The honey debate - is honey vegan or not?

One of the ongoing debates is whether or not honey is fit for vegan consumption. If you pop that question into Google, you will find a lot of opinions on the matter. We’ve been in the honey game for close to 100 years, so we thought we’d weigh in on the matter.

It’s no secret that there has been a shift in consumption habits over the last few years. Globally, more people are choosing to reduce the amount of animal products they consume and are looking at plant-based alternatives or lifestyles. According to research, “the total number of vegans, vegetarians, and all related categories, is close to 14% of the world population.” This might not sound like much but given that these numbers have grown drastically in recent times, it seems likely that this trend will become more of a permanent lifestyle choice for many more. However, for most of us, this is new territory and that often means that there is a lot of learning to be done.

Let’s start with the basics - what does ‘vegan’ mean.

There are a couple of definitions online, but The Vegan Society explains that "Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

In as much as this vegan philosophy seems simple enough at first glance, the reference to animals already gives rise to debate in the context of honey – a distinction is generally made between animals and other creatures such as bees which are defined as insects.  So, for vegans who do not include insects in their definition of animals, honey is vegan.

The more ‘interesting’ debate – regardless of whether you are or are not vegan – is whether honey is vegan if we include insects in the definition of animals.

To us at Peel’s the answer to that question lies in understanding the role of the beekeeper and observing beekeeping practices.  Our beekeepers have a symbiotic relationship with their bees and their success as beekeepers is inextricably linked to the health of their bees and the strength of their hives – the healthier and stronger the bees, the more honey they produce!  A beekeeper will therefore in the first instance look after his bees – which includes keeping them free from disease, fed in winter and keeping the hives clean and free from parasites and pests – to ensure that the bees are in the best possible position to then reward him with a good honey flow during the times of plenty.  An experienced beekeeper will only harvest surplus honey; extracting more than the surplus would only harm his hives and require him to then feed his bees (more) during the tough times.  The bees themselves ‘mark’ the surplus honey which is the honey that they deposit in the super on top of the brood box and which they have sealed with wax by capping the comb – there again, an experienced beekeeper will only harvest honeycomb that is ‘ripe’ which is just another way of saying that the honeycomb has been capped.

Partially capped honeycomb with a freshly hatched bee on the honeycomb.

Also, and in as much as this does not address so much to the moral issue of the vegan debate but rather to one of consistency of approach and philosophy, many commercial farmers (including fruit, vegetable and nut farmers) access pollination services to increase their yields.  Pollination is inherently more detrimental to the health of bees than beekeeping for honey production due the stress endured by the bees during transportation and the poisons used by farmers to protect their crops which is ingested by the bees.  Logically that would then imply that a vegan would not be comfortable consuming any produce that underwent pollination – this would leave vegans with very few remaining food options and most vegans will have to apply a certain pragmatism when doing a moral assessment of whether a certain foodstuff is vegan or not.  Some food for thought as they say…

Bee pollinating an avocado flower

It is remarkable how a good beekeeper can produce honey in what is often perceived to be a hostile environment and from the most unlikely plant species – such as the bone-dry bushveld, off Aloe during the last winter months and from arid Fynbos – which would not be possible without some of the remarkable beekeepers out there who spend their lives ‘keeping’ the bees safe and sound. 

Here at Peels, we pride ourselves on being part of that beekeeping community and support beekeepers across the country in pursuing their craft, including through our community projects in rural South Africa.

In our experience, a good beekeeper works with his bees and ‘will not do anything to harm a bee’ – in fact, quite the opposite.  So, is honey fit for vegan consumption? We could reference many more sources and argue various points, but at the end of the day, we believe it is all down to choice. If you are comfortable consuming honey then we support you, and if you are not, we support your choice either way.

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