I can tell you my opinion on honey, based upon my own thinking and research, but keep in mind that not all vegans agree on this one.
Some vegans do eat honey, and the last thing I’d ever want to do is give them a hard time about it! They’re already preventing so much harm by not consuming milk or eggs that I’m going to give them a big high-five, even if we don’t happen to be on the same page about bees.
But, since you’re curious, here are some of the reasons why I decided to move away from using honey.
Two separate but related issues: bees for honey, bees for pollination
In a natural setting, where bees are just going about their business, they fly around to various plants in their area, collecting nectar to be stored as honey, which is used as a food source during winter and other times when food is scarce. Kind of like a squirrel collecting nuts. This is a win-win situation, because the plants are offering up delicious nectar in order to entice pollinator visitors, who become dusted in pollen during the process of chowing down, and then spread this pollen to other flowers as they continue to feed. Pollinators are primarily bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, flies, and beetles, but even birds like hummingbirds, or mammals like bats, can play a role in pollination.
Certain plants rely on pollinators for reproduction. However, many of the big-ticket food staples around the world, like corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans, don’t need pollinators — they’re wind-pollinated or self-pollinated. Other crops can be helped by honeybee pollinators, but don’t necessary need them, like cotton, coconuts, and potatoes. Some crops, on the other hand, can’t reproduce without the help of bees, like almonds, zucchini, and macadamia nuts. (More info here.)
For food grown the “old fashioned way,” where a variety of crops might be grown over a few acres surrounded by wild meadow/forest, pollination isn’t a problem. Local pollinators wander over, collect some food, and pollinate the crops in the process. However, now that we’re increasingly growing crops in massive monocultures, we’ve created an unsustainable environment for native pollinators. In a field of hundreds of acres of almond trees, sure — pollinators will eat great while they’re blooming — but what about the rest of the year? Then the bounty becomes a desert. Native pollinators won’t and can’t live in these environments, so instead we’ve built massive commercial operations to move millions of beehives around the country to pollinate these monocultures. (More info here.)
I’ll get into why this is probably a bad idea below, but in terms of framing the issue: even if everyone suddenly stopped eating honey, these bees would still be carted around the country for crop pollination, so just isolating the use of honey as an ingredient misses the full story. We need to look at all aspects of these captive bees’ workload.
Honey is a pretty crappy deal for the bees
Bees don’t make honey for humans to eat — bees make honey for bees to eat.
Imagine if I had exerted immense effort to prepare an optimally healthful meal for my family, with just the right nutrients needed for them to survive and thrive — and I even had a big, dangerous weapon to guard it with. But then one day, right before dinner, someone filled my house with smoke so that I couldn’t fight back, swooped in, grabbed all the plates off the table for himself to eat, and left each of us a cup of corn syrup and antibiotics to have for dinner instead. Oh, and he smushed some of my family members to death in the process. WTF.
Yet this is how we treat bees. It’s even believed that the poor nutrition resulting from depleting bees’ nectar and pollen stores and replacing them with corn syrup is a big contributor to their susceptibility to the mites and diseases that contribute to colony collapse disorder and increasingly large winter die-offs.
In an era when we’re increasingly concerned about the fragility of pollinator populations, one easy way we can help bees is to stop eating their food. And there are other things we can do, too — like lobbying for tighter restrictions on bee-harming pesticides, choosing produce that isn’t raised in a massive monoculture when possible, and planting a pollinator garden. (More info on ways you can help bees here.)
Commercial beekeeping has spread deadly bee diseases
We know that crowded factory farms are a breeding ground for various diseases that afflict both humans and animals, but commercial beekeeping is having an even more disastrous impact on bees’ health, resulting not only in mass die-offs of the commercial population, but also the death of wild bees.
The vast majority of captive bees are not living as we want to imagine: in an idyllic backyard setting, where they live out their lives peacefully, drinking from local flowers and being tended by a loving beekeeper. Rather, millions of hives are crammed into semi trucks and carted across the country, where they’re unloaded to go pollinate massive monoculture tracts, then reloaded and carted off somewhere else. This means that millions of colonies from across the country — and whatever different diseases they may have been exposed to — all come together in one place, at one time. This is extremely dangerous from an outbreak perspective, and is responsible for the spread of the deadly varroa mite and associated viruses that are a significant contributor to the rapid decline of captive and wild pollinators alike. In commercial bee operations affected by these diseases, as many as 50% of the bees will die each winter.
For example, take the yearly almond pollination in California:
… the almond pollination season, which requires around 1.5 million colonies of honey bees to be trucked from all parts of the country to a single part of California to pollinate a single crop. While there to work in the almonds, honey bees come in contact with each other, and are potentially exposed to pathogens from other hives, brought from other parts of the country. Many beekeepers have traditionally relied on a preventative dose of antibiotics to keep their bees healthy during this spring pollination rush. [More info here.]
As with antibiotics used in chicken and cow farming, the FDA is trying to restrict and reduce the use of antibiotics in commercial bee operations, to try to combat the problem of increasing antibiotic resistance. However, due to the weakened state of these bees, and the artificially close quarters that millions of bees from across the country are brought into, a single bacterial infection could decimate captive bee populations nationwide. For commercial bee operations, it’s damned if you do (antibiotic-resistant superbugs), damned if you don’t (dead bees). The popularity of backyard hives is also now a risk factor — hive proximity increases the outbreak risk, which can jump to native pollinators.
Driving semi-trucks full of beehives around the country is a new phenomenon, and there are better alternatives
But without doing this, we’ll all starve, right? We need these bees to maintain our food system, right?
Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that. First of all, as mentioned above, many key crops we rely on don’t require insect pollination at all. And among the crops that make up the majority of the world’s food supply, only 15% are pollinated by domesticated bees, whereas at least 80% are pollinated by wild pollinators. So if we’re truly concerned about the stability of our food supply, we should really be focusing on what to do to help wild pollinators.
Studies have found that captive bees only supplement the work of wild pollinators, not the other way around. Managed honeybee colonies can increase crop yields in only about 14% of pollinator-dependent crops (this poor performance is often due to the size, flying habits, etc. of the honeybees, who aren’t suited to pollinate many types of plants). Furthermore, per-bee, wild pollinators are much better at the job, increasing yield by about twice as much as a managed honeybee can. (See here and here.)
And this is bad news, because our current farming practices are delivering a one-two-three punch to native pollinators:
Spreading disease by driving captive honeybees around the country and convening them by the millions
Using pesticides on our crops that are harmful to wild bees
Eroding native pollinator habitat by planting massive monocultures
Moreover, sometimes our overly narrow focus on managed honeybees actually exacerbates these problems, and causes even greater harm to native pollinators. For instance, the use of managed honeybees allows farms to get away with planting ever-larger monoculture tracts, which are bad for wild pollinators. Probably even more dangerous is the agriculture system’s increasing use of certain neonicotinoid pesticides that are honeybee-friendly, but decimate wild bee populations.
Bees are facing a lot of problems right now, so there are multiple things that need to be done to help them. Not taking their honey is a piece of the puzzle, but there are other important pieces, too.
As discussed above, some of the most important actions we can take to help bees are things like supporting produce sources that don’t require the massive relocation of beehives around the country, pushing for better pesticide regulations, and making our yards and public lands pollinator-friendly. (I don’t have a yard, but just by leaving the flowers on my lavender, basil, and sage plants — rather than cutting them off to promote bushiness, as is often advised — a shocking array of wild bee species found their way to my small rooftop raised bed, even in a heavily developed downtown area.) There are also conservation organizations and sanctuaries that are specifically focused on protecting wild bees, which would welcome your support.
That said, foregoing honey has a role to play as well. Like with leather, honey is a byproduct whose profitability props up the ‘factory farming’ of large-scale honeybee operations. Even small backyard producers contribute to the spread of diseases that are killing our imperiled wild pollinators, and the health of these colonies is weakened every time their food stores are taken and replaced with basic sugars. And just from a kindness perspective, I’d rather choose to let the bees eat their own painstakingly prepared meal, rather than stealing it for myself.
So, when I need something sweet, I’ll reach for an alternative sweetener. If I’m feeling super fancy, I’ll grab some Bee Free Honee, which tastes almost indistinguishable from regular honey, except for a slight, pleasant appley aftertaste (it’s made from apples, sustainably-grown cane sugar, and lemon juice).