This is a question that has plagued the vegan community for decades, and the debate still rages on: is honey vegan? Well, the short answer and the one most universally accepted by vegans, is no.
It’s not a completely clear cut issue though, especially for people with a more holistic understanding of nature and how the world works. It’s easy to say commercial honey operations use exploitation, and because honey is an animal byproduct, that means it’s automatically not vegan. But bees are also required in order to pollinate many of the fruits and vegetables we take for granted, one’s that vegans and non-vegans eat all of the time and rely on.
This includes everything from rarer fruit like mangoes and rambutan, to common apples and figs. Bees also pollinate alfalfa, fennel, cucumber, Brazil nuts, kidney beans, clover, and cocoa, to name but a few. And yes, many of the same practices that are used in the honey industry are also used by farmers who keep bee colonies for pollination.
So automatically, anyone with a functioning brain can see the hypocrisy. It’s these types of conundrums that often give outsiders a bad impression of vegans. The quest for reducing exploitation of animals and living compassionately blinds some people to very obvious and unavoidable truths about the world we live in.
I would say that there is an even more powerful argument as to why honey is actually vegan, however. The answer rests in our symbiotic relationship to bees.
The Give and Take of Nature
When looking at what is right and natural, it’s important to analyze what are called symbiotic relationships. These mutually beneficial partnerships form all over nature. Between plants and animals, between animals of different species, between plants and fungus, between two types of plants, and everything other combination you can imagine.
A symbiotic relationship can be loosely defined as any naturally occurring bond where both species benefit from being involved. The classic symbiotic relationship usually illustrated in science books is that of the clownfish and sea anemone.
These creatures evolved together and formed a relationship that benefits one another. The clownfish gets protected by the anemone, and in turn, the clownfish cleans the sea anemone, provides it nutrients with its waste, and scares off the anenome’s natural predators.
There are millions of various kinds of symbiotic relationships in nature, some more obvious than others. Everything has evolved alongside everything else for hundreds of millions of years. In that time, numerous interlinking bonds have formed between all of nature’s creatures. This isn’t just whimsy: it’s the bedrock foundation of nature itself as seen with open eyes and an holistic perspective.
Everything in nature is connected. And I mean everything.
That being said, one of the easiest signs of a symbiotic relationship is, what does the animal get out of it? If there are benefits, there must be a reason and origin to those benefits, because nothing in nature is just “there” for the hell of it. Such “benefits” are the result of a million-year-long story of evolution that was painstakingly developed with purpose in mind.
Knowing this, we can discern that honey is without a doubt meant to be consumed by animals, specifically animals like us. It is absolutely packed with the exact kinds of nutrients our body craves: healthy sugar (carbs), antioxidants, phyto-nutrients, and trace minerals.
Honey has been used for thousands of years as an effective medicinal treatment, and it has an overall net alkaline effect to the body once digested.
Honey is tailor-made by bees for each other, in various forms, including royal jelly.
But a bee is very different from a human being, and it is doubtful we require the same exact nutrients in the same ratios. However, it is extremely clear that bees, over time, developed a massive multi-layered symbiotic relationship with several members of the plant kingdom, and several members of the animal kingdom.
Honey is quite literally a “super food” for human beings. It is one of the only substances in nature that we could technically live off of indefinitely, though it would have to be supplemented with pollen as well to get enough protein.
The point is, honey isn’t just “coincidentally good for us.” Nature doesn’t work that way and never has. There’s a reason why it is a favorite of monks, gurus, and other traditionally spiritual individuals who understand body chemistry and nutrition, and are able to live off of very little food because they have optimized their metabolism through yoga and other practices.
In fact, honey is so healthy for us that it actually has a therapeutic effect on the body.
It is one of the only naturally occurring edible substances that can quickly soothe and relieve various ailments, and actually encourage healthy digestion.
It also helps that it is one of the most naturally sweet substances on Earth, and by no coincidence, humans possess one of the biggest natural sweet-tooths in the world. This is because we are natural frugivores whose optimal diet consists of tropical sugar-dense fruits.
The conclusion you can make from this is simply that bees developed, over millions of years, a complex give and take relationship with many different animal and plant species, including us. Part of that relationship is the ingestion of honey in order to promote health and longevity in our species.
Honey is Not Vomit
One of the strategies some vegans use to turn people away from honey is that since it is technically regurgitated food, that it is essentially “bee vomit.”
Well, this is an extremely far stretch of the truth.
Vomit is partially digested food mixed with stomach bile. The nectar from flowers doesn’t go into the bee’s stomach at all, it goes to a sac biologists refer to as a honey stomach, which is exclusively for making honey. There, the nectar is mixed with special enzymes, which transform the nectar into honey.
Also, it is extremely dishonest and misleading to say that just because something is vomit, or regurgitated, that means we’re not supposed to eat it or that it is somehow bad.
First and foremost, the other bees certainly love honey. So by inference, saying we’re too good to eat bee vomit is speciesist.
Many animals regurgitate food or substances in some form or another and it is perfectly natural and okay. Think of all of the mother animals that chew food and spit it out for their babies, or even partially digest food in their stomachs and then regurgitate it for their young. There is nothing “gross” about this, it’s actually quite amazing and beautiful.
Not coincidentally, the vast majority of animals that are interested in true “vomit” are carnivores. Because of their extremely strong stomach acid, and taste for organs, bile, blood, and other body parts, true carnivores can eat their own vomit and even the vomit of other animals, which is something herbivores and frugivores typically shy away from.
Carnivores vomit for a multitude of reasons, and all of them are natural and healthy, such as regurgitating food trapped with their own hair.
However, when an animal like us vomits, it’s typically a sign of sickness, since it’s not one of our common behaviors.
The bottom line is that it’s actually a carnivore behavior to be interested in vomit, but honey is not even close to being classified as vomit. In fact, biologically speaking, honey has nothing in common with vomit other than the fact that it comes from the body and leaves through the mouth. That’s it.
The Truth About Bee Exploitation
First, let’s get one thing out of the way. Bees are animals with their own autonomy and lives. No one has the right or authority to enslave them for honey production.
The honey industry is truly massive, and the fact that much of our agriculture also relies on bees, you have a massive amount of exploitation and suffering on your hands.
However, what is also true is that many bee farms and bee keepers are some of the only forces right now going out of their way to protect and cultivate bees.
If it weren’t for the high demand for bees and honey, their already depleted numbers would be further diminished.
This is a double-edged sword. As we deteriorate the environment, bees vanish because they obviously can’t cope with the lack of necessary plant life, shelter, diseases, and whatever else that plagues them. The agricultural industry is partly responsible for this.
There are many practices in bee farming that is likely leading to bee depopulation due to weakened genes, weakened immune systems, and general biological deterioration, such as the practice of feeding them nutritionless sugar water.
During the winter, bees eat their own honey to survive. After all, that’s one of the primary reasons why they make honey in the first place: to feed their young and to keep the hive alive during harsh months.
However, it’s common practice in industrial bee farms to take every last bit of honey, leaving none for the bees. The farmers can’t let them starve, however, and give them cheap sugar water to compensate. In fact, the industry now uses toxic high fructose corn syrup as a food for bees, which obviously lacks the nutrition of honey and likely annihilates their immune system.
Entire bee populations are being reared on high fructose corn syrup, resulting in damaged genes, pathetic immune systems, and overall biological weakness.
This practice is unethical and downright insane. This is one of the primary reasons why vegans insist on rejecting honey. It is very hard to get your hands on honey in a supermarket that hasn’t been produced outside of this sick system.
It is entirely possible to raise bees and collect some of their honey for yourself without harming a single bee and while still leaving more than enough for them. This natural symbiotic relationship not only benefits you, because you get to enjoy the nutritious honey, but benefits the bees, because you are helping them to thrive.
A properly maintained bee garden and hive can do wonders for your local ecosystem, and is such an important job in this age when bee numbers are declining all over the planet.
Ethical honey is extremely rare in most stores though. There really is no guaranteed way to get it at the moment to my knowledge, and so honey as it exists in stores must simply be deemed unethical. Of course, the same unethical practices are used to produce more than half the fruits and vegetables we eat, that all rely on bee pollination. So it’s more of a matter of mitigating suffering wherever and whenever you can.
Thankfully, there are actually many great honey alternatives.
Honey is Not The Only Natural Sweetener
Until a reliable way is formed to harvest honey on a mass scale without exploitation, alternatives should be sought whenever possible. While not as naturally healthy as honey, there are a few honey substitutes that do the job in the taste department, and are completely plant based.
This sugar-like substances comes from a plant dubbed the “candy leaf,” or Stevia rebaudiana. By refining its leaves, you can make a crystalline sugar substitute with trace phyto-nutrients and zero calories. It has been used for hundreds of years in South America, and was widely known by ancient cultures that it was edible. While not as healthy as honey, you can add it to beverages like tea to create a similar taste.
Stevia is steadily becoming more popular as concern for diabetes and other sugar-related illnesses rise.
This thin honey-like substances comes from an edible succulent known as blue agave, which originates from Mexico. Despite the nectar itself being high in fructose, the syrup is not nearly as unhealthy as raw processed sugar, and can be substituted for honey in most cases, as the taste and consistency is similar.
This is another one of those natural products that is full of antioxidants and phytonutrients, because it is wholly plant-derived. It is rich in minerals such as calcium and zinc, is anti-inflammatory, and can even improve digestion.
Though it isn’t a direct honey substitute due to the difference in flavor and texture, it can be used in much of the same way (though you might not want it in your tea!) Maple syrup is also a natural sugar, so it is far healthier for you than table sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup.
Be advised when looking for some maple syrup in the supermarket, maybe kinds of “fake” syrups are on the market that are literally just High Fructose Corn Syrup. Regular corn syrup by itself is not as bad, and makes a tasty syrup, but it is less healthy and far sweeter than traditional maple syrup.
If you absolutely have to sweeten something up, don’t rely on refined processed white sugar. Not only is it quite unhealthy, it’s not even vegan, if you can believe it. Many refining processes for sugar use bone char, an animal industry byproduct. It’s simply something that should be avoided if you at all care about your health and the welfare of animals.
That being said, raw cane sugar is still a great sweetener if used sparingly. It is not nearly as unhealthy as processed sugar, possessing trace minerals and a semblance of natural compounds. Processed sugar lacks this completely, and your body has trouble digesting it without ill effects, including high acidity.
The Verdict on Honey
Until a sustainable, compassionate mass production method for honey comes forth, it’s safe to assume most of it that you see in stores was produced unethically. However, it would be wrong to write honey off completely as some kind of non-vegan, or even unhealthy substance that you should never eat.
In fact, we should be supporting an ethical honey industry for the sake of the bees alone.
We need to address the issue of their dwindling numbers, and part of that means constructing more gardens, and raising more bees. To be sure, the honey industry needs to step up to the plate and begin looking for more sustainable ways of producing honey and other bee-related products.
This also means cutting down on pesticides and using more sustainable farming practices in general.
Remember, you can’t escape bee cruelty right now, especially if you are vegan. Most of our fruits and vegetables rely on a complex relationship between agricultural outfits, pesticide and chemical companies, wild bees, and bee farmers, as well as other insect breeders, such as ladybugs.
Obviously, we can’t just stop eating and using everything that involves bee exploitation.
Deciding not to consume honey is borderline absurd, when the vast bulk of our natural diet, and what vegans and vegetarians rely on every day, is produced directly with the same methods as the honey industry. In some cases, the honey and agricultural industries are indistinguishable. These farms and outfits are all linked and rely on each other to produce their goods, be it honey or an apple.
Instead of fruitlessly boycotting random products, our efforts need to be on loftier, more important goals: restructuring agricultural business in general. We need to raise awareness about pesticides and chemicals and their effects on bee populations, we need to demand better practices for honey bees, and we need to encourage our neighbors and local farmers to grow plants that attract bees and help bolster their population.
One trend that is starting to catch on, and that bees love, is growing a clover lawn instead of grass. It’s a hardier, more beneficial plant than most regular grass, bees love it, and is even easier to maintenance than grass. It doesn’t really grow higher than half a foot and tends to grow uniformly.
If you’re looking for a way to actually help bees, grow a clover lawn. Plant some sunflowers, Black-eyed Susan’s, and some honeysuckle. Never spray your lawn with herbicides and pesticides. That will actually make a difference, not slandering honey by calling it “vomit.”
Do what you can to contribute toward sustainable solutions for bees, and farming in general. This is what vegans should be striving for when it comes to these all-important pollinators.
The founder of Digital Sages, Matt has an extensive background in self-mastery and has authored several books on the subject. His goal is to demystify important esoteric subjects and help people transform their lives through self-awareness and personal empowerment.