Honey, I’m A Vegan

honeyThanks to Nash Veggie for tweeting me this article on Slate entitled "The Great Vegan Honey Debate." I really enjoyed reading this. There are so many things to quote from this article, I don't know where to begin. Perhaps I should just say, read the article.

One of the things that hooked me right away was this:

Thirteen percent of U.S. adults are "semivegetarian," meaning they eat meat with fewer than half of all their meals. In comparison, true vegetarians—those who never, ever consume animal flesh—compose just 1 percent.

I thought vegans comprised somewhere around 3-4% of the US population these days, but it's pretty hard to get a real statistic. But what about the semi-vegetarian comment? Before we went vegan, Jane and I considered ourselves "semi-vegetarian." But to say we ate meat with less than half our meals would be a gross understatement of how much meat we ate. That holds true for the people we know who categorize their eating the same way, unless the statistics include snacks...

Then there was this comment:

You'll never find a self-respecting vegan downing a glass of milk or munching on a slice of buttered toast. But the modern adherent may be a little more accommodating when it comes to the dairy of the insect world: He may have relaxed his principles enough to enjoy a spoonful of honey.

Now, I'm a self-respecting vegan, and I fully expect to have a slice of pizza next time I'm in New York, deliberately. (BTW, pizza in NYC means a slice of cheese pizza, no other toppings.) Some people say it is this attitude specifically that excludes me from being a vegan, but I disagree. I consider myself to be a law-abiding citizen, but I occasionally exceed the posted speed limit (note: this is hard to do... I live in Los Angeles). One or two slices of pizza out of 1,095 meals (365 * 3) still makes me a vegan, in my book.

But let's get to the heart of the matter, or the article...

There is no more contentious question in the world of veganism than the one posed by honey. A fierce doctrinal debate over its status has raged for decades; it turns up on almost every community FAQ and remains so ubiquitous and unresolved that radio host Rachel Maddow proposed to ask celebrity vegan Dennis Kucinich about it during last year's CNN/YouTube presidential debate. Does honey qualify as a forbidden animal product since it's made by bees? Or is it OK since the bees don't seem too put out by making it?

Well, I've weighed in on this before... I am a vegan who eats honey. Again, a stance that has some of the vegan community pointing fingers and saying "You're not a real vegan." To that I say, you're entitled to your opinions. I consider myself a vegan. Yes, in the animal, vegetable, mineral categorization, bees are animals. However, they are insects. I would not hesitate to have my house tented or sprayed if I had termites; insects are killed collaterally in the harvesting of my produce... If I'm willing to kill insects in these instances, is it not hypocritical to forego eating honey? If my point of view isn't sufficient enough to sway you, here's what Vegan Action, has to say:

Many vegans, however, are not opposed to using insect products, because they do not believe insects are conscious of pain. Moreover, even if insects were conscious of pain, it’s not clear that the production of honey involves any more pain for insects than the production of most vegetables, since the harvesting and transportation of all vegetables involves many ‘collateral’ insect deaths.

(This group has been established for over 10 years; they are a vegan outreach group. They’re calling it an acceptable vegan behavior. This is the party line I choose to follow.)

It's also been pointed out to me that the original definition of vegan, according to the Vegan Society who coined the term back in 1944: ". . . eats a plant-based diet free from all animal products, including milk, eggs and honey." To this I reply, (unfortunately) language is organic. In the 1913 Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of "gay" was:

1. Excited with merriment; manifesting sportiveness or delight; inspiring delight; livery; merry.
2. Brilliant in colors; splendid; fine; richly dressed.
3. Loose; dissipated; lewd. [Colloq.] Syn. -- Merry; gleeful; blithe; airy; lively; sprightly, sportive; light-hearted; frolicsome; jolly; jovial; joyous; joyful; glad; showy; splendid; vivacious.

Today, Merriam-Webster defines "gay" as:

1 a: happily excited : merry b: keenly alive and exuberant : having or inducing high spirits
2 a: bright, lively b: brilliant in color
3: given to social pleasures; also : licentious
4 a: homosexual b: of, relating to, or used by homosexuals

But if you use the word "gay" in conversation today, it will be understood to be definition #4. Language is organic; definitions change.

Some people complain that the fact that some vegans eat honey, while others don't (refined sugar too), causes confusion in the non-vegan sector. Perhaps it does. But "vegan" is confusing for most non-vegans anyway. Do you eat eggs, milk, fish? What do you eat anyway? Before you condemn those of us who eat honey, remember, there are no perfect vegans out there.

Reading the Slate article further, the author, Daniel Engber, points out:

...you can't worry over the ethics of honey production without worrying over the entire beekeeping industry. Honey accounts for only a small percentage of the total honeybee economy in the United States; most comes from the use of rental hives to pollinate fruit and vegetable crops. According to food journalist Rowan Jacobson, whose book Fruitless Fall comes out this September, commercial bees are used in the production of about 100 foods, including almonds, avocados, broccoli, canola, cherries, cucumbers, lettuce, peaches, pears, plums, sunflowers, and tomatoes. Even the clover and alfalfa crops we feed to dairy cows are sometimes pollinated by bees.

Life for these rental bees may be far worse than it is for the ones producing honey. The industrial pollinators face all the same hardships, plus a few more: They spend much of their lives sealed in the back of 18-wheelers, subsisting on a diet of high-fructose corn syrup as they're shipped back and forth across the country. Husbandry and breeding practices have reduced their genetic diversity and left them particularly susceptible to large-scale die-offs.

So, are you vegan if you exploit insects in this way? Would this treatment of mammals be acceptable?

Mr. Engber ends with this:

According to Matthew Ball, the executive director of Vegan Outreach, the desire for clear dietary rules and restrictions makes little difference in the grand calculus of animal suffering: "What vegans do personally matters little," he says. "If we present veganism as being about the exploitation of honeybees, it makes it easier to ignore the real, noncontroversial suffering" of everything else. Ball doesn't eat honey himself, but he'd sooner recruit five vegans who remain ambivalent about insect rights than one zealot who follows every last Vegan Society rule.

That may be the most important lesson to come out of this debate: You'll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Which brings me to my final point. I've said it before, and I'll say it again... There is a small, but vocal, minority of vegans out there who think that if you eschew animal products for any reason other than animal welfare, then you are not a vegan. Or that if you’re not being vegan to the extreme (by this I mean scrutinizing the ingredients and processing of every food item you’re going to ingest) then you may as well eat meat. We emphatically disagree. Every little bit helps, and if that means embracing the omnivores who choose to “eat vegan” one or two days a week, I say welcome to the fold! Yes, you can be vegan one day per week. If you choose to eat honey, I believe you are not "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." And I have to ask the less flexible members of the vegan community, what exactly is the goal here? Because it seems to me, if you are coming at veganism from an animal rights or environmental perspective, every little bit helps.


  1. @Krill guru
    It just sounds like you are confused. No offense.
    A Vegan does not use animal products. That’s easy enough, right?

    Some people make allowences for some kinds of products for whatever reasons, they do not care about bees so they will eat honey, etc.
    or they are vegans for their health so many animal products do not matter to them.

    What IS confusing is how animal products or harm to animals can be hidden in all kinds of things we cannot anticipate.
    As in, the cultivating of Palm oil destroying, is it orangatans?

  2. I am very surprised to hear that people believe that replacing honey with sugar-water (which is what happens when a hive’s stores of winter sustenance are taken for human consumption) does not impact bees.

    Sugar-water does not provide the micronutrients and antibodies that bees need to remain healthy. Taking honey for human consumption and replacing it with sugar-water is one postulated reason for lowered bee resilience leading to colony collapse.

    I certainly don’t eat honey, but I also don’t plan to eat cheese pizza and still call myself a vegan. If I did, I would call my diet “primarily vegan” instead of “vegan”. There are no vegan police, and veganism is not a badge that you earn, but words do have meaning, and as a matter of intellectual honesty, I try not to deceive. For me, its not about being “vegan,” its about being transparent and honest.

  3. Posts like this are super helpful. We are trying to include more products in our local grocery store that cater to the Vegan culture and community. The more we can learn about the lifestyle the better we can serve them.

  4. I do agree that there’s no perfect vegan out there. I think it is not an important debate. we all just want to be healthy. Eating meat can give some nutrients our body needs. we just have to make sure that the meat we are eating are grass feed. sea foods also is good for us. one example is a krill. krill oil is a rich source of omega-3. here’s a good article about krill oil – http://krilloil.mercola.com/krill-oil.html

  5. I disagree. As a vegan, non vegetarian, I will do my utmost to adhere to a strict vegan diet and non use of any animal made products, by-products, used, tested or entertained. It is a very difficult matter. Not the diet, but the avoidance of the large amount of animal by-products that seek into our consumer products. As far as the diet goes, I am a label reader. And with technology right at my finger tips I can web search the names of ingredients I never heard of. Although, the best edible products are the ones that get us as close to natural as possible, i.e., organic fruits, vegetables and whole grain’s. I do not use honey, I do use Organic Stevia, if I need a sweetener. Instead of syrup I use organic berries heated till they burst with flavor. But with the vegan lifestyle growing in popularity and gaining a foot in the food industry, there is little to miss in flavors and substitutes in foods. All it takes is a little research. But the one ingredient you won’t find on any food package that is the main ingredient needed to be a true vegan is, compassion. With a heart and mind filled with compassion you see life is not about what we want, but rather what we need to make a better, peaceful and sustainable world. Compassion means, no ego. Letting go of the me factor. It is very hard, I know, but making the effort to always be conscience of all that life has to offer humans and non-humans, is a good start.

  6. We need more posts like this, and more open minded vegans. Posts like this make “vegan” less of a scary word. Yes, the goal of vegans is to be compassionate and do as little harm as possible, but I feel the most important part of that includes encouraging others to eat less animals as well. It’s easy for vegans to know that we are “right”, and easy for us to be almost cultish in our approach. But this scares non-vegans away from the lifestyle- it even causes resentment. I love that you allow yourself a slice of pizza and honey. It makes you more relatable to a society that overall sees vegans as psychos. I’m ok with a world of non perfect vegans. Having numerous non perfect vegans is way better that having a only a few perfect ones. Vegans need to be less judgemental towards others – including other vegans- and not get so caught up in what “counts”.

  7. We should keep the movement strong and not weaken it for converts that will not even stay vegan anyway, keep the one’s who are the most dedicated they are the movements strength.

    I put it to you that the reason you (and the other article writer, et al) eat honey has nothing to do with any of the reasons put forward.
    Not one.
    Detractors of veganism who decide to discuss rationally will go back and forth with arguments and counter arguments, moving on to new ones if they concede on some point or just give up arguing it. If a detractor ended up seeming to agree with all points discussed they could then decide to go vegan or take up the last traditional and predictable fall back position.
    “Well, I couldn’t change, I love meat too much.”
    They believe it. If they ate no meat for a month they’d find out they can easily do without it but are unwilling or too terrified to try. People are also terrified of not eating. Two days into a fast and the body stops craving food and you can consume just water for the rest of your thirty day fast. Nope, you don’t die and legions of people will claim the curative and rejuvenating benefits are too numerous to count.

    Now, honey is beyond delicious, healthful and has a texture all it’s own. Books have been written about this wonder food, wounds have been healed with it – germs can’t live in it – it has been found in ancient tombs, still intact and viable.
    I grew up having honey sandwiches, that is a little bread with my honey, like my dad and I was always fascinated to help him while harvesting the honey. He was known as the honey man and we often had huge amounts in large tins. I was vegan some years before I realised honey was not on the list and went into mild shock. Don’t how I missed knowing but more or less decided that this was part of me and my upbringing and it would become my exception. I had half a jar which I could use up guilty free but every time I went to take it out I thought of the bees and left it there to have later.
    Later never came.
    Like so much in the vegan world, conviction trumps desire and desire – thankfully – fades.
    The arguments put forward are like the carnivorous arguments, desperate pleas to not have to change and easily overturned by the most uneducated of vegans.
    Put the honey in a cupboard for three months and don’t eat it. Then you will declare that it is exploitative and cruel etc and not what we do as vegans. Ralph Graham

  9. That is so good to hear that bees are insects and not animals because honey and bee pollen are extremely nutritious!!! Evan the wax has a lot of healing virtues! 🙂

  10. My husband and I are beekeepers. My nephew, who is a vegan, was visiting us recently. You eat only vegetables, fruits and grains. There are not enough wild bees in the world to pollinate these. Almost all you vegans eat is pollinated by pollinators where the European honey bee is the most important. If you deny their use and existence then you wouldn’t have a good deal of your fruits, nuts, grains and vegetables. Besides the fact that the medicinal uses are enormous. The use of sugar solutions to replace the harvested honey is NOT the reason for colony collapse. We’ve been beekeepers for 14 years harvesting honey once a year, allowing the bees to use what they need during the breeding season and then removing the last honey, which here in Sweden is heather and leaf honey with an enormous amount of waste products that is not good for the bees to eat during the winter. We have healthy beehives. What does cause Colony Collapse is pesticides, commercial beekeeping with trucking bees around. Point the finger in the right direction. If you eat honey at all do so from a hobby beekeeper who does not poison his bees with acids and pesticides. We love our girls, and we take care of them. As do many hobby beekeepers.

  11. Hi Marsha

    Thank you very much for your excellent comments regarding bees and honey. We have been eating honey exclusively from a neighbor who is a beekeeper.

  12. Can’t we all just get along?? I am SO tired of debate for the sake of debate. There are valid points being made on all points of the spectrum. I do not want anyone telling me that in order to have faith, I MUST believe in GOD (in one sense or the other) nor do I want anyone telling me what kind of a Vegan I am or am not. We are in a world where everyone want to categorize everyone else. (and by the way, if you are not in the same category that I have placed myself, YOU ARE WRONG). Come on people, wars are being declared and fought in the (supposed) name of (insert deity here). How about perspective and priorities? How about choosing our battles. Are we really going to argue about what level of Vegan you are or I am?? Seriously…

  13. I’m new to this ‘vegan’ thing and, quite honestly, I could be easily turned off to the “drink the cool-aid” mentality many of you seem to have. I am not referring to the writer (I really appreciate your article!!) but to those who look down at the rest of us because we’re not dogmatic like you. I am coming to this vegan thing, more appropriately “plant-strong”, for a quite different reason. I want to be healthier. We have chickens and even rabbits (still figuring out what to do with them all…lol) and quite honestly have not had a problem with eating animals…until I was educated on the downside of animal proteins. I have diabetes, heart disease, etc in my family, as does my husband. I want a healthier future for myself and my children. I want to lose weight and feel better! I don’t want to see animals harmed which is why I raise chickens and rabbits. But I would agree with the second to last post-er in asking can’t we all just get along? What about sharing the compassion with other PEOPLE that you supposed have for animals! We raise bees and I’m not getting rid of them. There are too many benefits to having them around. I’m glad I don’t call myself a vegan, some of you sound mean. I will ‘label’ myself an herbivore, or call myself ‘plant-strong’ as previously stated. I still won’t eat animals, and avoid animal products as much as humanly possible but my bees will pollinate my garden, as well as the neighborhoods gardens. My husband has been stung twice and that’s not a lot of bee death. I’m ok with it, because, as previously stated, insects die in large scale farming. My bees are very happy. They are not caged, they are free to go where they want. I will continue to consume honey. To the author, thank you for your article! I am not a perfect person (praise God for His grace and mercy in saving me) and I appreciate the freedom you afford me in not being a perfect ‘vegan’ as well!

  14. I am actually really surprised by this… I thought vegans were supposed to be selfless individuals when it came to all living beings aside from plants…

    To hear that you would consider yourself a vegan and will do something knowing that it is hurting/killing an animal just to serve a moment of pleasure/self indulgence is quite frankly, disappointing.

  15. I am a vegetarian. I have been working on converting to vegan. I am not giving up honey. My stepdad is a beekeeper and we raise our Bees humanely. We only harvest the racks on top of the beehive, and leave the bottom racks of honey for the bees to eat . The only time they get sugar water is when it’s a new hive until they build up a supply of honey. We never take all of it, and in the winter we save back racks of honey to go into the hive to fill it and wrap them up for winter. The only time our Bees have died is if a mouse gets in the hive. They can come and go as they please, and my mom plants organic clover and flowers foe them. I understand the cruelty of animals etc. I avoid it at all costs in everything. If a bee or a cow is raised humanely with room to roam I don’t see any harm in sharing their by products. If they are not starving and treated well what’s the harm? Other than fulfilling some rules?

  16. I used to be a strict vegan. I read the ingredient lists, and looked up information. I made sure to eat a variety of healthy foods to make sure I was getting all the nutrients that I needed. However, my health continued to deteriorate so I decided to go ahead and add honey back into my diet. While this has not made me super healthy or anything, I do feel a little better and I think it is because honey has healing properties. By the way, I love bees and am an advocate for bee rights. I also only eat raw, organic honey. In order for this honey to be considered organic, they have to have a natural, organic diet themselves.

  17. Thank you for this post! It’s because of the dogmatic vegans out there that make me scared to admit to people that I’m vegan. I find when I take a non-judgmental stance when meat-eaters question my diet, they don’t make jokes or verbally attack me. I’ve had meat-eating boyfriends who converted to vegetarianism . I never showed them horrific videos or asked them to stop eating meat, they just decided to do it on their own. Maybe people would be more inclined to try being vegetarian/vegan if we stopped making ourselves look like the enemy. Sorry if it’s a little off topic. I guess the point I’m trying to make is I’m surprised at the lack of compassion a lot of vegans have, when veganism itself is about compassion. Fighting each other about the degrees of veganism doesn’t help anybody. I’ve seen vegans compare meat-eaters to Hitler, then flip their shit when non-vegans get upset about it. It just makes us all look bad. I view my veganism as a sort of religion. You don’t convert people with threats & accusations, you push them further away.

  18. Thank you so much for writing this. I consider myself vegetarian/vegan and use the terms interchangeably. I think there is too much pressure in the vegan community to be perfect, and it becomes close-minded and dogmatic, as in a religious stance. Everyone needs to work independently to find what makes them an animal activist and then converge together with the community, showing everyone else out there that we are a pleasant minded group of educated people. If the point of veganism is to be open-minded and accepting, kind and compassionate, than this argument should not even exist.

    If we strive to eat organically and vegan, this is mostly without labels, isn’t it? Fruits, vegetables, grains, these don’t have labels. So why should be label ourselves so strictly? A label is pointless; its the cover on a black and white mindset.

    With this said, I do eat a 99 percent vegan diet and always strive for this wherever I am. I recently bought a bottle of local raw honey while traveling, and its helping my terrible insomnia and sore throat (I’m an opera singer). So? I like honey. It feels right to me. And you better believe that I tried some cheese in Wisconsin. Will I ever again? Probably not likely, but if its a special occasion in a special place that means something important to me or you, I say go for it. A person can’t always get vegan pizza, sometimes its ok to be starving and pick off all the meat and cheese in an attempt to nourish your hunger and soul.

    its the bigger picture people. remain flexible. rigidity in anything leads to withering.

  19. Hiya,

    I think if you are going by the mark of ideological coherence then eating honey as a vegan cannot be justified; the bee’s hard labour is stolen from the bee, irrespective of the harm caused to the animal, this relationship is one of domination: the animal is exploited for the benefit of the exploiting species. Thus as a vegan you cannot justify this- irrespective of your culinary preferences.
    There is however another debate amongst vegans and ecologists which concerns the preservation of bees. Unfortunately the use of neonicotinoids is resulting in bee colony collapse almost everywhere agricultural world. Bees are an essential link in all ecosystems of which they are part of, and an essential aspect ecostystem preservation. Now, there are types of bee king often referred to as ‘natural’ bee-keeping or ‘sustainable bee keeping’ which are designed to maintain the natural functions of the hive without interruptions. These forms of bee keeping have been seen as highly beneficial in the preservation of bees. The pragmatist vegan argument here, is that by purchasing natural or sustainable bee keeping honey, one is stimulating this kind of practice. I think it makes sense for a vegan to take this stance, though I myself have not yet decided, as it is the choice which has the highest beneficial impact upon other animals. This decision however would not be based on one’s culinary preferences!

  20. “Yes, you can be vegan one day per week. If you choose to eat honey, I believe you are not “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” And I have to ask the less flexible members of the vegan community, what exactly is the goal here? Because it seems to me, if you are coming at veganism from an animal rights or environmental perspective, every little bit helps.”

    I agree that every little bit helps. I think that it is still beneficial if people eat less animals products. The fact that some of us are unable to filter out every possible animal product that may be in some of the products we buy is no reason that we can’t gradually reduce our reliance on animal products. Particularly, I think that the consumption of meat will be the first thing that needs to be eliminated. We can work on the other issues over time.

  21. Excellent article. Anyone who thinks that honey extraction from a hive is harmful to the bees, or indeed proposes that the feeding of sugar water to bees makes them unhealthy or is the reason for colony collapse clearly has never had any experience of bee keeping. Laughable, frankly.

  22. I am new to veganism, and I still eat honey. I had a pretty indepth conversation with another vegan on this topic a month ago and she was say how we are enslaving and abusing the Bee’s. I understand mass factor farms are bad, and vegans live with compassion for all fellow living entities. But were is line drawn. Nector is not a product of the bees just transformed by them. On that note, apples and other vegetables require Bee’s to polenate them that makes them a Bee’ bi-product. What I’m getting at is that we are in a symbiotic relationship with Bee’s if I get my Honey from a local farm whom truely enjoys his farm and the Bee’s that are apart of it; that fits in the number 1 rule of Veganism that being compassion

  23. I’m sorry, but eating pizza from NYC just because you want the taste or experience does not make you vegan. In fact, it’s not even specifically the eating that is what makes you nonvegan, but the fact that you would selfishly ignore everything that it stands for just for you palate, which makes you really no different than a nonvegan person. I’m disappointed and saddened by your post, please stop confusing the meaning of veganism for your own selfish reasons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.