Is Beeswax Vegan? Bee Exploitation and Debate in the Vegan Community

While beeswax isn’t technically vegan, some say it's okay to use.

Hurling honey from bee wagons
Bees produce two substances: honey and beeswax.

Tomekbudujedomek / Getty Images

Beeswax is an all-natural substance produced by honey bees. Bees use wax to build their hives, provide storage for their honey, and house their young. Beeswax is harvested alongside its co-product honey—one of the most divisive foods in the vegan community. 

As an animal product, beeswax isn’t vegan, but some vegans choose to use what they consider ethically harvested beeswax. Complicating matters further is the relationship between bees and 15-30% of the world’s food supply, calling into question the very meaning of the word vegan. 

Learn more about beeswax, the ethics surrounding beekeeping, and the vegan alternatives available.

What Is Beeswax?

Honey bees produce two things: honey and beeswax. Bees rely on honey as their primary food source and as protection against both natural pathogens and pesticides. They store their precious cargo in beeswax. This naturally produced hive construction material is secreted from four pairs of glands in the lower abdominal segments of young female worker bees.

These 12- to 18-day-old bees gather together to heat the hive to around 95 degrees F (34 degrees C), at which point they begin excreting clear wax scales that turn solid when they make contact with the air. The bees chew the wax with a bit of pollen and propolis, turning it into the familiar yellow-colored beeswax. They then shape it with their mandibles into hexagonal cells, commonly known as honeycomb or comb wax. 

The wax serves as the home for the bee’s winter food supply (honey and pollen) as well as the bee brood (larvae and pupae). Once filled with honey, each cell receives a beeswax cap to keep its contents safe. 

Industrial beekeepers harvest beeswax along with honey, scraping any excess wax from the frame surrounding the honeycomb. Then they use a hot, blunt knife to scrape off the cap and top part of the honeycomb, preparing the frame for honey extraction. 

The wax is then cleaned, purified, and used in a variety of products, ranging from candles to cosmetics.

Why Many Vegans Abstain From Beeswax

Most vegans don’t consume or use products made from animals, and beeswax inarguably comes from small animals. For the same reasons that these vegans do not consume honey, they abstain from beeswax in everything from musical instruments to pharmaceuticals. 

These vegans argue that beeswax, as a co-product of honey, is a form of animal exploitation. Although much smaller, bees are not different from other animals who function as part of the commercial marketplace. Bees pollinate nearly one-third of U.S. edible crops and annually produce over 150 million pounds of honey.

Science supports the argument that small animal agriculture harms bees: Research shows that the commercial migratory process causes oxidative stress and shortens their life spans. Additionally, hives of tens of thousands of bees can be culled (meaning exterminated) if they are infected with disease or if keeping the hives alive during winter is too expensive.

What Is Ethical Beeswax?

Some vegans look at bee agriculture with the spirit of veganism in mind. If vegans abstained from all forms of bee labor, their plant-based diets would look quite different: no almonds, avocados, apples, pears, cucumbers, melons, green beans, not to mention oilseed crops like sunflower, soy, cottonseed, peanut, and rapeseed. Because of this inextricable relationship, some vegans see honey and beeswax purchased from small "backyard" apiaries as aligned with vegan values while not meeting the technical definition of vegan.

There is no honey without beeswax, and even in the most careful removal of the honeycomb, bees can be injured or killed. However, some vegans feel that drawing the line at bee byproducts misses the bigger point of veganism. Moreover, folks interested in veganism often find the distinction over bee byproducts too demanding and not universally applied, turning them away from the lifestyle. 

Unfortunately, the beeswax yields from small local bee farms are equally small, making the overwhelming majority of beeswax a product of industrial beekeeping. 

Did You Know?

Bees came to the forefront of the food conversation in 2006 when Colony Collapse Disorder suddenly killed off around 30% of managed honeybee colonies. Researchers investigated the various causes for such losses and found that a combination of pesticides, parasites and viruses, stress, poor nutrition, overcrowding, and poor water supply created the perfect storm.

Products to Avoid That Include Beeswax

A table covered in beeswax candles for sale.
Beeswax candles are a popular substitute for fossil fuel-based candles.

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For centuries, humans have used beeswax in a variety of applications

Art

From oil paint to encaustics, from sculpture to metal engraving, beeswax is a common substance in the art world. Its melting and molding properties make it ideal for casting, shaping, and waterproofing.

Candles

Often lauded as an eco-alternative to petroleum-based candles, beeswax candles slowly and smokelessly. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has used beeswax candles exclusively.

Cosmetics

Because of its low melting point, beeswax is a common additive in creams, lotions, conditioners, makeup, and deodorants. It acts as an emollient and emulsifier, making the products softer and more blended. 

Pharmaceuticals

Prized for its antibacterial qualities, beeswax is an ancient salve and ointment. Today, pharmaceuticals use beeswax as a binding or time-release agent in certain medications.

Processed Foods

A preservative and anti-sticking agent, beeswax appears in baked goods and other confections. You can typically find it in the coating of candies and licorice.

Vegan Alternatives to Beeswax

Organic Carnauba Wax in Chemical Watch Glass and broadleaf lady palm leaves on white laboratory table.
Plant-based carnauba wax makes a great vegan alternative to beeswax.

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Readily available beewax alternatives make it easy for vegans to find cruelty-free options.

Candelilla Wax

Candelilla wax comes from a shrub native to the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. Its yellowish-brown color resembles beeswax, but it is slightly denser, more brittle, and harder. With a higher melting point, it also melts slower than beeswax.

Carnauba Wax

More expensive than beeswax, this wax is made from the leaves of the Brazilian Carnauba palm tree. Because of its hardness and glossy quality, carnauba wax appears in products ranging from hair care to automotive care to make things shine.

Rice Bran Wax 

When rice is milled, the bran is removed from the rice grain. This byproduct can be used as animal feed and also can be made into a vegan wax. Also pale yellow, rice bran is one of the hardest plant waxes and is not sticky to the touch. 

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is beeswax cruelty-free?

    Generally speaking, no. Most beeswax comes from industrial bee farming, where bees are often intentionally and incidentally killed in the wax harvesting process.

  • Is beeswax sustainable?

    When compared to fossil fuel-based waxes like paraffin, beeswax is a much safer and sustainable alternative.

  • Why can’t vegans eat beeswax?

    Vegans generally abstain from consuming or using animal products. Beeswax comes from bees, making it a non-vegan substance.

  • Are bees hurt when making beeswax?

    Making beeswax in the hive does not hurt bees, but many vegans cite that, even in small, non-commercial apiaries, bees can be harmed or killed in the beeswax harvesting process.

View Article Sources
  1. Lidija Svečnjak, et. al. (2019) Standard methods for Apis mellifera beeswax research, Journal of Apicultural Research, 58:2, 1-108, DOI: 10.1080/00218839.2019.1571556