Honey. It has caused a big debate amongst vegans: Is it vegan, or is it not? The answer simply depends on how you define vegan.
Those who define a vegan diet as devoid of animal products may claim that a honeybee is an insect, not an animal, and therefore honey is indeed a vegan product. However, those who believe that a vegan diet is devoid of products that exploit any creatures would argue that an insect should be respected just as much as any other being, and therefore, honey is not vegan. I fall into that latter camp because, although I don’t get the warm-fuzzies for insects, I don’t think I should respect their life any less. So, I don’t think honey is vegan, but it doesn’t mean I’m right.
I don’t want to try to decide here whether honey is vegan because I think you need to decide for yourself how you define “vegan.” However, I do want to shed some light on honeybees, as I knew nothing about them until recently, and expect many of you don’t either. It might help you make a decision about whether you want to eat honey.
Why are honeybees so important?
Bees are essential to humans because they pollinate the flowers of fruit trees. Without pollinated flowers, there is no fruit on most fruit trees. So, without bees, we have little or no fruit.
About 1/3 of all U.S. crops depend on bees to pollinate them, and many plants on the endangered species list are endangered specifically because they are not getting pollinated. Why are there plants not getting pollinated?
The vanishing of the bees
Because the bee population has been dying off quickly and dramatically. Bee colonies managed in the US have dropped by half since 1945, and much of this has happened in the past 5 years or so. While the cause of these deaths was a mystery for many years (some theorized it was due to cell phone emissions, viruses, and other causes) it is now widely believed in the beekeeping industry that this massive decline is due to use of specific pesticides.
Beekeepers do not make most of their money from honey
Because bee populations are now so rare, and because huge industrial-sized farms have thousands of acres of crops that desperately need to be pollinated, beekeepers literally truck their bees across the country and “rent” their bees out for a few months at a time to farmers. This is where they make the majority of their money. A beekeeper in Florida might truck his hives to California to pollinate an avocado farm, then a few months later drive to Washington to pollinate an apple orchard, and then a few months later drive to Maine to pollinate a cranberry farm.
This practice of moving bees from state to state, climate to climate, is not natural for them. It also involves a lot of energy to raise bees and truck them all over the country … not a very good carbon footprint.
some beekeepers clip the wings of the queen bee to prevent her and her colony from swarming. Is this a cruelty-free practice?
Is honey cruelty-free?
Here are two more points for thought: The bees’ honey, which in nature is made by bees for bees, is taken from them to be sold to humans, and they are given a form of sugar-water to eat instead. I don’t know if this is bad for them, but I can only imagine that their own honey is the absolute best thing for their health … just like mother’s milk is better for a baby than formula. Furthermore, some beekeepers clip the wings of the queen bee to prevent her and her colony from swarming. Is this a cruelty-free practice?
Is honey good for you?
On the flip side, I will say that my friend Steve Blake, Doctor of Holistic Health in Nutritional Biochemistry and author of 29 health books, says that honey is actually healthy in small quantities – something rare for a non-vegan food. He says, “Honey is unusual in that it is a healthful non-vegan food. Raw, unfiltered honey contains propolis, which is a powerful antimicrobial. The pollen in unfiltered honey is also very nutritious and energizing.” However, Steve does not eat honey as a vegan, because he says, “flower pollen is available directly, without bothering any bees.”
Using bees for our personal benefit: Is honey cruelty-free?
I don’t want to get bogged down in ethics of insects.
If you think about it, you probably kill a good number of insects on your windshield while driving to the store to get your honey. And it’s been pointed out by many people that if a vegan staunchly says we cannot kill insects, then does that mean that vegans cannot eat conventional (non-organic) produce? Conventional produce is covered in pesticides, whose main purpose is, of course … to kill insects. So a vegan who is staunch about killing insects had better make sure that 100% of their produce comes from organic sources.
But I will say this about vegan ethics: think it through, and decide what is right for you. For me, being vegan is about doing my best to respect the lives of other creatures. Therefore, I do my absolute best (even though it may not be perfect) to avoid doing things that put another creature in harm’s way for my own benefit, whether that means death or suffering or being forced into unnatural conditions. Therefore, do I eat honey? No – there are other alternatives I can use to sweeten my foods that don’t involve harming other creatures. But I do believe in supporting bees and I never kill them when they are on my property. I also believe that it is a good idea for people with fruit trees on their property to either bring in a hive or help current hives flourish on their property. The bees definitely need our support – I just personally don’t think that needs to be through eating their honey.
For more information, I highly recommend the documentary, Vanishing of the Bees(see trailer video above).
Sarah Taylor is the author of Vegan in 30 Days, and runs the popular blog "The Vegan Next Door".
She has a certificate in Plant Based Nutrition from Cornell University, is on faculty at Joel Fuhrman's Nutritional Education Institute, and has been featured on many television and radio shows internationally.
Her next book, Vegetarian to Vegan, will be available in 2012.