Do some vegans eat honey?

Do some vegans eat honey and why would they not? After all they are into natural living and avoiding foods like meat, eggs and dairy; or any other products that are derived from animals.

But what about that from the honeybee? Insects are animals after all.

And do keepers not exploit the bees in the same way as a dairyman takes milk destined for the calf from the mother cow?

These are ticklish questions and there are certainly many ifs and buts. And I need to be cautious since I am not a vegan; but my grandfather certainly was and it was he who introduced me to beekeeping.

Vegan principles

1. The principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man.

2. To seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities and work.

3.  And by all other uses involving the exploitation of animals by man; hunting and vivisection, for example.

Honey bread and cheese runny and crystBread, cheese and honey

My grandfather, the vegan beekeeper

My grandfather, no question of it, was more or less a vegan long before the term was commonly used. He would not wear leather belts or shoes, for example. A professor of the local university and principal of a teachers' training college nearly a hundred years ago he realised the toxic effect sugar had on humans. So he turned to honey for sweetening and introduced his family to beekeeping.

Three of his grandchildren are serious beekeepers. He gave me my first hive when I was 9 or 10 years old.

Having been greatly traumatised by the need to kill horses for food during the siege of Ladysmith he became a life-long vegetarian. Many of his descendants still eat no meat and we personally are flexitarians; we eat chicken and fish periodically and very occasionally free-range beef, pork or mutton. We get most of our protein from legumes, eggs and dairy products; and nuts and seeds.

We still eat no more than a teaspoon or two of sugar daily, mainly in homemade jams with a very occasional splurge on chocolate or ice-cream on high and holy days.

Is honey of animal origin?

Bee pollinating poppy flower.

The bee's honey stomach

The reasoning behind why some vegans eat honey gets ticklish now. A bee has a special stomach which it fills with nectar, adds many special nutrients but doesn't digest it in the way that a cow processes grass to produce milk.

The nectar from the flower is then regurgitated into the cells in the combs when the bee gets back to the hive. There are no milk glands or ovarian ducts. So is honey of animal origin or not?

Has the bee digested the honey and pollen or has she simply transported it back to the hive, adding certain nutrients in a not dissimilar way to the baker supplying salt, yeast and water when making his loaf?

Is that baker not just an animal that we are exploiting to produce bread for us?

Sourdough starter foamingThe baker adds sourdough, the bee her multiplicity of nutrients. Neither digest their products before offering them to us.

Yes, just as milk comes from a cow that eats grass, honey is produced by bees that feed on the nectar and pollen from flowers. So why is there any debate?

Humans can survive without milk or honey, so that's not an issue. Vegans are consistent in believing we should eat neither.

If every cow on the planet was suddenly to die, humans would certainly survive. Grumpy for sure without cheese, yoghurt and butter but given that cattle make a massive contribution to greenhouse gases, global warming and fresh-water shortages, we might actually be better off.

But if every honeybee were suddenly to die almost every creature and a great many plants would be negatively affected in one way or another. For her real importance is not honey; it's pollination.

How does that come into the equation? Well vegans claim that humans exploit cows for their own purposes, which is true; and the planet might be better off if there were no more cattle than zebras. 

But if we did not exploit honeybees almost every aspect of life would be negatively influenced; they contribute at least one fifth of all pollination apparently but some foods like almonds and blueberries where mass flowering occurs for a short period would be very seriously affected.

If we all became vegans overnight, beekeeping would go into serious decline. Or would it? How important is honey in the industry?

Unlike cattle, humans only take of the surplus that bees produce. If it was not harvested from the hives those colonies would soon become "honey-bound" leaving little room for the queen to lay her eggs. Swarming would increase massively with bees nesting in every nook and cranny; soon they would be declared vermin despite their pollination services.

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

- attributed but unconfirmed to Albert Einstein.

Keepers argue that if humans were to entirely stop eating honey, bee populations would be seriously undermined. There would certainly be few almonds for vegans to enjoy; nor should they by their own principles.

Vegans, almonds and soya beans

"More bees die every year, mostly in pollinating the almonds crop in the US than all other fish and animals raised for slaughter combined."

To be consistent in their belief that humans should eat no honey, vegans should also eschew almonds and blueberries, for example, pollination of which contributes to billions of bee deaths.

Personally I am not a supporter of the mass monoculture production of almonds in California; apparently some 80% of the worldwide crop is grown in the great Central Valley. It is not environmentally sound and cruel on the honeybees.

In these days of industrial agriculture it has become almost impossible for vegans to be wholly true to their beliefs; almost all foods are pollinated by managed bees. Even growing one's own fruit and vegetables as we do there is most likely an apiary not far off that is compromising their code of honour.

Nor should they consume soybean products which are also, but to a lesser extent, dependent on bees for pollination; and because of the devastation of the Amazon jungle, clearing vast areas for planting these increasingly important legumes for both vegans and animal fodder.

Honey and the bible

"Pollen is one of the bee products, including honey, propolis and wax mentioned in the Talmud, the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as healers of diseases; and the Holy Quran[3]."

Biblical Israel, the Promised Land was of course described as a place of milk and honey. That in itself naturally is no argument for or against beekeeping but it does give one cause to stop and ponder.

There are many positive comments in the Bible about bees, not least that John the Baptist, the greatest man ever born according to Jesus, ate locusts and honey.

Do some vegans eat honey? I'm unsure how this would affect Jews and Christian believers wanting to join those who abhor enjoying any food of animal origin.

"Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey."

- Matthew 3

“Verily I say unto you, among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist."

- Matthew 11

Wild honey would no doubt have still been in the comb.

honeycomb in frame capped

Adulteration of honey

Adulterated honeySeparation is a good sign to beware of.

The milk and honey of biblical times of course are quite different to those found on grocery store shelves today. Along with olive oil, they are the most adulterated foods of the world. That too should cause us to stop and consider.

Do some vegans eat honey?

Do some vegans eat honey is a question that mystifies thinking people; and for good reason. Beekeeping like all of agriculture is full of controversy. It never does us any harm to stop and think. It has been said the mature mind can entertain thoughts that it doesn't necessarily hold to. 

Natural honey has a low glycemic index; once processed by bottlers the GI rises dramatically[1]. We would all benefit by joining the vegans and eschewing most of that found in grocery stores.

Kidney stones

"Bee Pollen Extract prevents and ameliorates the elevation of inflammatory markers and histopathologic changes used to identify kidney injury compared to controls[3]."

Vegans are significantly more prone to kidney stones; however this is not true of their fellows who also eschew all meat but do enjoy eggs, dairy products and natural honey giving them conversely a protective effect[2].

This may be because of the influence of bee pollen that researchers have shown has a diuretic effect, increasing urine flow.

Why do some vegans eat honey but others avoid this natural food?

"We have found that natural honey containing pollen, propolis and various polyphenols causes a considerable increase in urine flow not dissimilar to Thiazide diuretics but with a potassium-sparing effect[3]."

I hope this is not seen as an attack on veganism. I have much sympathy for their beliefs; the management of commercial husbandry today is horrific. We choose instead to grow as much of our own food as we possibly can; and treat our bees and chickens with kindness and consideration. We do not exploit them in the negative sense of the word; no more so than a blind person using a guide dog.

So some vegans eat honey? Yes, I believe they do.


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