Honey: Just How Sweet Is It?

I have a confession to make: I'm not vegan.

Honey is a product made by bees, for bees, and is in not vegan in any way, shape, or form. I continue to eat it and call myself "vegan" for simplicity's sake, as it is a rather specific, more unusual ingredient than eggs or dairy - whilst out and about, I'm more likely to be asking if the main course is vegan because it might contain one of these. Its easier just to say vegan, and not be given any animal products. Adding that I eat honey, on the odd occasion, to the average bystander, to whom my diet is probably extreme enough already and the prospect hasn't even crossed their mind, would baffle them.

Back to the old all-important quote: "diet is not a religion". I am not aiming to be vegan - I use that word because it fits my diet most closely, most conveniently, and is a correct description for the vast majority of the time. My aim is to make my diet as cruelty-free as I can, without inconveniencing myself.

For me, the question is not; "Is honey vegan?" the question is, "Should I be eating honey?"

Sadly, it seems much harder to answer...

I made this recipe, photographed it, went to publish it, then suddenly found myself in a conundrum. I'd made a non-vegan recipe; I'd have to at least explain my stance on honey, in brief. So, what was my stance on honey? That of the contentedly ignorant. Perhaps I'd felt that I'd done enough research, immersed myself enough in animal cruelty in order to get to where I am now, and didn't want to go through that again. But it was at this point that I realised that had to change. It was time to address the question.

I've been doing some research, but it is difficult to draw conclusive evidence. There are both "bad beekeepers" and "good beekeepers" in the world - and the good ones genuinely don't seem to be doing their bees any harm, which is what I base my decisions on. I would actually have nothing against the consumption of eggs, were chickens kept purely for that purpose!

However, that isn't the case, so I don't eat eggs, and by this logic, I probably shouldn't be eating honey either. It's true that boycotting honey may make little difference to the industry - bees are still used purely for the purposes of pollination - but at least expresses my views against the industry's openly exploitative business.

Whenever there is cheap commercial product being made, there is abuse, whether is be that of animals or human beings. It appears that the honey industry is no exception. First off the bees aren't left any of their own honey - it is completely removed, and their hives filled with cheap sugar replacements that certainly don't do the inhabitants any favours. The bees are also transported over long distances in cramped, dark conditions from one location to another, for the purposes of pollinating crops, and may spend much of their lives living in this way: a sad fate for an airborne creature. When collecting honey from industrial hives, the hives are smoked to distract the bees attention, whilst many are squashed and killed during the process. I've also heard of queens being artificially inseminated, which is positively gruesome...

I don't believe that bees "don't feel pain" or any such nonsense. Pain is essential to a living being's survival, providing it with important information about what is dangerous and what is not, as well as to the current condition of its own body - why wouldn't they feel pain? The argument that they don't is nothing more than a feeble excuse to allow such cruelty to go on unrestricted.

I don't know to what extent this is true to all apiaries, but I certainly have no trouble believing it for those making honey for mass-production. Consider all you know about the cruelty administered to "higher" animals such as cows, pigs and sheep. If these animals are treated so badly on an industrial scale, would any more compassion be shown for insects?

Of course, the number of bees killed or hurt in the honey industry will be less, in total, than the number of insects and other creatures killed or hurt in the farming of vegetables. It would be lunacy to boycott vegetables, so surely shirking honey is equally pointless?

Although this argument makes sense, it's worth bearing in mind that honey is a direct derivative product of the bees themselves - the honey business itself is morally unethical (the majority of the time.) On the other hand, there is nothing unethical, in theory, about broccoli. In reality, its production may not as clean as we would like, but the product itself is not the direct result of animal abuse - it can be produced without harming animals, and therefore cannot be something I am actively against.

And yet, honey is not something I am actively against either, at least in principle. From what I can see, it is perfectly possible to maintain a hive, giving the bees a home, leaving them plenty honey for themselves and merely taking the surplus in peaceful co-existence. This, I can't find fault with - much the same way as I'd have nothing against eggs taken from hens that are well looked-after, and used solely for this purpose. (I wouldn't buy eggs even from a farm like this, but that's just because I'm not really into eggs anymore - if I was, I would.) But frankly, aside from the tiny number of wonderful hippy oddballs keeping rescue chickens in their back garden, I don't think any such miracle farms exist.

I know that there some apiaries like this which do exist, however - the trouble is knowing which. And really, you can only know if you pay a visit, ask some questions, and see for yourself whether or not you consider the place to be a cruelty-free practice. And if satisfied, by all means, buy their honey.

I can't/won't do this because I'm a lazy city student, and honestly, I'm not that mad about honey that I would go to the effort of finding an apiary I trusted. Maybe one day.

Until then, I think I'll investigate into the various alternatives - it might be a fun excuse to try out some new recipes.

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