I think to have a real opinion on this subject you have to understand a little bit of what goes on behind the scenes. So, let’s jump right into exactly what honey is and how it’s produced in a controlled setting.
Step 1: A male honey bee aka drone is selected to collect semen from. This is done by crushing it’s head and then essentially squeezing the body until semen comes out and then storing it for only up to three weeks (it can’t be frozen). It’s important to note that while it’s not usually from a crushed head, it is normal for the drone to die shortly after mating.
Step 2: When a virgin queen bee is selected, she is gassed with CO2 to render her unconscious for the procedure. She is then artificially inseminated with the semen of about 15 drones. She will store all of this to lay eggs throughout her lifetime. She will be confined to a hive that she can’t leave and a day later will be gassed again. After this she’ll lay her eggs. (Sometimes the wings of the queen bee will be clipped off so she can’t leave the hive, but not all beekeepers choose to do this.)
Step 3: The eggs hatch and grow up to either be worker bees, drones, or other queens. Now all the important players in the hive have been established.
Now on to the honey part.
Worker bees collect nectar from flowers and return to the hive. This liquid will be regurgitated into another bees mouth. This process will be repeated and eventually the partially digested nectar will be deposited into a honeycomb. They flap their wings to help the excess water evaporate from the nectar, which causes it to thicken into honey. They then seal the honeycomb with a secretion that eventually turns into beeswax. They do this because it protects the honey until they’re ready to eat it during the winter months.
However, obviously beekeepers want to collect the honey so they can sell it to people, so they can’t just let the bees eat it up. So the honey is collected and the bees are fed some sort of sugary alternative. Now, to be fair, sometimes the bees make more honey than what they can consume in winter. If you’re interested in consuming honey in as ethical of a way as you can, you could pursue purchasing it through a beekeeper that only takes what the bees can’t use anyway.
So, where does all of this leave us on the is honey vegan argument? This is the definition of veganism that I go by:
“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”
You can make the argument that the honey industry isn’t inherently cruel, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to claim it’s not exploitative. When you consider that bees are often shipped all over the country to pollinate different orchards (including almond trees and other popular vegan foods!) and that this can pose a number of threats to them, you could argue that it’s cruel as well. Bees get squished and killed during transit, the entire process can be very stressful for them, and they’re also at risk of being exposed to new diseases as they travel from location to location. This isn’t even something many beekeepers particularly want to do because of the possible threats to their bees, but in the current economic climate, this is what they have to do to stay in business.
I know many people struggle to empathize with bees or insects in general, which I can understand considering just how different they are from us. Also, it doesn’t appear to be clear cut if they experience pain as indicated by this study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5379194/
For me personally, this is an easy decision. I’ve been using agave nectar instead of honey since before I was vegan and I just genuinely prefer it. Another common replacement is maple syrup. Regardless of personal preference, I am of the opinion that honey is not vegan simply because it is an animal product and labelling it as such convolutes the meaning of the word. When faced with the reality that we’re just not sure if insects feel pain, I personally would like to err on the side of caution and act as though they do, but it’s not a hill I’m willing to die on.
I found this quote which I think summarizes my stance perfectly:
“I’m afraid that our public avoidance of honey is hurting us as a movement. A certain number of bees are undeniably killed by honey production, but far more insects are killed, for example, in sugar production… Even “veganically” grown produce involves the deaths of countless bugs in lost habitat, tilling, harvesting and transportation. We probably kill more bugs driving to the grocery store to get some honey-sweetened product than are killed in the product’s production. Our position on honey therefore just doesn’t make any sense, and I think the general population knows this on an intuitive level. Veganism for them, then, becomes more about some quasi-religious personal purity, rather than about stopping animal abuse. No wonder veganism can seem nonsensical to the average person. We have this kind of magical thinking; we feel good about ourselves as if we’re actually helping the animals obsessing about where some trace ingredient comes from, when in fact it may have the opposite effect. We may be hurting animals by making veganism seem more like petty dogmatic self-flagellation. In my eyes, if we choose to avoid honey, fine. Let’s just not make a huge production of it and force everybody to do the same if they want to join the club.” -Michael Greger, M.D.