A Conversation on 'Why Honey is Not Vegan'

The "Why Honey is Not Vegan" site is the most popular and authoritative online resource for veganism and honey bees. The site is the first result on Google when searching for "vegan" and "honey," and has been sited in multiple books, including the American Dietetics Associations' book on sports nutrition. With the help of Kickstarter, a new fundraising website, a project has been started to save the "Why Honey is Not Vegan" site and give it a complete overhaul.

I first learned about the website in Spring 1999 when my new girlfriend at the time brought printouts of the site – printed out at her office on honey colored paper – to a weekly activist meeting. I later first contacted the author of the site in 2004 when I was doing research for an article that asked, "Is Honey Vegan?" – my first official assignment as the newly hired staff writer for a national nonprofit corporation. Two year later I meet the author, Noah Lewis, when he came to work for the same nonprofit. We have worked closely ever since – including leaving the nonprofit we worked for with in hours of each other because we had views regarding the role and importance of anti-racism that were not shared by management. We've since gone on to work together and separately on a number of projects on a range of social justice issues. To say that the "Why Honey is Not Vegan" site has had an influence on the last ten years of my life would be an understatement.

I sat down last night with Noah to discuss the site and what can be done to help keep it alive.

Ida: What inspired you to write the "Why Honey is Not Vegan" website?

Noah: Well, that was quite a long time ago – a dozen years – so it's hard to say exactly. I remember being on the VEGAN-L, I think that was my main link to a vegan community. Some people seemed to be confused about the honey issue. To me it was simple, bees are animals, vegans don't eat animal products. The first page I produced was much more rant-y than what is up there now.

But I love to do research, so I just went and researched everything I could find about bees and honey. I was shocked at what I learned. So I just put it all up there.

Ida: That's sort of how I was. Before I came across "Why Honey is Not Vegan," I too just believed that bees are animals and vegans don't eat animal products, therefore vegans don't eat honey. But your site goes so much more into all the various aspects of exploitation of bees, it really gives you a fuller understanding of why it's more of a political issue rather than what detractors call "dogma." How did your understanding of honey and veganism change as you wrote the site?

Noah: Well, I just became more horrified. It became increasingly clear that the exploitation of bees was no different than any other form of animal exploitation. They have all the same elements like reproductive control, genetic manipulation, the stealing, obviously. So many people view beekeeping as benign, but I think that can only be the case because bees are insects. I get comments from people saying that bees aren't animals – they're insects! Um, yes, and insects are animals. The most numerous type of animals, in fact.

Ida: I remember reading an article by Vegan Outreach that attempts to cast doubt on whether bees and other insects are, in fact, animals. They quote the 3rd edition of the textbook Biology, by Neil Campbell, et. al., which says, "Constructing a good definition of animals is not as easy as it might first appear. There are exceptions to nearly every criterion for distinguishing an animal from other life forms." When I read this I pulled out my own copy of Biology, which was the new 5th edition, and if you read past the first two lines quoted by VO, a list of criterion for animals is given that clearly includes bees and other insects. I think "Why Honey is Not Vegan" gives an in-depth counter to this sort of blatant Apiphobia or anti-bee bias among some self-identified "vegan" activists. What role do you see the site playing in this controversy?

Noah: When I started the site, I had been vegan less than a year. I was a little nervous about putting the site up. It was in the form of an argument to vegans who ate honey, trying to convince them not to eat honey. When I revise the site, I am going to be much more clear about the fact that veganism is opposed to the exploitation of bees – if an individual who considers themself vegan eats honey, that is their choice, but it doesn't change the fact that veganism as a movement is opposed to beekeeping. I understand now that the first vegans, starting with Donald Watson, were much more radical than some people who call themselves vegan today. The watering down of veganism is due to speciesist pressure from the status quo. Yes, some vegans are embarrassed by the fact that they do not eat honey. By giving people solid information about beekeeping, I hope that they can feel better about their choice and be better able to explain that decision to others.

Ida: There seems to be an effort to shame or guilt vegans who stand against the exploitation of bees into submission. For instance, Michael Greger says opposing the exploitation of bees furthers the exploitation of other land and aquatic animals. "All because honey hurts our movement," he says. The subtext is that we should further marginalize the exploitation of bees because most people are too speciesist to take insects seriously. So it does seem to be an argument for giving into the status quo as you said. Do you see this as a slippery slope?

Noah: I see my page on bees as akin to when other social justice movements focus on the most marginalized groups. If we don't speak up for bees now, when are we going to, exactly? In other social justice movements, the more privileged groups are always blaming the more marginalized groups, saying that they're holding back the movement. The LGBT movement exemplifies this, where wealthy white suburban gays and lesbians are embarrassed by flamboyant pride parades and don't understand what the T has to do with the LGB.

Ida: You mean like when openly gay U.S. Representative Barney Frank supported the non-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act and told transgender people we'll have to wait?

Noah: Exactly. I had the opportunity to confront Sen. Frank about that at the time. He did not say this, but what I took away from the conversation was that transgender people had not been visible enough to generate enough political support. That may be true, but it's a Catch-22 since there are enormous costs to being visible...like getting fired! That is exactly why non-trans allies need to be adamant about trans inclusion even if there is a perceived short-term cost to their own liberation. Plenty of cisgender LGB people did take that stand and also had enough sense to recognize that they are oppressed on the basis of gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation.

Ida: So you are making a connection here, saying that advocacy that is inclusive of the most marginalized will strengthen the long-term aims of the movement. After all, people who harbor homophobic attitudes are not likely to be any less homophobic if trans people are excluded. Isn't this just a divide and rule approach?

Noah: Yes, exactly. It's placing the blame on the marginalized group rather than the oppressors. And it's the same thing here. Non-vegans are always going to backlash when they meet a vegan because our very existence is calling into question their dietary choices. If vegans did eat honey, non-vegans would jump on our "inconsistency" as a way to dismiss us. It's not about the bees. It's about veganism in general.

If we want to be allies to animals, we have to overcome our internalized speciesism. We have to de-program the false messages we have been taught about other animals. We have to educate ourselves and surround ourselves with positive, non-speciesist ideas and images of other animals. For me, learning about honey bees was an important aspect of increasing my respect for them. If all we know about bees is the stereotypical image that "they make honey for us," it's easy to dismiss them.

Ida: And you've really done a lot of work to bring knowledge about bees to the vegan community. What are some of the things we can expect in the revised edition of the site?

Noah: Well, I'm most embarrassed about the fact that the site doesn't discuss colony collapse disorder, so that's the #1 priority. I talk about pollination now, but I always wanted to make that section more clear. I want to make the connections between beekeeping, the USDA, monocropping, chemical agriculture and so on. To me the issue is really clear, but people, even vegans, don't have enough information to counter the dominant rhetoric that beekeepers are the guardians of our food supply. It's actually the exact opposite!

I want to look more in-depth about the role that the importation of honey bees played in the colonization of North America. I want to look at pre-Columbian agriculture – most of the plants we eat were originally cultivated by Native Americans, all without pollination by honey bees.

Ida: How can people support the project of revising and updating the "Why Honey is Not Vegan" webpage?

Noah: Donate money and tell your friends! The site is popular because people always post links to it, so I am hopeful that people will come together to save the site. I've been wanting to update it for years, but it's a daunting prospect to take on in an hour here and there. I created the site by working on it full-time for five to six months, basically. It's not possible to create this kind of high-quality resource for free, so I hope that enough people can chip in and make it happen.

Ida: I hope so as well, it's a great resource and I'm excited that it's going to be revised and expanded. Is there any thing else you'd like to say about the site or this fundraising project?

Noah: Well, so much of the negative feedback I get is just an attack on veganism in general. It was my intention to launch an animal rights site this year with articles and a blog, but I feel funny about doing that with the bees lingering out there in an outdated way. So this project is as much about fixing up something I've started so that I can move on and address the other big issues, the more fundamental issues. Because it's really clear how people operate in different paradigms. How can one feedback comment be a glowing review and the next tell me, to quote from one yesterday, I am "a reactinoary [sic] and a freak." People make the connections themselves. They immediately get that what I'm saying about bees applies to our entire relationship to animals. I have a lot to say about that, and I look forward to doing so once I fix up the bee site.

To support the fundraising effort to save the "Why Honey is Not Vegan" page you can donate via the project's Kickstarter page. You can also spread the word and encourage others to support this important project.

Re: A Conversation on 'Why Honey is Not Vegan'

Hmmm, I see so many vegans on the web that refuse to eat honey but have met few in person who find it practical. Avoiding, yes, but not omitting. Personally, I find the exclusion of honey stressful, and not worrying about bee exploitation helps me avoid burnout (a very serious concern IMO, in a world where nearly everything is built on exploitation of the earth and all of us on it). I know I am privileged to be able to make this choice, etc, but the fact is we can not avoid all exploitation, so we have to pick where we can make the most effects, recognizing it is all intertwined.

A serious question--why is honey not vegan but non-organic produce is? Insecticides kill far more insects and go into our water, affecting wildlife and humans (especially lower income humans). Avoiding "conventionally" grown food is much more important for those concerned with insects or intersectionality.

I should be clear, I'm not against vegans not eating honey. This is great. But why is it part of the exclusion criteria, over bigger issues? We *do* have to pick and choose our battles--again, nearly everything is built on animal exploitation, if you closely examine it--and I don't see why honey is prioritized over other issues that harm animals, including insects, more directly.

Re: A Conversation on 'Why Honey is Not Vegan'

I don't see the big difference between honey and other animal products. I've also experienced people that usually is vegan but is not consistent when it comes to honey. The same applies to wool. The reason I expect is that most animal advocacy is welfarist oriented and focus on fur and the most human-like victims (the low-hanging fruites). Avoiding honey has never been a problem for me.

Your question is, I asume, not specific relevant to honey, but is something like this: "why is it [nonvegan] part of the exclusion criteria, over bigger issues?". As you point to, the production of vegan products might also be harmful to animals (whether we include insects or not). I think that is an important question.

Some vegans might shy away from that one. Not without good reasons. Because there are so powerful interests invested in animal exploitation and consumption that eager to justify those practices via "humane" regulations.

We know that animal products comes from animal exploitation, and that the consumption of it increases it. We can be certain of going a long way not supporting that with vegan living. But we can do more. We do support destruction and exploitation only by beeing part of the system we live in. As Watson defined veganisme it is seeking to abandon all use and harming of animals, so that should apply to how the vegan products are prodused too.