Most people understand why vegans choose not to eat meat and dairy, but even some vegans are puzzled as to why they don’t eat honey! Until quite recently The Vegan Society viewed honey consumption as a matter of individual conscience, but today it says that honey is absolutely, definitely not vegan. Surely, there is more to this decision than just a rigid principle of not eating any product from an animal?
If you’ve read Laline Paull’s extraordinary award-winning novel The Bees, you’ll already have an insight into the many dangers faced by these insects. One such danger are the people who remove honeycomb, having first subdued the hive with smoke. Inevitably some of the bees are killed during the process. In the book, the bees call this terrible act The Visitation. ‘Unable to come down through the powerful smoke, sisters glimpsed the atrocity and roared in disbelief.’
Bees work hard to produce that honey, extremely hard, collecting nectar from five million flowers in order to produce 1 pound of honey, which they need to feed the hive over the winter months. Commercial hive owners replace the honey they take with a sugar water solution, which has neither the nutrients the bees need nor the power to protect their immune systems. This coupled with exposure to pesticides and destructive varroa mites – which were accidentally introduced when bee geneticists tried to make bees more productive in honey – means these insects are facing a rough future.
Even their natural behaviours are denied them in bee farms. Bees swarm to reproduce, and this creates significant genetic diversity in the population. Some conventional beekeepers prevent this process by clipping the wings of the queen, and may kill and replace the queens to keep them young and fertile. Without a robust genetic pool, bees inbreed, further compromising their ability to deal with mites, pesticides and other challenges.
Some commercial farmers even ‘cull’ hives after harvesting the honey as it is cheaper than feeding the bees through the winter months. Of course, they wouldn’t need feeding if someone hadn’t stolen their honey.
Any and all of these reasons may help explain why bees are in serious decline and whole colonies collapsing. Buying honey does not help bees; but having your own hive where the bees are not interfered with might. Other ways to help them are to plant clumps of bee-friendly plants in sunny places, plant flowers with single petals, and to provide nest sites for bees.
The good news for vegans is that there are alternatives to honey, including agave nectar (which comes from the same plant tequila is made from), but also maple, rice, barley and date syrups. Chestnut jam, which is popular in France, has a similar texture and taste, and various recipes for this, as well as homemade vegan ‘honey’ (made from apple juice and dandelion flowers) can be found online.
Still not convinced that honey is cruel? You might want to take a look at the video below, but be warned that it makes for uncomfortable viewing.