to be healthy.

Is honey production cruel?

PETA UK president Elisa Allen claims the honey industry is “misusing bees for profit”.

“They are genetically manipulated, their hives are fumigated and their wings and legs are torn off as they are pushed out of the way, all so that people can steal their honey – which is their fuel and their life’s work and is rightfully theirs, not theirs.” us,” Allen says.

“Many beekeepers use inhumane methods to ensure their own safety and meet production quotas, including cutting off the queen bee’s wings so she cannot leave the colony and killing drones to extract sperm to inseminate the queen.”

Honeybees swarm around a queen bee in a hive
Michal Bednarek / Adobe Stock Many bees are mistreated or killed in the honey industry

Royal jelly, also called “bee milk”, is a substance similar to gelatin used in cosmetics. It is harvested from the glands of queen bees. Benjamin says this is the “most cruelly produced” product, as it can only be produced on an industrial scale by bees “treated purely like royal jelly machines.”

11 vegan substitutes for honey

There are many natural honey substitutes. You can also buy vegan honey products online. Read on for 11 honey swaps that are bee-free but just as sweet as the real thing.

1. Maple syrup

This sap, drawn from maple trees, is a delight for those with a sweet tooth. Bake with it, top your pancakes, or add it to your favorite marinades for sweet perfection.

There are plenty of options available online, such as Kirkland Signature’s Canadian Maple Syrup or Buckwud’s Organic Maple Syrup.

2. Nectar of agave

Agave nectar comes from agave plants, which are succulents native to Mexico. It has a neutral taste 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 variety of agave nectars, with flavors such as 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 on top of pancakes, but use it just like 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 of whole grain barley. It’s also great in baked goods.

5. coconut nectar

A tray with vegan coconut oil flapjacks
The Coconut Company Coconut flapjacks made from coconut nectar

This nectar comes from the sap of coconut trees. Minimally processed, it is generally considered purer than syrups made from coconut sugar. Here you will find coconut nectar made by The Coconut Company.

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

6. date syrup

Dates are often used in pies and sweet treats. In addition, they can be made into syrup by soaking, boiling and straining. Biona makes an organic date syrup, or try making your own using Lazy Cat Kitchen’s recipe.

7. Syrup

Molasses, a naturally rich source of plant iron, is extremely sweet. It also has a strong bite, which makes the taste distinctive. Use it in your favorite baking recipes, but ideally halve it with another more neutral sweetener such as 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 honey

A hand holds a jar of Plant Based Artisan Vegan Honea, over a bowl of blueberries
Vegan honey is an alternative that often contains prebiotics, which can help improve gut health

Honea is often made from natural flavors such as 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 on your pancakes, waffles or French toast.

11. raw sugar

Swapping out liquid honey with raw sugar in baked goods takes some finesse, but it can be done. Usually all you need to do is increase your liquid contents.

Check out more ways to help protect bees here.

This article was originally published on April 2, 2021. It was last updated on September 3, 2022.

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