Why Honey Isn’t Vegan (with a Few Caveats)

(Image credit: Africa Studio)shutterstock

When I cut meat, eggs, and dairy out of my diet three years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by how open-minded my friends and dining partners were about the change — with one exception. “You still eat honey, don’t you?” they’d ask, with a let’s-bee-real eye roll. Onerous dietary restrictions are one thing, they reasoned, but sympathy for the insect kingdom is a different proposition than compassion for the animals. I agreed, and still do.

But the honey question presents a real conundrum for vegans and, in fact, anyone with an interest in responsible, sustainable agriculture, crop diversity and availability, and the stable functioning of a food economy. Can a vegan eat honey and still tote around that V-card? Let’s look at the facts.

Honey is by no means a straightforward issue. On the one hand, honey may be the “greenest” sweetener, which should make everyone happy. Knowing your beekeeper makes it much easier to purchase honey without the guilt. Pollination is a pretty crucial part of growing plants — the foundation of a vegan diet — and supporting a healthy population of bees helps keep an agricultural system in balance.

But there are also reasons to abstain from honey. Here are three.

3 Reasons Vegans Say “No” to Honey

1. Colony Collapse Disorder

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the mysterious phenomenon that’s plaguing bee colonies, is when a hive of worker bees abandons its queen, the younger bees, and all but a few nurse bees to care for the stragglers. According to the EPA, roughly 60 percent of the beehives lost in the U.S. in 2008 were victims of CCD, and the disorder continues to threaten the future of pollination on an industrial scale and otherwise.

Pesticides, fungi, parasites, and other environmental factors may be partly to blame for CCD, but conditions specific to modern honeybee farming — among them, transportation to and from various locations, artificial habitats for bees, the introduction of antibiotics to the colonies, and poor bee nutrition — are also said to place dangerous levels of stress on the bees.

2. Cruel Farming Practices

A number of methods used by large-scale beekeepers raise vegan eyebrows. These include clipping the wings of the queen bee to keep her in the hive and to prevent swarming; taking honey from the bees and feeding them a corn-syrup substitute instead; pumping the hives full of smoke to stun the bees and make them less aggressive; and inbreeding the bees for productivity, rendering them more susceptible to disease.

Scientists aren’t sure whether and to what degree bees are sentient beings, but they do display an “unexpected dimension of cognition,” according to a report in Scientific American. They also exhibit symptoms of a stress response system that’s comparable to our own — the same response that may partially account for CCD.

3. Honey Is Easy to Avoid

Pretty much anyone who eats American produce — the foundation of a vegan diet— contributes to the pollination industry, which accounts for a staggering $15 billion in increased crop value each year by USDA estimates. 60 percent of all honey bee colonies — approximately 1.4 million in all — are used for almond farming alone.

Honey itself, on the other hand, is easy to avoid. When you weigh the ethical considerations of a spoonful of honey in your afternoon tea, plain old sugar begins to sound pretty sweet — or better yet, agave nectar; stevia; or maple, date, or brown rice syrup. (And aren’t we all eating too much sugar anyway?)

So, What’s a Vegan to Do?

To settle the debate, I spoke with Victoria Moran, the multihyphenate behind the bestselling book Main Street Vegan, a weekly podcast of the same name, and an academy geared towards training vegan lifestyle coaches. But even she saw the ethics of honey as murky territory. “It’s a conundrum,” Moran said wryly. “And I think we don’t like conundrums.”

Moran, a vegan of 32 years, doesn’t eat honey herself, but she draws a distinction between shopping for supermarket honey and picking up a jar from a beekeeper you trust at your local farmers market — ideally someone who uses biodynamic practices, which aim to minimize the stress placed on bees. “If you want to use honey, and if you want to support these people — who may well be the ones to figure out what’s going on with the bees — I don’t see a problem with it,” Moran said.

Some vegans will bristle at Moran’s perspective, which still allows for beekeepers to profit from the labor of their bees. The Vegan Societies of the U.S. and U.K. come down against honey as counter to their definition of veganism, but as Moran sees it, it’s easy to miss the forest for the, erm, bees.

What do you think? Is it okay to eat honey if you’re vegan?