In a recent survey, 90% of people who identified as vegan said they believe that honey can be ethical.
The survey conducted by The Vegan Insider polled 1,104 vegans, who identified as caring about animal rights and sustainability. Since honey isn’t vegan, the results were surprising.
Honey seems to be a gray area for many, vegans included, with a lot of people choosing to eat vegan “except for honey.” Only 8-9% of participants didn’t believe honey could be ethical, and the rest were unsure.
So, can honey be ethical? What about backyard beekeepers?
Many vegans are concerned that collecting honey directly kills bees. Larger-scale commercial operations may gas their bees, clip their wings, and/or feed them sugar water. But what about backyard beekeepers? Is it possible to collect honey in a way that does no harm? We interviewed two backyard beekeepers to find out.
The beekeepers we interviewed have bees as a hobby or for their immediate families and plants – not as a commercial operation. They are known to have the “best” possible practices when it comes to beekeeping. We’re masking their identities for privacy and they will be referred to as Keeper 1 and Keeper 2.
It’s important to note that we’re exclusively exploring backyard beekeeping with the best attempts to cause zero-harm, which is unrelated to commercial operations or honey you’d buy in a store.
Do the bees get killed during harvest?
From knowing hobby beekeepers in the past, we were primarily concerned that bees could get squished during harvest. “I’m not going to pretend that can’t happen,” said Keeper 1. “There is no harm to the colony. There is ALWAYS a chance some may accidentally get squished or get into your hood, or sting you (and die)…Bees are lost when they sting, they can get squished every now and then. It happens. You can not watch where you put your hand and kill 3.” He did note that those things happen, despite the best efforts to cause zero harm.
Keeper 2 revealed that every honey harvest kills around 24-48 bees out of a hive of 40,000. She said, “They get squished during the removal of the box, or refuse to leave the box and ride it to the honey house, (and eventually the freezer).”
So killing bees during honey harvesting is unavoidable in the best of practices. But there’s a reason so many people concerned with animal welfare still support honey.
As Keeper 2 explained, “A healthy colony can easily lose 600+ bees a day to natural causes.” Both keepers agreed that the few lost to honey harvesting have no impact on the health of the hive as a whole. Beyond that, beekeepers can provide a safer environment for the bees and prevent losses – ultimately, saving more lives than they take.
Is there enough honey for the bees? Does harvesting upset the hive?
One common fear is that if humans take honey from bees, then the bees won’t have enough for winter (which is why some keepers feed their bees sugar water). But is there enough honey for bees and humans in a backyard, non-commercial practice? Absolutely.
Keeper 2 explained, “The hive needs at least one full box of harvested honey to survive the winter. So I add an extra box in the Spring, with a queen excluder beneath it to prevent brood from being mixed in with the honey cells. I harvest that box alone and leave the rest for the bees to enjoy.” By adding in an extra tray, the bees fill both – and there is plenty to go around.
But do the bees mind having the honey taken? Other than the few that die in the process, does the hive get upset? The answer is yes.
Keeper 1 shared, “no creature enjoys having the roof taken off their home… but minimizing the timeframe of the disturbances is part of the process. Keeping bees is as much about keeping them happy and safe as it is about getting wax and delicious honey to use.”
He then urged people to check out a local apiary to get a better feel for the process. He said, “If you’ve never been a part of it, I recommend finding beekeepers in your area and finding out first hand what it’s all about.”
Do the queen’s wings need clipped?
In the vegan community, it’s a common belief that beekeepers have to clip the queen’s wings so she won’t fly away and take the whole colony with her. While this does happen in some practices, it’s not necessary.
As Keeper 1 shared, “There is no reason to clip the wings of a Queen, swarming activities can be prevented or mitigated by other means. I, and everyone that I know, let the hive decide when it’s time for a new queen, they’re much better at it than we are.”
Can Honey Be Ethical?
Being “ethical” is actually subjective. What some view as ethical, others would disagree with. But it’s important to have the facts and decide for yourself if honey is something you believe can be ethical.
- Bees are always killed to harvest honey, but just a few dozen per hive and no more than in the wild.
- Bees can produce plenty of honey to share.
- Keepers don’t have to use gas or clip wings.
Is It Ok For Vegans To Eat Honey?
Honey is not vegan by definition. However, many people are vegan because they care about the consequences of their actions and the impact of their choices. In some situations, it’s more beneficial to the animals and environment to consume non-vegan foods, like in the case of freeganism.
When it comes to honey specifically, it’s usually best to avoid it. Large-scale commercial operations are doing a lot of harm. However, there are situations in which honey may cause less harm than an alternative like agave.
Many vegans consume agave in place of honey. However, agave provides necessary food for bats. The increased demand for agave is putting a strain on the bat populations. According to NPR, some of the bats threatened by agave crops are already endangered species, including the Mexican long-nosed bat. So while honey, done properly, can support pollinators, agave is actually hurting them. But again, this is the exception and not the rule since most people who consume honey don’t source it carefully.
Beyond that, there are sustainable and ethical sweeteners, namely, maple syrup. Maple syrup is one of the best honey substitutes because of its minimal environmental and animal impact.
Ultimately, every decision makes an impact – and it’s up to you to decide if that impact is one you’re going to make. We just want you to be aware and conscious of your choices!