Honey is probably the product most frequently mistaken as vegan-friendly. There is a common misconception that honey bees make their honey for humans, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. For centuries, humans have been stealing one of the few food sources that bees have, and that they work hard to produce. It has been well documented that raising bees for honey, especially for commercial purposes, uses techniques that are considered exploitative in different ways. 

What is honey and how is it made?

Honey is a sweet, sticky yellowish-brown fluid made by bees from nectar collected from flowers. It is the energy source of bees, and without it they would starve, particularly during the cold winter months.

While there over approximately 20,000 different species of bees in the world, it is mainly the European honey bee that is used for honey production.

Honey bees live in colonies that include the queen bee, the worker bee and the drone. The worker bee and the queen bee are both female, but only the queen bee can reproduce. All drones are male.

The older worker bees gather nectar from flowers and swallow it. The bees then regurgitate the nectar when they return to the hive and the younger bees swallow it. The younger bees then regurgitate it into a cell of the honeycomb and fan the honey with their wings to dry it before capping it with beeswax. The purpose of turning nectar into honey is to store the sugars to be consumed, by them, in the future.

Essentially honey is food made by bees for bees. 

How honey is harvested

Harvesting honey from hives can be done in several different ways, with the most common being extraction. First the combs containing honey are removed from the hive, and then beekeepers remove the bees guarding the honeycomb. In many cases, this is done by using a bee smoker in an attempt to “calm” the bees. The smoke makes the bees go into a feeding instinct, which makes them less hostile toward the beekeeper.

Once the honeycomb is removed, the honey can be extracted. Beeswax and other items are then filtered out, leaving only the honey.

Harvesting bees’ honey takes away one of their main food sources. Many beekeepers try to leave enough honey for the bees to eat during winter, but these amounts are estimated and often bees can die of starvation

To replace the food they have taken from the bees, beekeepers will often give them a sugar water substitute, but these replacements do not have the same properties as honey and can adversely affect bees.

Commercial bee farming engages in several practices that cause suffering to honey bees. It is pretty much unavoidable for at least some bees to die during the harvesting process. 

Sometimes it happens by accident, other times it’s a case of simply being careless.

Culling colonies and hives

Bee colonies are often culled during the colder months as it is cheaper to kill off the whole hive than provide sufficient food over winter. Bee farmers will also kill off hives who are not displaying the right temperament as well.

Every few years, beekeepers kill the queen bee and replace them with a new one. This is an unnatural process – left alone, bees themselves decide if and when to remove the queen. 

Methods of culling include: sealing off the hive and then pouring petrol into it; drowning them with soapy water; gassing them to death with carbon dioxide; trapping them in large industrial garbage bags and leaving them in sunlight so the bees either suffocate to death or die from the intense heat.

Bees are sentient beings, meaning they do have a nervous system and they do feel pain. Studies have even found that bees experience emotions and have moods

Inside a commercial Honey bee farm, January 2018 (Image: Farm Transparency Project)

Antibiotic use

Commercial beekeepers often artificially inseminate the queen bee. In addition to violating the queen bee, drone bees have to die in the process – their bodies are crushed and inverted to obtain the sperm.

Commercial beekeepers give their bees antibiotics as a way to prevent common bacterial diseases that affect bees. Research has shown that giving antibiotics to bees that aren’t sick destroys their gut microbiome, and bees given antibiotics are half as likely to survive the following week compared to bees who did not receive antibiotics. 

A queen bee being artificially inseminated Image: Volker Steger

What about backyard honey?

Using bees for commercial or hobby purposes violates the bees’ rights to be free of human exploitation. Honey belongs to the bees, and there are plenty of great alternatives!

Honey Alternatives

There are many vegan-friendly honey substitutes that are made without the involvement of bees or any other animals. Some of these include maple syrup, rice syrup, molasses, barley malt, organic cane sugar and fruit concentrates derived from dates or figs. 

There are even vegan honey products hitting the market!