Honey Creates Some Sticky Ethical Questions for Vegans and Locavores

Bees make honey for us, and don’t mind when we collect it from them. Right?

Well, not so much.

One hitch in that argument is that some bees get injured and some die when beekeepers disrupt the hive by removing the honeycomb. Bees who try to protect the hive by stinging the beekeeper die — they only get one sting in their lives.

Those hives are the lucky ones. Fate is even less kind to hives that are rented out to pollinate about 100 different food crops for consumption by humans and livestock, including alfalfa, almonds, avocados, broccoli, canola, cherries, clover, cucumbers, lettuce, peaches, pears, plums, sunflowers and tomatoes. The problem for the bees is that they are trucked in 18-wheelers over long distances from crop to crop, with only high-fructose corn syrup to eat along the way. They may spend half the year traveling that way. They don’t like that.

Why should we care if bees get injured or treated miserably — they’re just insects, they don’t feel anything. Right?

Well, again, not so much. “Bees have a central nervous system, just like humans and other animals, which allows them to feel pain.”

I’m going to speculate here that starving causes pain, and thanks to beekeepers, some entire hives starve to death during the winter. A beekeeper explains why:

Normally, a certain percentage of hives die each year. We expect a 20% loss over winter. Sometimes there is no loss, and sometimes more than 20%. I have around 40 hives going into winter, and I know that 10 are pretty small and light and will probably not make it. It’s not the cold. Bees can survive cold weather just fine. It is because they never built up to be a full size hive before winter arrived; they didn’t store up enough food for winter.

What is the food the bees don’t have enough of? It’s the honey the beekeepers stole from the hives. It is illegal to let cats or dogs starve to death, but because of the widespread mistaken belief that bees don’t suffer from pain, beekeepers get away with starving bees year after year.

Another beekeeper argues that farmers need to change their ways: “Trouble is many American beekeepers take away a significant amount of honey. They rob the honey when bees need it the most, during the fall and winter when there are no flowers bearing nectar, the basis of honey.” This doesn’t have to happen. In the 1800′s beekeepers waited until spring, when nectar was available, to remove “surplus” honey from the hives.

Some ethical vegans, i.e. those who abstain from animal by-products out of compassion and concern for the animals, will eat honey. However, it is an animal product and so should obviously be on the no-no list. Maybe their rationale is based on the misconception that bees don’t suffer for us to have honey.

The reality is that honey does not pass the test for ethical vegans, who do not eat or otherwise use animals or their products. I haven’t met a vegan who would wear silk, which is made by worms — ethically, what’s the difference between bees and worms that confers more protection for the worms?

Locavores are another group that thinks seriously and ethically about their diets. The locavore argument about honey is that if it is local, it is on the menu; if it is from far away, don’t touch it. They are motivated by issues like the health benefits for humans of eating local honey and the impact on the environment of importing honey over long distances.

A summary of one locavore beekeeper’s arguments in favor of local honey, from Culinate.com:

  • Fresh, locally produced raw honey has unique flavors.
  • Buying local honey supports the beekeeping industry, an integral part of agriculture currently facing a host of challenges.
  • If you don’t know where your honey is coming from, chances are it’s imported.
  • Buying local honey is better for the environment.

Fortunately for vegans there are lots of plant-based alternatives to honey, like agave nectar. For locavores who don’t know where to get locally-sourced honey, a farmer’s market is a good place to start.

What do you think? Let us know below!


Related Stories:

Why Are Bees Making Blue Honey?

Parasite Drives Honey Bees to Doomed Zombie Flight?

Ask the Beekeeper: Where Have All the Honeybees Gone?


Photo credit: iStockphoto


Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne R11 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne R11 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

Susi Matthews
Susi Matthews11 months ago

thanks for sharing.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven11 months ago

thanks for sharing.

joanne pol
joanne p3 years ago

the honey thing is pretty controversial if you ask me. i've been a vegan for 2.5 years and I never buy mass-produced honey.
However, i Live in a mostly rural Greek island where honey is produced on a small scale, by locals who use heavily traditional, non- modernized methods (they lack the technology and/or the knowledge) that, to the best of my knowledge, are not harmful to the bees.
Honey is the outcome of a sensitive natural process: pollinating.If we banned honey-making, chances are bee populations would greatly decline. That could possibly translate into insufficiet crop production, leading to famine.
So I think that it's in everyone's best interest (including the animals) to support such non-harmful honey making, if only to keep the bee reproduction in control.
Don't buy just any honey. It's important, wether you're vegan or not, to support small and traditional honeymaking units.

Dale O.

Spoken like a true misanthrope, right Colin W? Most of the world will continue to enjoy our honey and fight against the use of pesticides a la Monsanto which is a large corporation that believes in profits over health.

If you wish to be vegan, feel free and don't eat honey or any other animal product. However, if all you can do is put down anyone who doesn't see things yourvegan all or nothing everything in black and white way, then what you say is akin to a temper tantrum because you fail to see that local beekeepers are not corporate clones. But anything to push an agenda.

Making sweeping generalizations about humanity being loathsome and 'greedy' because we happen to enjoy honey from ethical organic beekeepers is not going to make any converts. Piper Hoffman is vegan and is dead set against anyone on the planet eating honey so her article is biased against the consumption of honey. Certainly avoid the large multinational corporate interests and go for local honey as local organic beekeepers are not like huge corporations that do anything to make extra profit. Pass the honey for my herbal home made Peppermint tea. Organic honey, local honey.

Todd Warner
Todd W4 years ago

Colin says: "The point being: DON'T EAT HONEY BECAUSE IT'S HARMFUL TO THE BEES."

Response: Eating honey is neither harmful to the bees nor to humans. Your statement is simply false... as pointed out time and time again... and again... and again. Pointed out in this forum and 10,000 other forums that, for whatever reason, folks seem incapable of doing very basic research. Or just talking to your average beekeeper.

Diane L.
Diane L4 years ago

Colin, this is the first logical comment you've made..........."I couldn't have said it better myself.".........in other words, you can't say anything better than anyone, even the most illogical writer here. Eating honey obtained from local bees without harming the bees in any way shouldn't be an issue for anyone with a working brain.

Of course there is a huge problem with keeping colonies healthy, and that is something we're still unsure of as to cause. It's not because we remove the honey from their hives. If that were the case, there would have been colony collapses centuries ago since honey has been harvested by not just humans, but many species, including bears, badgers and other mammals for as long as they've existed.

Colin Wright
Past Member 4 years ago

Yes, let's all debate for another few years whether a small detail should let us eat more local honey or something else. Let's all miss the point completely.


Why don't we try protecting the bees from dying off in all cases WITHOUT taking any honey from them? Why? Because humans are selfish, greedy, evil MFers who do nothing but destroy everything we come into contact with, you say?

I couldn't have said it better myself.

J. J.4 years ago

Wished that these so called experts would get it right... 2011 Stop eating honey http://www.care2.com/greenliving/3-reasons-to-stop-eating-honey.html - 2012 Eat honey http://www.care2.com/greenliving/10-health-benefits-of-honey.html - Now in 2013 it's: "Should you or shouldn't you eat honey..?"