The sticky sweetness of honey is hard to replace. Our day-to-day lives are full of hot sweetened teas, honey garlic glazes, honey mustard with our chicken tenders, and even honey in our favorite salad dressings. Many people rely on products like manuka honey for its antioxidant properties and honey powder in large-scale baking. The versatile ingredient is an essential part of our food system. But for those who want to go vegan, honey is out of bounds.

Is honey vegan?

Because honey is produced by bees, the gooey liquid is not considered vegan. Veganism eliminates all animal by-products because the animals who create them are being used to produce them: in the same way vegans don't drink cow's milk, they typically stay away from honey. Some plant-based eaters disagree: there is an ongoing ethical debate on the definition of “exploitation” when it comes to honeybees and the methods that beekeepers use to take care of the pollinators.

How is honey made? 

The process of making honey starts with bees collecting nectar from flowers, which they then deliver to the honeycomb. There, the nectar is broken down into simpler sugars and then stored. From the wind created by the bee’s wings and the natural shape of the honeycomb, the sugars evaporate and transform into liquid honey. These striped creatures use their honey as food storage for the colder months. During the winter, bees also metabolize the liquid and generate heat to survive.

Once the honeycomb is filled with honey and sealed with beeswax, it’s ready for harvesting. The honeycomb is then taken from the hive and beekeepers scrape off the beeswax seals. Then, the honeycomb frame is placed on an extractor and is spun until all the honey is released. This process does not damage the honeycomb. Afterwards, the honeycomb is returned to the hive and tended to by the bees.

Honey-making is a natural process and often leaves a surplus of up to 200 pounds after the winter months. Beekeepers will usually remove only the surplus honey, leaving about 50-60 pounds for the bees to survive. Unlike the processes of extracting cow’s milk for dairy products, some beekeepers state the harvesting of surplus honey does not impede on the lives of bees, but this can vary depending on who you ask. 

The debate behind the ethics of honey:

Beekeeping and the harvesting of honey is a sticky debate for many vegans and bee lovers alike. Basically, beekeeping is the only way to manage bees to harvest their honey for human consumption and can occur on local to industrial scales. While bees can help balance biodiversity and increase pollination in agriculture, keeping honey bees in areas where they are not native can have detrimental environmental effects.

Other than industrial and local beekeeping, looking for beekeepers who have foraging or wild honeybees is another option for honey-lovers looking to avoid industrially produced honey. Purchasing wild honey produced by wild bees avoids the issue of hurting a non-native environment with over-pollination. However, foraged honey cannot technically be considered organic because it’s impossible to know which flowers the bees interacted with.

Just with any other industry, mass production at a larger scale can often mean losing the benefits of stewardship. Unfortunately, when honey is mass-produced or when bees are used for pollination in industrial farms, honeybee health suffers, according to the Journal of Insect Science. Colony loss and poor nutrition are common when looking at industrially produced honey. The harmful effects of honey production can be mainly attributed to characteristics of industrial agriculture: pesticides that weaken the bugs, monocultures with no biodiversity that leaves bees with a dependency on singular crops, and insecticides that stunt their growth. When honey is produced in non-industrial farms, bees thrive by being able to pollinate biodiverse polycultural crops and avoid all contact with harmful pesticides or herbicides.

Either way, vegans don’t have to miss out on the delicious stickiness of honey. There are many home recipes or store-bought options of vegan honey substitutes, usually with an apple, sugar, and/or lemon base. Some popular brands to choose from include Single Origin Co.’s Un-Honey, BlenditUp, and the Vegan Honey Company.

If you’re more of an omnivore, you can purchase honey from your local beekeeper or companies that emphasize the well-being of honeybees. Some honey brands that prioritize bee welfare and sustainable farming to try out include Bee Harmony, Local Hive, and Hill Top