Is Honey Vegan? The Science and Ethics of Small Animal Agriculture

Discover the truth about this controversial food in the vegan community.

Honey in a glass jar with honey dipper on rustic wooden table background. Copy space.
Zakharova_Natalia / Getty Images

Honey stirs up more debate in the vegan community than perhaps any other food. By definition, vegans do not consume animal products. Honey, as a product of bees, does not meet the vegan criteria. But some argue that the ethics of small animals are more complicated than a technical definition. 

Join us as we explore small animal agriculture, the role of bees in crop pollination, and what the vegan-not-vegan buzz is all about.

What Exactly Is Honey?

Honey is the sweet, sticky product of the honey bee. Forager bees gather nectar from flowers and store it in their honey stomachs, where enzymes and proteins break down the sugars. The forager bees return to the hive to regurgitate and transfer the nectar to the younger hive bees who complete the conversion into honey. 

The hive bees then regurgitate the newly-made honey into cells of the honeycomb. They dry the honey with their wings and seal it with beeswax. This two-step process converts the nectar, which would otherwise ferment, into honey. Unlike nectar, honey doesn't spoil, ensuring the bees have plenty of food during winter.

Why Vegans Don’t Eat Honey

Like large animal agriculture, bees are bred, bought, and sold. While bees are not eventually slaughtered like cows or chickens in the case of dairy or eggs, the vegan perspective is that bees' labor in the production of honey is animal exploitation.

In one comprehensive study on the impacts of commercial migration and the health of bees, researchers found that these adult bees lived shorter lives and showed signs of oxidative stress (physiological stress measurable at a cellular level) when shipped across the country for pollination of crops and collection of honey. 

Additionally, both incidental and intentional bee deaths occur in commercial beekeeping. Even in the most gentle removal of the honeycombs, bees can get crushed or injured. Hives ranging in size from 10,000 to 100,000 bees can become infected with a disease and be culled to prevent further spread.

Culling lower-quality queen bees benefits the reproduction of high-quality queens, and in commercial beekeeping, reproduction is crucial to the bottom line. Sometimes entire hives will be culled in winter to keep costs down as it’s less expensive to start with new bees each season than it is to maintain the hives during colder months. 

Colony Collapse Disorder

Vegans are also concerned with declining bee populations. Around 2006, bees started dying off in droves for no apparent reason—what’s known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). Researchers later determined that the bees’ immunity had been compromised because commercial farmers had been replacing the harvested honey with industrially-processed corn syrup.

Without the naturally occurring compounds in honey that protect bees from both pesticides and pathogens, the bees were rendered helpless to these environmental factors. CCD not only adversely affects the welfare of the bees because of their crucial role as pollinators in monoculture farming, but it could also potentially disrupt large portions of the food chain—all because of the exploitation of bees.

Bees and Other Food Production

Bees are required to pollinate a mind-boggling 15-30% of the human food supply. Consider California’s almond production alone: Millions of bees are transported there each year to pollinate almond trees before being trucked across the country to other cropping systems. Without sustainable small animal agriculture, your plant-based diet would look substantially different.

Why Some Vegans Choose to Eat Honey

Some people believe that, given the inextricable relationship between bees and many plant-based foods, eating honey does indeed align with vegan values. This group argues that abstaining from honey for animal rights reasons implies that vegans also should not eat crops like almonds and avocados, which wouldn’t exist in their commercial form without the labor of bees.

With this comes the consideration of other species harmed in agricultural practices. Any number of small animals are killed during crop tilling and harvesting, so much so that the FDA sets acceptable levels of insect and rodent remains in these otherwise vegan foods. Produce grown using pesticides also include the killing of insects for non-vegan food. In addition, there are a number of small animals killed during transportation, both from the farm to your table and from your car to the store.

In other words, it's difficult to know exactly what creatures may have been collateral damage in your latest plant-based meal. For some, that’s reason enough to include honey.

A similar perspective is that concern over honey makes veganism seem like an impossible standard to maintain, pushing away people who would otherwise be curious about the lifestyle. Some even argue that the honey debate distracts from the bigger animal rights arguments at hand.

Is There Such a Thing as Vegan Honey?

Honey alternatives avoid the use of bees, with some products taking on the label of vegan honey. But can honey that is produced by bees ever be vegan?

Locally grown wild honey from a beekeeper—though technically not vegan—presents a gentler alternative for many plant-based eaters who take umbrage with the commercialization of bees. For many ethical beekeepers, the harvest only happens in spring after the bees have already eaten what they needed during winter.

The small-scale honey industry not only provides bees natural immunity by leaving the honey intact; it also helps promote biodiversity among wild bees and helps restore the bee population devastated by CCD.

Honey Alternatives

Maple syrup in a maple leaf shaped bottle, on a wooden table with handwritten tag/Canada
Veena Nair / Getty Images

Natural sweetness comes in many forms, including these alternatives to honey.

Agave Nectar 

Made from the concentrated juice of the blue agave plant, agave nectar provides a more neutral sweetness compared to the floral sweetness of honey. Many grocery stores will carry agave in the baking aisle with the other sweeteners. If it’s not there, check the natural foods section. Agave tends to be slightly sweeter than honey, so use just under a one-to-one substitution for optimal taste. 

Brown Rice Syrup

This alternative to honey is produced by adding enzymes to cooked brown rice. The resulting liquid is then reduced into a thick and sticky syrup. With a mild, nutty flavor and half the sweetness of sugar, brown rice syrup has a similar color and texture to the more familiar corn syrup. Find brown rice syrup in the baking or natural foods aisles.

Molasses

Molasses is the thick and sticky liquid remaining after the sugar refining process. Perhaps the richest flavored of all the honey alternatives, molasses is both sweet and smoky with hints of maple, ginger, and vanilla. Look for it in the baking aisle or in the breakfast aisle next to the maple syrup.

Maple Syrup

The concentrated sap of the maple tree, maple syrup has a woodsy flavor that reflects its arboreal origins. With hints of caramel and vanilla, it’s equally as sweet as honey and perhaps even stickier. Find it in most grocery stores in the breakfast aisle.

Vegan Honey

Like vegan meats, vegan varieties of honey have appeared on the market. Two companies still standing are the Vegan Honey Company, which makes honey from plants without bees, and Suzanne’s Specialties: Just-Like-Honey Jar, made from a blend of natural sweeteners.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is honey an animal product?

    Yes, honey is a product of bees. Forager bees gather nectar from flowers, break down the sugars, and return to the hive to regurgitate and transfer the nectar to the younger hive bees, who then complete the conversion into honey. 

  • Why is honey not vegan?

    Bees are animals, and honey is a by-product of bees. As an animal-derived food, it does not meet the definition of vegan. Many people who are vegan argue that crop pollination harms bees’ health and lifespan and that this is an inarguable violation of their animal rights.

  • Why is honey considered cruel?

    Removing honey from beehives can cause harm to bees. Sometimes bees are intentionally killed to control the hive, to halt the spread of disease, or because of economic reasons. Additionally, after harvesting, most commercial beekeepers replace the honey with industrially-processed corn syrup, which researchers have linked to the decreased immune function of bees.

View Article Sources
  1. Simone-Finstrom, M., Li-Byarlay, H., Huang, M. et al. Migratory management and environmental conditions affect lifespan and oxidative stress in honey bees. Sci Rep 6, 32023 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep32023

  2. Greenleaf, Sarah S., and Claire Kremen. "Wild bees enhance honey bees’ pollination of hybrid sunflower." PNAS September 12, 2006 103 (37) 13890-13895; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0600929103