A few days ago, I was having a conversation with friends about my realization that the sickness I felt each night was caused by dairy. One friend commented that she had a great recipe for vegan cookies, but that she made them with honey so I’d have to use another sugar.
I was a bit taken aback. I hadn’t thought about honey being an animal product. Last week, I went for a ride to a large bee farm to pick up two hives for the Orchard. I was introduced to the bees & shown the inside of several different hives. I stood in the middle of a field surrounded by more than 80 white box hives. You could hear the buzzing even before you reached the field. But in my mind, honey was still just nectar. How did I miss that?
On one frame, in a bee house that holds ten or twenty frames, in a field of more than 80 houses, I saw the bee’s complete life cycle. A queen’s elongated body striding through the masses. Larva curled in the combs. A young bee diving into wax-capped combs of honey, his stinger sticking into the air & wagging with contentment as he gorged himself on honey. It was breathtaking & overwhelmingly endearing. I would never with harm to a bee.
It turns out “Is honey vegan?” is one of the more contentious debates in the vegan community. To start, here’s how honey comes about, courtesy of Grassroots Veganism:
Honey is made from sucrose-rich flower nectar that is collected by honeybees and then regurgitated back and forth among them until it is partially digested. After the final regurgitation, the bees fan the substance with their wings until it is cool and thick.
The author goes on to describe how even the most careful beekeeper kills bees in the honey harvesting process, & how the honey is made for the bee’s use alone. It is their main food source, & while I completely recognize that their carbohydrates come from honey. (Tangent: Their proteins come from bee pollen, which is insanely nutritious. It has vitamins, minerals & 22 amino acids–including the eight essential acids*. That makes it a complete protein! It seems pricey, but when you compare serving sizes the cost breakdown isn’t much different than red meats.)
Ok, I get it. We steal their food. We potentially kill bees in the process. But there is another side to the story: trained bee keepers know to leave ample honey to get the bees through winter & take just the surplus. And the product itself contains no animal. It was made by an animal, & it has a bit of their spit in it… but it is still far more plant than animal.
So where are we? It depends on your motives.
Here’s the thing that’s been a struggle for me: I love animals, but I am not an animal rights activist. Do I wish animals harm? No. Am I always comfortable eating meat? Absolutely not. Do I think we need to label our diets with strict boundaries?
No. As Michael Pollen says (everywhere, but first in In Defense of Food), “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Keep it simple, stupid. The more rules & restrictions, the more you stress, the more you crave foods you “can’t have” & the more you dislike eating–which should be a total joy!
It always comes back to your beliefs & your body. Eating your ethics & eating what you feel you need will always leave you healthier, physically & psychologically, than forcing yourself into a diet like jamming up the zipper on your skinny friend’s jeans.
Am I eating dairy? No. Well, not much.
Do I eat meat? When I know where it comes from– for happy animals, but mainly for healthy farms which leads to healthy food.
Is honey vegan? No.
Will I eat it? You bet. (But if I didn’t, I would be fortunate enough to live in a time when agave syrup is readily available.)
For more on this conversation, check out this Slate article on flexitarianism & honey.