The first thing that pops to mind when I think of veganism, is of excluding meat/fish, dairy and eggs.
Those who follow a vegan diet do not consume animals or their derivatives, which means EVERY derivative is excluded, not just milk and eggs.
Other derivatives, including honey, are produced by animals and must be excluded from a vegan diet. Just because honey is produced by a tiny insect doesn’t make the issue any less relevant. Excluding honey is as important as excluding any other animal derivative.
There is a common misconception implying that bees produce honey strictly for humans to consume. Therefore, the sole purpose of bees serve humans and their love of honey. That sounds absurd, doesn’t it? This notion could not be further from the truth.
In this article, I will explain the reason why honey is not vegan, and I’ll also show you how the lives of bees and other insects are threatened and how that negatively impacts the planet.
Is honey vegan?
Honey is mainly composed of sugars (glucose and fructose) and is a thick amber or golden-colored liquid. It is produced by bees and is created from nectar extracted from plants, namely flowers.
Honey is produced by bees and is their food, so it is not vegan. It is their energy source and without it, they would die of hunger. Honey also provides bees with the essential nutrients they need to survive severe weather or the harsh winter months.
The bees used in the production of commercial honey will visit up to 1500 flowers, producing just one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in their entire lives.
Going from the nectar to honey
Nectar is usually obtained when bees pollinate.
- Bees transport nectar in their tummy, where the invertase enzyme transforms sucrose into glucose and fructose, as they hop from one flower to another before reaching their hive.
- In the hive, the nectar is transferred from bee to bee, where additional enzymes are added each time a bee receives the nectar. This process can last for a period of 20 minutes, further breaking down the sugars.
- Then, the nectar is deposited into the honeycomb where plenty of water exists. Bees ventilate the nectar to accelerate the evaporation of the water and finally seal the honeycomb which can then be stored indefinitely. It is after this stage that the beekeeper removes honey from the hive.
Why are bees so freakin’ important?
This big uproar around honey and bees exists because, in addition to being a product of animal origin, bees are also very important for life on the planet, including our very own life.
Few plants can reproduce themselves, so most depend on animals, wind, or water to reproduce, through pollination. Pollinating animals are insects, birds, squirrels, monkeys, rodents, and reptiles. In Europe, the most predominant pollinators are butterflies, bees, beetles, flower flies, moths, and wasps.
Bees are very important for biodiversity, as they are considered the biggest pollinator in the world, being essential for a wide range of plantations and wild plants.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that of the 100 plant species that supply 90% of food worldwide, 71 are pollinated by bees. Most crops in Europe depend on insect pollination.
Bumblebees are considered the best pollinators in wild territories and the most efficient in pollinating tomatoes, squash, and red fruits.
Having fewer bees literally means having less biodiversity, which is reflected both in nature itself and in the food supply, including our own.
Why are bees vanishing?
As we’ve seen, the approximately 25,000 species of bees are important for biodiversity and essential for pollination, and even though the data is limited, it appears that the bee population is declining.
From 1947 to 2008, the total US bee population decreased by 61%.
Over the past 15 years, beekeepers have reported an unusual decrease in the number of bees and losses of their colonies mainly in the USA and Europe.
American beekeepers lose an average of 30% of their bee colonies each winter.
Not only is the number of commercial bees decreasing, but wild bees are also on the decline.
Compared to the period before 1974, there is now nearly a 50% reduced chance of seeing bumblebees in North America, whatever the area.
It’s still not fully understood why the bee population is declining at such a quick rate but there doesn’t seem to be a single cause tied to it. However, some causes have been suggested by experts, namely:
- Agriculture and intensive use of pesticides
Intensive farming provides an unfavorable environment for bees: there are fewer flowers, fewer peaceful places to build nests, and an abundance of pesticides.
Pesticide residues can be ingested by bees during the harvest of nectar or water. In 2012, scientific discoveries found that some insecticides present high risks for bees, namely the ones called neonicotinoids and fipronil.
Since its appearance in 2005/2006, the colony collapse disorder (CCD) is a phenomenon that occurs when most of the worker bees in the colony disappear, leaving behind the queen, a lot of food, and some nurse bees. The navigation capacity of worker bees seems to be affected, as bees leave the hive to find pollen and do not return.
Not only is the bee population declining, but other pollinators and most of the wildlife associated with agriculture, such as birds, butterflies, and beetles are being affected as well.
- Hunger and subpar nutrition
Bees create honey because it’s their perfect nutrition and energy source. They feed on honey, feed the younger generation, and are still able to store it for the winter months.
However, the commercial honey industry exchanges that honey for a sugar substitute, which is nutritionally inferior to honey. If we want to protect bees, it makes no sense to deprive them of their ideal food source.
In addition to bad industrial practices, the reduction of biodiversity is already a challenge, as the loss of fields with wildflowers translates into a shortage of food for bees.
- Viruses, pathogen attacks, and invasive species
Examples of invasive species include the varroa mite, the Asian wasp, and the small hive beetle.
Varroa is one of the greatest threats. The mite attaches itself to the bees and sucks their blood. When the bee returns to the hive the mite can spread and bring viruses and diseases with it.
- Climate change
Humans are destroying the habitats where bees usually get their food from.
Climate change is also another factor to consider given the extreme temperature shifts. But besides the temperature itself, climate change can also affect the timing of flowering and hibernation of bees.
Scientists found that in regions that have become warmer during the last generation, or that have endured extreme temperature variations, bumblebees are less abundant.
Another major concern is commercial hives.
The regular transport of hives over long distances – to tend for seasonal orchards – can disorient bees. Their health can also be affected by the low diversity of pollen in monocultures. When out of season or in transit, bees are fed corn, grape syrup, or fructose solutions to replace the honey that has been harvested.
And sometimes in large-scale beekeeping, hives are slaughtered after the honey has been harvested, as it is cheaper to do so than keeping them during the winter.
As if that were not enough, the natural reproduction of bees is also altered. New commercial hives are generally bred by artificially inseminating queen bees, contributing to a decrease in genetic diversity. The queen bee’s wings are also cut to prevent it from leaving the hive and creating a new colony elsewhere.
Not all beekeepers are the same
Local beekeepers and small businesses feel insulted when faced with the arguments I’ve mentioned earlier, as most claim to harvest honey ethically and show concern for bees.
They argue that they provide bees with a place to live, and thus protect them from rains or other adverse events and that they only harvest the honey that is produced in excess.
However, it is important to understand that bees only depend on us today because of our own errors.
Bees lived well without our help, without us providing them with hives to live. Over the years humans have destroyed their natural habitat and natural food sources.
Honey belongs to bees so that they can feed their young and thrive during winter, so what makes humans think that the honey bees produce in excess doesn’t have a purpose? At the time I’m writing this, it is not possible to define how much a hive requires to function optimally.
On this subject, the bees will surely know better than we do, and the honey we believe is purely created in excess and serves no purpose should actually mean something to them.
What can be done to help bees?
Government agencies must take action by implementing laws that protect bees and the overall environment so that whenever we take something from the planet, something is given in return.
At the same time, there is always something we can do in our daily lives to contribute to a brighter future, where these pollinators are protected.
Here are some suggestions for things you can do at home to help bees thrive.
One of the simplest ways to help bees is to plant wildflowers native to your region.
Choose different types of flowers, that bloom in different seasons and that have different shapes and colors, to stimulate diversity.
Create a shelter for bees
If you have a yard or garden you can offer bees or other insects a shelter. You can acquire small houses made specifically for sheltering insects, or even build your own.
For example, you can purchase wooden insect shelters on Amazon.
These are shelters made of wood, bamboo, cold porcelain, and varnished with geopropolis. Although this last property is not considered vegan (it is also a derivative of bees), you can find insect shelters built without this particular material.
Naturally, it is always better if you buy handcrafted products made by local manufacturers instead of products that need to be transported across the globe, so if you can, look for those options. Still, the best choice is to build your own bee shelter, and if possible by reusing natural materials you already have at home.
Here is an interesting guide on how to build a homemade insect shelter.
Don’t use pesticides
The intensive use of various pesticides seems to be one of the biggest reasons responsible for the decline of bees and other pollinating insects.
For that reason, it’s important to employ forms of sustainable agriculture, such as strategically placing certain plants capable of warding off pests next to the ones we’re growing for food.
For example, basil and garlic should be planted next to tomatoes because they can repel caterpillars and aphids, and with this, you don’t need to use any chemicals.
Alternatives to honey
There are plenty of alternatives to honey: agave and maple syrup, dates, and molasses.
But this is where one of the biggest controversies lies.
Is consuming these alternatives better than consuming honey produced locally?
A lot of the honey alternatives (namely, the syrups) come from distant countries, with a negative carbon footprint due to their transportation, not to mention the fact they’re byproducts of monocultures that, as we have seen, are responsible for killing biodiversity, including bee populations.
Honey from local beekeepers travels short distances and is obtained from the harvest of the honey that is produced in excess, but honey still belongs to bees, whose population is declining.
Frankly, it’s a very difficult choice.
But the bottom line (which remains relevant to the title of this article) is that honey is still not a vegan product, as it is derived from bees.
Even the food we find in supermarkets generally comes from other countries or continents and is often derived from monocultures that are detrimental to the environment and animal species.
Our power as consumers is to look for the most environmentally friendly options and if possible look for local farmers and more sustainable practices. I won’t judge anyone who decides to consume honey from local beekeepers and I won’t consider you any less vegan for it. It is a very complex issue and it’s one where everyone should be following their moral compass.
Fun Facts: Bees Are Awesome
Although it may seem that bees are not purposefully doing something, bees are actually very intelligent, and that shouldn’t be underestimated at all.
|Bees are social||They harmonize life in the colony, facilitate the construction of a common home, guarantee enough food for the younger generation, defend the colony and regulate its climate;|
|Bees can communicate||They communicate with each other by dancing – informing the other bees about the coordinates of a food source;|
|Bees can get around well||When they move between different locations, bees can find the shortest route – through trial and error;|
|Bees value time||They focus their energy on picking flowers that will bring you a higher reward at the expense of others that recognize are less rewarding. When they do not know which flowers will give them the greatest return, they follow the choices of more experienced bees;|
|Bees have a good memory||Besides being able to remember flowers, they can remember threats they have encountered. They exhibit characteristics identical to emotional states, being able to be more optimistic or pessimistic according to their previous experiences;|
|Bees can solve tasks that are unfamiliar to them||They associate colors with rewards and solve puzzles. Several studies have already tested bees’ abilities to solve puzzles, for example: having to pull a string attached to a fake flower that is under a plate or learning to move a ball to a specific area, in exchange for a reward.|
Honey is not considered vegan because it is derived from bees and is clearly important for them.
Like honey, there are other properties derived from bees that are not vegan; such as propolis, geopropolis, beeswax, or alba cera, which are also widely used in the food and cosmetic industry.
The populations of bees and other pollinating insects is declining due to causes mostly related to human activity. The survival of our species and the entire planet depends on human action in correcting the mistakes it has made.
Some may think that consuming honey is harmless and that its exclusion is something radical.
I’ve read blogs that associate veganism with a cult and describe vegans as people who don’t think for themselves. In my experience, the opposite seems to be happening.
There are plenty of vegans who seek to inform themselves to carefully adopt attitudes or principles that will have the least negative or, if possible, the most positive impact on animals and the environment.
What the evidence tells us is that the population of bees is declining due to human activity, so we need to make an effort to look at that evidence and find solutions to this impending problem that could affect us all.
I hope this article has helped explain the importance of bees in our lives so that, you, as a conscious human being, can make the best choices for the environment.
Sources I’ve relied upon to write this article and where you can find out more information on the topic:
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