Is honey vegan? In short, no. It is an animal product produced by Nonhuman Animals for human consumption. Honey consumed by humans is taken nonconsensually from exploited bees.
However, many nonvegans (and those who identify as vegan and continue to eat and use honey) defend the practice based on a romanticized idea of beekeeping. This is not unlike the fantasy that is perpetuated by producers (and believed by consumers) that “meat” and dairy come from happy animals in green, rolling pastures. Such narratives are entirely false but are highly effective in manipulating consumer trust and stifling industry criticism.
A 2019 publication in Sociologia Ruralis illuminates the inherent violence humans impose on bee communities in the production of honey and through pollination services. Sociologist Laurent Cilia conducted 45 interviews with beekeepers and observed dozens of bee farms across the United States. Some of the findings are truly abysmal, indicating a widespread disregard for bee welfare as a result of capitalist pressures.
Cilia summarizes, “to remain on the treadmill of production… beekeepers have entered the ‘grow-or-die economy.’” As Critical Animal Studies scholars have long argued, commodification is the primary assault on nonhumans, lending to their social devaluation and disposability. Cilia continues:
“I found something troubling in their detachment from the bees. For instance, it is common practice to ‘pinch’ the queen to replace her by one more to the taste or the expectations of the beekeeper. In that regard, one successful beekeeper from Colorado told me: ‘Don’t want to kill a queen? Well, then you gonna have to get another job because that’s what we do’.”
Indeed, extreme violence is routine in bee industries. Cilia reports that entire colonies used to be killed off in the autumn in order to extract every drop of the honey they produced, only to start over with a fresh hive in the spring. More recently, they are kept alive with sugar syrup, protein supplements, and mite treatments, a scenario eerily similar to the experience of dairy calves deprived of their mother’s milk in unhealthful agricultural facilities. Likewise, queen bees are regularly culled as their fertility wanes, not unlike “spent” dairy cows who are sent to slaughter at the young age of just 4 or 5.
As in slaughterhouses, beekeepers are strained by the high expectations for speed and efficiency. Cilia observes them: “repeating tasks with little regard for individual bees crushed in the process.”
This research makes it clear that the industrial exploitation of Nonhuman Animals not only imposes great suffering on animal commodities but swiftly resocializes human workers in such a way as to undermine their empathy and reorient them toward a capitalist ethic:
“In the face of challenging circumstances, beekeepers have adapted to survive in order to preserve their livelihoods, to protect the family legacy, and finally because they feel responsible for the essential role the bees have in food production. In the process, they have normalised practices that they know to not be ethically or environmentally ideal and have gotten used to chronically high loss rates, despite their discomfort and feel of personal failure.”
Society’s reliance on bees for pollinating fruit, vegetable, and nut products is murky ethical territory for vegans who wish to avoid harming other animals. However, it is, at least, an easy switch from honey to alternative sweeteners. A variety of fruit-based syrups are now available which mimic the flavor of honey. There’s also date syrup, maple syrup, agave nectar, and countless other natural syrups which sweeten our food (not to mention simple syrups from cane or beet sugar). Most of these are equally accessible and similarly priced.
Keep violence off your plate and give the honey a pass.
Cilia, P. 2019. “The Plight of the Honeybee: A Socioecological Analysis of large-scale Beekeeping in the United States.” Sociologia Ruralis 59 (4): 831-849.