Kate is Animal Aid’s Slaughter Consultant, and former Head of Campaigns.
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?
Bees work hard to produce that honey, extremely hard, collecting nectar from five million flowers in order to produce one pound of honey, which they need to feed the hive over the winter months. Commercial hive owners take that honey and replace it 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, including the now-infamous neonicotinoids, and destructive varroa mites means these insects are facing a rough future. They need that honey for their own wellbeing, and, they should keep it because, well, because it is theirs.
On bee farms, like on almost all farms, natural behaviours are denied. When a new colony establishes, bees swarm and mingle with new bees and reproduce. Swarming, therefore, helps create significant genetic diversity in the colony. But some conventional bee farmers don’t want the colony to split, and so they prevent this process by clipping the wings of the queen. They may also kill and replace the queens to keep a young and fertile succession. As a result, bees inbreed, and this further compromises their ability to deal with mites, pesticides and other challenges.
Some commercial farmers even ‘cull’ whole 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. We need bees and other insect pollinators to help provide the foods that we love – apples, berries, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, for example. We can help bees by supporting the wild populations. We can plant bee-friendly plants in our gardens and window boxes, and we can provide nesting sites for bees. We can support ‘natural beekeeping’ where there is little or no interference in the hive and ‘conservation beekeeping’ where no honey is taken and the bees are left to their own devices. We can buy organic foods wherever we can afford them, to reduce the chemicals out there that cause harm to our friends in the insect world.
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.