Is Honey Vegan?

There is some confusion among vegans as to whether the products of bees are off-limits or not. Some vegans say they are okay, some say they are not, and still others say it is a personal choice. This lack of consistency can cause problems when vegans wish to go shopping or eat with friends.

Rochelle is one of the founders of the highly successful electronic Vegan Fitness site, a support group for vegans worldwide who want to learn about staying fit on a vegetarian diet.[1] On a recent visit to Finland, She was surprised by how many Finnish vegans opt to eat bee-derived ingredients. “The honey issue makes things a little difficult sometimes in social situations,” said Rochelle. She believes strongly in letting the bees keep their own products.

The folks at Tom’s of Maine, a manufacturer of natural hygiene products, claim their products contain no animal ingredients even though they use beeswax in their dental floss and propolis — created by bees from tree sap to repair and maintain their hive — in some of their toothpastes. According to company publications, “Both the beeswax and propolis are bee products. These ingredients are removed from the hive and neither the bees nor the hive are harmed in any way during the process. While some people do consider these ingredients to be animal derivates, others do not.”[2] Why the uncertainty as to whether a bee derivative is, in fact, an animal derivative?

Vegan is a term that was coined in 1944 by a group of British activists who broke off from the Vegetarian Society to form the Vegan Society. Elsie Shrigley and Donald Watson created the term vegan by taking the first three and last two letters of the word vegetarian. As Watson said, “Veganism starts with vegetarianism and takes it to its logical conclusion.”

According to the Vegan Society, veganism is a lifestyle that abstains from causing any form of exploitation or cruelty to animals. In practice this means adopting a plant-based diet free of all animal products, including meat, dairy, eggs and honey. That means, according to those who coined the term, honey and all other bee products by definition are not vegan.

Vegans are among the most likely consumers to seek out products that claim to be free of animal ingredients. Honey, along with all other animal derived ingredients, has always been excluded from the vegan lifestyle. It appears that Tom’s of Maine and other companies with similar policies are substituting their judgment for that of the vegan consumer.

Honeybees, like other animals, have a complex central nervous system, which means they are able to experience pain and suffering. At peak honey-production time in 2003, an estimated 155 billion bees, from 2.59 million colonies, were exploited in the U.S. to produce honey for human consumption.[3] Honey, beeswax, bee pollen, royal jelly, propolis and venom are taken from bees for human uses. In the process of acquiring these, beekeepers regularly disturb the bees’ homes by removing the honeycombs from the hive. When this is done some bees will inevitable be injured or crushed, and any bees who sting the beekeepers will also die.

Honey is usually taken from the hive in the spring and fall. In the fall, beekeepers replace honey with white sugar syrup — a poor substitute for the bees’ natural food supply — or kill off the colonies to avoid maintaining the hives throughout the winter.

In a natural environment the queen honeybee would control the hive by choosing the hive’s location and by the number of eggs she produces. In a commercial bee operation the beekeeper manipulates the queen to keep honey production high. Queen honeybees are artificially inseminated after sperm is collected from a male bee by crushing his head and thorax, which forces the release of sperm by turning the bee inside out.[4] Sperm from several males is collected in a syringe that will later be used to inseminate the queen.

Queen honeybees have a natural lifespan of five years but most will be killed every one to two years.[5] Many beekeepers will clip the queens wings or put her in a cage called a “queen excluder” to keep her from flying away and taking the hive with her.

Instead of Honey

Bee products are not necessary and alternatives can be easy to find. One of the best alternatives to honey is agave nectar. Agave nectar comes from the blue agava plant and tastes much like honey. Organic agave nectar is available from Sweet Cactus Farms.[6]

Footnotes

  1. See www.veganfitness.net.
  2. Tom’s of Maine, “Frequently Asked Questions,” http://www.tomsofmaine.com/faq/# OCF2 (June 23, 2004).
  3. 155 billion was calculated by Joan Dunayer using information from the National Agricultural Statistics Services, Honey, February 2004. http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/reports/nassr/other/zho-bb/
  4. Noah Lewis, “Artificial Insemination of Queen Honeybees,” Bee Equality: A dialogue on why honey is not vegan, http://www.vegetus.org/honey/art.htm (June 22, 2004).
  5. H. Shimanuki and W. Sheppard, “Beekeeping,” Encyclopedia of Food Science and Technology, Ed. Y.H. Hui. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1992. Quoted by Noah Lewis, “Why Honey is Not Vegan,” Bee Equality: A dialogue on why honey is not vegan. http://www.vegetus.org/honey/honey.htm (June 22, 2004).
  6. See www.sweetcactusfarms.com, Sweet Cactus Farms can be contacted at (310) 733-4343 or agave@sweetcactusfarms.com.

(A version of article was first published in Act•ionline, Fall 2004)