Honey is touted as one of those miracle supplements. It’s closely associated with health tonics so is often seen as some sort of medicine. It doesn’t come from udders, so it’s vegan, right? Nope. But what harm does it do? A lot.
We’ll discuss the problems with honey, whether small-scale beekeeping with natural methods is any better and some vegan alternatives…
Why honey isn’t vegan
Honey comes from an animal, therefore it is not vegan. This is the simplest explanation. What people tend to be asking with this question is why wouldn’t honey be vegan if it doesn’t cause harm? If you’re not touching the animal, and that animal is an insect, it should be cruelty-free.
Is eating honey harmful to bees?
Unfortunately yes, in a few ways.
- The bees NEED the honey. Honey isn’t a waste product from bees free for the taking. They store this honey to consume as it contains vitamins, minerals, lipids, proteins and carbohydrates (the stuff we love it for). When we take the honey, they can’t use it to feed their young or for the overall survival of the colony. It also helps protect against pesticide damage and wards off parasites. They get weaker if they don’t get these nutrients and then we add to the problem of declining bee populations.
- It gets replaced with harmful ‘fake honey.’ In many large-scale bee farms, as much honey as possible is harvested, but to keep the bees alive they are given a false supplement, like corn syrup. The sweet supplement is similar to their honey and satisfies them, giving them just enough carbohydrates to get by, but it doesn’t contain the vital nutrients and antibodies that they need. This, in turn, creates unhealthy bees with low immune systems, which adds to the declining bee population problem.
- They are ‘knocked out and force-fed.’ When we take the honey, we need to disable the bees from attacking. While bees are in the middle of their work, they get smoked. There are some natural and chemical forms of smokers but they all do the same job. The smoke alarms the bees that there might be a fire, which makes them want to escape. They will gorge to take as much honey as they can to build a new home in anticipation of survival. Gorging makes them slower to react and less able to protect themselves. The effects eventually wear off and they will return to the hive and the cycle repeats. Does this sound like a healthy life for any animal? On a daily basis, they’re put into a state of fear and force feed themselves out of necessity – making them more vulnerable.
- Smoking bees can poison them. There are many natural smoking fuels used, however, even some of the natural ones, like cotton, can be harmful to the bees. If these materials have been treated in some way in their production they can give off harmful pesticides when burned. Cardboard is another example that is used but is full of chemicals. Another worrying fuel is corn cob. It sounds nice and natural but in a caged study, the effects killed bees four days later. In cases where non-natural fuels are used, bees are exposed to chemicals on a regular basis, which over time weakens their health – and we need to keep bees alive and well for as long as possible!
- It narrows the gene pool creating more disease. Bees are kept and bread to increase productivity. As we see with breeding, like in dogs, it makes them more susceptible to health problems and disease as the gene pool gets more narrow. Disease can quickly spread throughout a colony and we then have a decreased bee population.
- Queen bees have their wings cut. To stop queen bees leaving a hive to populate elsewhere, some beekeepers may clip their wings to keep them in their hive.
- Inflating the bee population kills native bees, birds and insects. By importing bees and inflating bee populations for more profit, there’s an unbalanced competition for nectar.
What about local bee farms?
There are strong communities of beekeepers that aim to be as natural and kind to the bees as possible. They’ll use natural smokers, leave enough honey in the hive for the bees and believe they’re providing a safe shelter for bees. Because of this, there’s a belief that they’re actually helping to increase bee populations.
The problem with this is that there’s still damaging interference at a time where the bee population problem is critical. Keeping bees interrupts their natural life cycles, as with any animal. Even on the smallest, kindest scale, we are interfering. We are taking honey where we don’t need to. Worker bees will keep working to keep the levels of honey up. Leaving them with just enough to survive isn’t their optimum. They’ve got to work harder to produce more and more every time
If we stopped breeding them for honey, and instead provided these shelters and thriving plant environments for them to feed on, we could just enhance their natural life cycles.
What about the health benefits of honey?
Honey contains many health benefits to humans because it is full of the vitamins, minerals, lipids and immune boosting properties. But we don’t need it. The honey contains all of these nutrients because of the sources – the plants.
We also have access to these plants to gain the same benefits. No, this doesn’t mean you need to start eating flower heads, but there are plant sources for all of the nutrients we require. Here are the plant foods that will give you every nutrient you need – including boosting the immune system.
It’s no news that we need to help bee populations as much as we possibly can, at least for our own survival. No matter how much we can try and reduce the harm, it WILL have an effect. And this cannot be outweighed by our love for the taste or belief in its medicinal properties when we have equal alternatives.
Vegan alternatives to honey
- Agave Nectar
- Maple syrup
- Coconut nectar
- Barley malt syrup
- Brown rice syrup
- Golden syrup (if you’re just looking for the taste)