The Honey Don’t List.

Via Lorin Arnold
on Dec 27, 2011
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People sometimes get a little hostile when I mention that I’m a vegan.

I think I understand why, however. I’ve certainly encountered vegans that were a little aggressive in their views and a little obnoxious in their condemnation of those who use animal products.

I don’t believe I’m like that, but if someone has had that experience before, it’s not surprising that they react strongly. Most of the time, when I am asked my reasons for the choice, people “get” why I elect not to eat meat. They are frequently not so comfortable themselves with the idea of slaughter or they can see the health benefits of going meat-free. Veganism is a little harder for people to grasp, as no killing is involved in dairy and egg products. But, at this point, there has been enough media coverage about the conditions in corporate dairy and egg farms that the level of awareness is okay.

Bee products are another matter entirely. Most people just do not really understand why vegans choose not to use beeswax and honey.  In fact, some companies that advertise themselves as being free of animal products specifically exclude insect products on the basis that insects are not animals at all.  When someone asks me about this, it’s not at all uncommon for them to begin arguing with me about why my choice makes no sense. In this post, I note some of the reasons that I commonly hear about why bee products should be excluded from consideration in what can be considered problematic to animals and my responses to those claims.

Please note that these are my personal views. I do not set them forward as the capital-T Truth, but as my version of reality and my way of understanding what it means to be vegan. I provide this information as an explanation to non-vegans for this choice, and a reference for vegans in their own attempts to explain.

1. “Insects aren’t animals.” – I disagree (the question is “animal, mineral, or vegetable?” – if bees aren’t animals, are they vegetables or minerals? ; ) ). However, if you want to put insects in a different class than other animals, that’s ok with me. But, I don’t want to assign value to animal classifications. Maybe bees don’t have higher intelligence, but I don’t know that because I can’t speak bee. I know that they have a very complex social structure. I know that they utilize signals to communicate to one another about the location of pollen/nectar. I know that we’ve found out some startling things about the thought capacity of dogs, pigs, dolphins, and chimps (among others) that we would not have believed possible 100 years ago. I know that there is a huge range of variation in human ability to feel emotion or think in complex ways, but I’m not going to decide that some humans aren’t worth being good to because they are “dumber” than others. I just can’t draw a line. I wouldn’t know where. If bees are ok, how about grasshoppers? If grasshoppers are ok, how about birds? If birds are ok, how about cats? etc.

2. “No bees are killed in the production of honey/beeswax.” – Again, I don’t agree. Corporate beekeeping often involves relocating bees multiple times across a year. This is done in crates, on trucks. Bees die. To reduce costs and effort in the cold seasons, some keepers routinely kill off a significant percentage of the swarms for wintering. And, just the reality of opening and closing artificial hive doors and moving in and out of the bees living area is going to result in some bee death.

3. “Only extra honey and beeswax are taken from the hives.” – Like most non-human animals, bees are pretty efficient. They do not produce large quantities of excess honeycombs or honey. They make what they need (within reason). And, when we take honey from them, they can’t just produce enough to make up for it. Or, maybe they could if only small amounts were harvested from a colony, but that is not the reality with corporate beekeeping. Much of the bees’ “product” is removed for human consumption. Bees are regularly feed sugar water (or water with corn syrups) to replace the honey that was removed from the hive. As far as the wax goes, worker bees who build the hive only live a little over a month. 3/4 of that month is spent in production of honeycombs for the use of the colony. In my mind, this sounds like “I worked 60 years to build this house and just when it was finished the city took away my land.” I find it disturbing.

4. “Without beekeepers the bees would have a worse life.” – Ok, maybe; I guess I don’t know. But, based on ideas of evolution and survival of the fittest, things like how the bees regulate their colony size (dividing when production reaches a certain point), the shape of their hives, and how they swarm, etc. seem to be what is ultimately best for them. When humans come in, all of these processes are restructured to accommodate the needs of the keepers. The bees are also smoked and sprinkled with antibiotics (this just doesn’t sound better to me). And, it’s awfully paternalistic of us to think that we know better how bees should live than they do. It actually sounds pretty similar to arguments that have been made about some pretty atrocious treatment of human groups, in fact (and no, I’m not saying the situations are equal – it’s just a like rationale).

5. “I know a beekeeper and he/she loves his/her bees and treats them very well.” – I am sure that is the case for many individual beekeepers. However, the fact remains that much beekeeping is done in mass corporate environments. And, when I go to the store, or the farmers market, and buy a jar of honey, I have no real idea of how those bees were treated. I don’t know if they were corporate bees or kept by a kindly little old beekeeper from Maine. And, since I don’t know, I am not going to make my decisions on that basis (see point 1).

6. “You kill thousands of bugs a year without even knowing it.” – Absolutely. This is certainly the case. For me, veganism means that I will try to avoid harming other creatures for my own happiness. If my house was suddenly infested with bees, would I pay an exterminator to get them out, even if it meant some death? Yes, I would. Because that, to me, seems like a necessary evil. But, I don’t “need” honey. There are plenty of other sweeteners that are just fine. And I know that I’ll kill some bugs driving to work (can’t help it… need a job and didn’t mean to) or even walking from place to place. But, I won’t do it intentionally and I will avoid it when I can.

Now, all of that having been said, I’m ok if someone else eats honey. Heck, I’m ok if someone else eats bees. Obviously, it would be swell if other people believed what I believe, but don’t we all think that to some degree? In reality, everyone makes choices about this issue. Some people elect to eat cow, but not pig. Some people chose to eat pig, but not dog. Some consume fish, but not mammals. Others won’t eat flesh, but will use by-products. Everyone has to draw the line where they need to and where it is comfortable for them. And, like many vegans, I’ve drawn that line on the other side of honey. And, you know, I’m ok with that.

Bee well.




About Lorin Arnold

I'm a university professor, not-that-kind-of-doctor, family and gender communication scholar, spouse, vegan (not a real fur), and mother of six.  I'm a little goofy and a little serious, organized and kind of a mess. In my "spare" time, I teach yin and vinyasa yoga and write The VeganAsana - a blog about yoga and green eating/cooking.  I consider the blog, and my work with elephant journal my little effort to ponder yoga and veganism, and how they intersect, in a way that helps me develop understandings of self, provides information for others, and allows me to rock my creative smarty pants.


28 Responses to “The Honey Don’t List.”

  1. Derek says:

    As someone who knows the author, I must say I have "skirmished" with her before about the issue with honey and vegans. And while I'll still eat honey in the future, know that I'll have a little more guilt while doing it.

  2. Lorin says:

    It's such skirmishing that prompts me to more fully investigate my own stances. So, thanks!

  3. Its.Me.T. says:

    I am not going to argue with someone about convictions they hold dear, and there is a lot I respect about the vegan lifestyle. I understand that the decision to go vegan crosses a very broad, and very personal spectrum. But as a ideology overall there is one hang up that I haven’t gotten a good answer to yet though, and maybe you can help:

    You say- “I don’t know if they were corporate bees or kept by a kindly little old beekeeper from Maine. And, since I don’t know, I am not going to make my decisions on that basis.” It is not a clear-cut stance that eating honey at all, under any circumstance, is immoral, it is that you cannot verify that it was harvested to your standards of animal well-being. But in this day and age small artisan businesses are everywhere. It would seem to be the same amount of effort as actively avoiding all contact with said food-stuffs as it would be to make a small trip to verify a vendor, then support a local, sustainable, ethical business (which are finding it harder and harder to survive economically and politically). The same can easily be said for eggs and dairy.

    I guess I see a bit of a discrepancy between the very strong locavore undercurrent of veganism, and the refusal to support local and artisanal businesses because of the faults of industrialized production. The price points alone would discourage mindless and unhealthy overconsumption, almost forcing moderation.

    I think that the support of such a strong-willed community as most vegans are, could really bolster the movement of local and ethical production of these foods. This could double the pressure against mega-corps and could do much more damage to them than ethically-minded omnivores alone. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate end-game, to have these sickening companies pushed under and their operations stopped for good?

    Can you clarify this for me, please?

  4. kris says:

    As you continue to investigate this subject you might find the "Vegetarian Myth" written by (former 20 year vegan) Lierre Keith an interesting read.

  5. Allison Hemrick says:

    As your sister and small time beekeeper, I certainly respect your opinion on this subject. I will tell you that the honey that we harvested and placed in your gift basket was from bees that have been very well taken care of. We are continuing to keep our bees alive throughout the winter by feeding them with a mixture of cane sugar, water, and vitamins specifically designed for the bees. My point is that they are well taken care of. However, on the flip side, I am sure that the corporations who mass produce the honey are likely not caring for the bees as are small town beekeepers. I also understand your point about not knowing where the honey came from. And by the way, you are correct….bees are considered livestock, at least in the state of Indiana. Again, I understand where you're coming from, but I wanted you to know that we do everything in our power to protect our bees.

  6. Amy says:

    If you were to have a bee swarm in your attic, I very much hope you would choose to call your local apiary society and have someone come out and relocate the swarm rather than exterminating them.

  7. Susan in Maine says:

    For corporate commercial honey – I am in agreement. However, I have recently learned, thanks to bee expert, Phil Gaven of The Honey Exchange in Portland, Maine that there are (a minority of) bee keepers who care for their bees. They feed them when their supply is low, they give them the space they need to thrive and accommodate them in the winter (did I say its Maine). Perhaps for the few times you opt to use honey consider the source. I(especially if you actually KNOW the keeper and how the honey is harvested. YES – STAY AWAY from name brand 'honey' from the supermarkets. Namaste.

  8. Lorin says:

    Well, I meant wasps more than honeybees 🙂 I have yet to find someone willing to relocate those. I even had a challenge finding a person who would truly relocate our squirrels from the attic.

  9. Lorin says:

    Yep. I sort of figured you were doing the best possible (given the ultimate goal of honey acquisition) for the bees, and I am sure a lot of small keepers are. Sadly, that's the minority by far.

  10. Chuang Tzu says:

    Isn't most of our fruit crop an "animal by-product" if one considers the pollenation done by bees? How does that factor into a vegan diet. How do I differentiate fruit pollenated by local/free bees with fruit pollenated by corporate/slave bees? I don't see this info anywhere, not even at my local food co-op.

  11. Lorin says:

    Chuang Tzu, Absolutely there is bee and other animal labor in pollination. As I said above, everything is a matter of drawing a line. For me, because pollination is a side effect of something the bee is doing for itself (finding nectar) and subsequent removal of the fruit is not detrimental to the bees.

    As far as finding produce that is not pollinated by managed bee populations, it can be difficult. Rates of "rented bee" use rise and fall dependent on what is going on with the bee population. A few years ago, due to colony collapse, rates went up, but more recently, they have gone back down. It's also important to remember that most of our produce is not pollinated by honey bees. Only about 30% of crops are cross-pollinated by honey bees, and less than 10% solely by honey bees. And then, some of that is pollinated by wild bees (estimates range between 50 and 75% of honey bee pollination is wild bees). So, the moral of the story is that relatively little of the produce you eat is probably pollinated by managed bee colonies. But, buying from local small farms will reduce that chance a little more.

  12. Jessica says:

    You can get some information here about local, ethical bee keeping and the problems these bee keepers have had with Big Ag.

    Keep it local and you can't go wrong!

  13. Jessica says:


    Sorry to keep buggin you when you were just trying to engage others about your veganism choices. CCD is a lie created by the chemical companies and EPA to displace blame regarding the bee die. Tom Theobald, who is a Boulder bee keeper of thirty-six years wrote a great article about it here:

    Honey is just a by-product of our pollinators. A genocide of pollinators should be considered a natural omen to be regarded as a very serious occurrence in nature. It's not about whether 30% of our crops are pollinated, or less (or more). Any bee death should be regarded as a warning, though this one is tremendous. The big picture beckons a glance when putting food in your face. Keeping bees is something that everyone should do in an ideal world. Most local beekeepers I know truly cherish their work. If you spend any time with people who do this, it becomes apparent that the love they put into their craft is a serious contribution to our planet's wellbeing.

    Thanks for your article!

  14. Jessica says:

    Tobye: Check out two films: Colony & Vanishing of the Bees. Bee die around the world is a result of the use of systemic pesticides, specifically a class of pesticides called Neonicontinoid. That is what is causing bee dies, not over farming of honey with sugar. There are plenty of poor bee farming methods used by BigAg such as using sugar water, but that is not what we are dealing with globally.

  15. Lorin says:

    I'm sort of assuming that colony death is due to our mistreatment of the environment, and also some big ag. bee practices.

    While I won't likely start to consume honey, as I am a vegan and it is an animal by-product, I truly appreciate your input in the discussion and hope it has been useful to all the readers!

  16. yogi tobye says:

    It's actually a parasite that is causing the biggest problem Jessica. At least as fas as Europe is concerned anyway. The Asian parasite is causing huge problems, not only for bee colonies but, also for farmers with apple and pear orchards etc, that depend on the bees to pollenate…

    Again, as far as Europe is concerned, pesticides and herbicides are incredibly heavily controlled and no longer cause the problems they once did. I cannot however comment on the rest of the globe.

  17. Jessie says:

    I have been vegetarian for 3 years now, and sometimes contemplate vegan…… Most of my problems come from our terrible factory farming industry, though. This is the second year that my boyfriend has been keeping 4 beehives, and it has been a wonderful experience. I think the bees benefit by having a good place that he insulates during the winter, and we always leave them plenty of honey over the winter. There is just such an abundance of honey from the hive that the bees will never use it all. We have also been raising chickens and I feel like the eggs have been nourishing our family, while the chickens have had a natural existence of foraging supplemented by tasty table scraps and organic grains……. Eating, even plants, involves death. Respect for nature and the cycle of life is what counts.

  18. Jessica says:

    To add, one of the reasons that pesticides are banned in France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Slovenia was because of the problems that the systemic pesticides caused, and the resulting revolts of farmers and beekeepers in Europe on this issue. Posted it on EJ:

  19. Chris says:

    Agreed that Neonicontinoids are a monstrous worldwide problem causing unprecedented bee die-off. Jessica has done her research.

  20. Lorin says:

    I completely agree. Every person has to come at these decisions from a variety of places, because they are so complex. I enjoy reading about how others make their choices.

  21. Rachel says:

    Thank you Corey. I live in Spain where there is a lot of small-scale, artisanal beekeeping. I know my local beekeeper and get updates of where the hives are and how they are doing, if the rains are late and thus the tree blooms late, too. I love honey and believe that there is a wonderful and ancient symbiosis between bees and humans. And no, there are no wild bees anymore…the beekeepers are doing a service for the planet IMHO.

  22. […] but then there’s honey. And it’s cold season. Do all vegans skip honey? Maybe I could be like an Apia-vegan or something. Guess I need to find a new favorite lip balm […]

  23. Kaz says:

    We had a bee colony swarm in our disused chimney a few months back and called a local pest controller. When I advised him that I didn’t want to kill the bees with his chemical methods, he said “well, you could use some fly spray”. Ummm, which part of I don’t want to kill them did he misunderstand? We simply blocked off the bottom of the chimney that opens into the house with cardboard and they left after a day.

    As a recently converted vegan, I also avoid honey and bees wax where I can but they hide this stuff everywhere! When I worked in a health food store 20 + years ago, they used to stock bulk honey (25L buckets) from a local farmer and there were always dead bees, or bee parts floating in it. Honey doesn’t taste so good after seeing that so giving it up wasn’t an issue for me.

    Ideally, I would love to keep a hive in my backyard primarily so that I know I will have bees available for pollinating my fruit and veg, not to collect honey or wax. It is next to impossible to get some of the crops to grow without them. I am fairly skilled at hand-pollinating the large fruit now (pumpkins, squash, zucchini) but this came after many years of drought and low bee numbers adversely affecting my yields.

    Local government makes it all but impossible for suburban bee keepers with all of the incredibly strict rules and regs involved. You should see the rules about keeping chickens…

  24. greenbless says:

    Lorin, This article was just released by Purdue University researchers and others regarding honey bees. Hope you share it. Jess

  25. greenbless says:

    Newly released article from Purdue University researchers regarding Neonicontinoids:

  26. Rebecca says:

    First of all, I’d like to say I love your article and I agree! I transitioned to vegan about a year ago and have been doing my best to live bee-free ever since. I just find it difficult to find a good vegan Chapstick since everyone seems to think bee products are acceptable for vegans :/.

    On an unrelated note, I just wanted to comment on a statement you made about the egg and dairy industries: “Veganism is a little harder for people to grasp, as no killing is involved in dairy and egg products.”

    There is actually a lot of death involved in those agricultures, and vegetarians really need to know this. The most obvious being that without the dairy industry, there would be no veal industry – they go hand in hand. And when “spent” dairy cows and egg-laying chickens can’t keep up with the demands, they are sent to slaughter and usually used in dog food or ground for burgers. But as you probably know, even putting all this death aside, dairy cows and egg-laying chickens probably have it the worst since they are tortured and exploited for so much longer before their imminent murder, or they just collapse from pain and exhaustion.

    I don’t want to make any assumptions, I just wanted to help you know what to say next time someone wonders why you don’t eat dairy or eggs. You seem to have knowledge on bee products down pretty well 🙂 but just for the heck of it, I did find a pretty good article about bees I want to share – Thanks for the great read and helping the animals!

  27. Rebecca says:

    This whole craze for animal welfare is doing some good in a way, but it’s definitely doing more harm than good. It doesn’t matter if the farmers named the animals or pet them every day or fed them organic grass on a silver platter. At the end of the day, they are being exploited, stolen from, and killed, and they don’t have a choice. Is there a nice way to kill a human? If a murderer of humans said, “well, I made sure they ate an organic feast and had a comfy bed before I chopped them up into little pieces and at them.” That person would be considered a psychopath. Animal welfare would say that the murdering of humans is not the problem, it’s that their cage isn’t big enough and the murderer needs to be nicer to them while stealing breast milk that was meant for a baby, who is now going without and will be killed soon. No one would choose to live like that, including animals.

    The point is, animals long for many of be same things we do: to play and have fun, be loved, not go hungry or thirsty, be comfortable, be free, etc. They have friends and families, they get sad and lonely, they get excited, and they get scared and feel pain. Bees – like cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys, etc – are very complicated creatures and have the right to be free to their own bodies and the things they make. I am for animal rights; I am against animal welfare.

    I am also for animal sanctuaries. If someone wants to take care of goats or bees, that’s great! Just don’t exploit them. Take care of spent hens who won’t produce eggs for you, and let the bees keep their honey and wax they worked so hard to make because they made it for a reason.