While honey and other bee by-products aren’t vegan, another common question is whether honey is even sustainable.
Bees are under threat, so is buying honey helping or hurting them?
Unfortunately, honey can’t be considered sustainable because the majority is produced by conventional beekeepers who put profits over the welfare of bees.
Natural beekeepers who are bee-centered don’t sell much honey (if at all) because honey is the most important food source for the bees. By removing honey from the hive, a bee colony may starve throughout winter.
Buying local or organic honey can reduce harm to bee colonies, but it doesn’t eliminate it.
Is honey sustainable?
Honey could be one of the most eco-friendly and sustainable foods available, though there are some ethical questions, especially if you’re vegan.
To produce honey, you just need bees and plants, though the kind of bees and plants you need varies depending on your area and the kind of honey you want.
The bees collect nectar from the flowers and create honey from the sugars of the nectar. These sugars then become honey thanks to the design of a hive’s honeycomb and evaporation caused by bee wings.
Honey can then be harvested from the honeycomb and sold.
Harvesting honey from hives can be bad for the bees.
Profit-driven companies selling honey are more likely to harvest too much honey from their hives, because they aren’t considering the welfare of the bees.
If a beekeeper harvests honey regularly from a hive it can disrupt the bees and can leave them without enough sugar to sustain the hive.
While removing so-called surplus honey can benefit the hive by giving them more space to fill, it also causes stress to the bees.
Honey stores are used by bees to gain enough energy to swarm and start a new colony with a new queen bee.
It’s better to source your honey from local farmers and beekeepers who care about their bees than it is to buy commercial honey.
Local honey is more likely to have been taken from looked after bees, though it’s always worth checking.
Why is honey not sustainable?
According to Ethical Consumer, honey consumption is “arguably complicit in contributing to declining honey bee populations, especially if sourced from a business driven by profit”.
This is why buying from local beekeepers who follow natural beekeeping practices is best.
It’s easy to forget that honey isn’t made by bees for us – the bees make honey to eat themselves!
Honey is kept in hives to sustain the colony, especially through winter when the majority of plants have no nectar to provide.
The queens of bumblebee and honeybee hives hibernate through winter after eating as much honey as possible, so reducing their surplus of honey in autumn can have disastrous effects on a colony’s survival.
What’s wrong with the honey industry?
There are two main parts of the honey industry – conventional beekeeping and natural beekeeping.
Conventional beekeeping practices are, much like conventional farming, very industrialized and will exploit the bees to create more honey.
This includes clipping the wings of queens so that colonies stay where they’re put and don’t swarm.
Swarming is a natural part of a colony’s lifecycle. When a colony swarms, it typically splits into two, allowing a second colony to be founded by a new queen. By utilizing swarm suppression, conventional beekeeping forces bees to remain in place in the hope of producing higher yields of honey.
By stopping bees from swarming, the bees can’t create more colonies, which would allow more honey to be produced as the colonies sustain populations parallel to one another.
Instead of this natural process of bee reproduction, conventional beekeepers instead try to artificially breed queens.
In 1923, Rudolf Steiner warned that “a century from now all breeding of bees would cease if only artificially produced bees were used”. Steiner recognized that artificially bred bees could produce more honey in the short term, but that they would inevitably lead to death and destruction of the bees.
Disease management of bees in natural beekeeping involves natural selection, but conventional beekeepers often prefer to use antibiotics to treat illness and infection in hives.
The Darwinian method of natural selection allows colonies to die out if they’re weak to pests and illnesses, allowing stronger genes to reproduce and create stronger colonies.
Using antibiotics on bees has been shown to decrease survivorship compared to untreated bees, as the gut microbiome is altered by the antibiotic. The antibiotics used can interfere with bee guts’ natural protection.
Disease can also be attributed to the use of synthetic pesticides, especially where monocropping is used to make a particular kind of honey.
Monocropping is a farming practice in which a single crop species is planted in an area. Only providing one species of plant can lead honeybees to have poor nutrition, especially because the plants only flower at one time in the year.
Diversifying the plants and nectar on offer to bees is important to maintain the health of the whole colony.
It may not even be the fault of the conventional beekeepers for this poor nutrition – as many farms practice monocropping – but if beekeepers don’t provide a wide variety of pollen sources for their bees then they could be harming their bees.
Is keeping bees good for the environment?
Many people believe that beekeeping is done just to produce and sell honey, but that’s far from the truth.
While conventional beekeeping is heavily associated with unsustainable practices and poor bee welfare, natural beekeeping is much more promising for the good of bees. This doesn’t guarantee that honey is sustainable, but natural beekeepers put their welfare and survival first.
Keeping bees isn’t necessarily about producing honey for natural beekeepers.
The Natural Beekeeping Trust describes its beekeeping as “bee-centred”. A UK-based trust, the NBKT educates people on the biology of the honeybee and even includes a list of over 250 published papers on wild bees and near-natural beekeeping.
By putting bees first, natural beekeeping seeks to care for bees and help them flourish. The NBKT states that the amount of honey produced by colonies is “exactly what they need and no more”.
Even when it appears that a hive has a surplus of honey, that honey serves an extra purpose – to stop the colony from reproducing more than they can sustain.
Two natural beekeepers interviewed by Ethical Consumer advised that natural beekeeping “isn’t about honey production” so there isn’t an easy answer to what honey is best to buy. Checking in with local beekeepers about the honey they sell is more likely to be harvested carefully.
Buying from supermarkets almost guarantees that the honey has been produced overseas by conventional beekeepers.
If beekeepers view honey as a bonus to their hobby, they’ll have a far healthier and kinder approach to keeping bees.
That’s exactly the sort of approach to keeping bees that is good for the environment. By caring for bees and allowing them to flourish naturally, natural beekeepers can help balance out the harm done by commercial beekeepers.
One day, this might even allow bees to repopulate enough to no longer be at risk in the wild.
Can you buy organic honey?
It’s rare to find certified organic honey because it takes so much to verify that the honey hasn’t been made using pollen from treated plants.
While many beekeepers avoid the use of pesticides, herbicides, and other synthetic chemicals, bees aren’t just going to stick to the garden or field they’re in!
Bees can travel up to 5 miles away from the hive to collect pollen, depending on the availability of nectar in the area.
To certify honey as organic, each batch would have to be tested and verified, which is more expensive than it’s worth. For local farmers especially it’s just not worth it.
However, there are certified organic honey products you can buy – but these aren’t guaranteed to be any better than buying ordinary honey.
For most people, especially in the UK, organic honey has to be imported in, racking up transportation emissions. Even with testing, nobody can guarantee that the bees haven’t been foraging from treated plants.
If you can buy organic honey that hasn’t been imported from overseas, that’s great! Australia and New Zealand have several popular organic honey brands, such as R Stephens in Tasmania.
Don’t fret if you can’t find any organic honey from your country or region. Instead, search for local beekeepers and buy from them.
It’s better to support local businesses than large businesses that will put production quotas over the welfare of their bees.