Yesterday, in my post on natural allergy remedies (great comments and tips—thank you all!) a reader inquired about why vegans don’t consume honey. I’ve never addressed this before, so I thought now would be a good moment to talk about it on CR! I don’t consume honey myself, but some vegans do. I’d probably say that honey is the one non-vegan food that I find myself consuming by accident most often, which is to say that I don’t check labels for it carefully enough (I’m getting better at this). I was eating an otherwise exclusively vegan diet for a while before I stopped consuming honey, so I also know from experience that it’s a little tricky.

If you’ve just started exploring veganism, it may seem to you that all vegans have the same positions on matters to do with vegan lifestyle. Not so! Though most vegans agree on certain core issues, we often disagree on subtleties. Should we continue to wear our pre-vegan shoes/bags for the sake of avoiding waste, or should we give them away, because wearing leather sets an example for others? Should we buy used leather on eBay, or should we support cheap labels that mass produce synthetic leather, which can be harmful to the environment? If we were to keep a hen as a companion animal, would it be acceptable to consume any eggs the hen laid (in other words, is private animal husbandry, not for profit, OK)? Is it OK to eat oysters?

Believe it or not, vegans have all sorts of different viewpoints on these matters. I think this is a good thing! All movements can benefit from some healthy debate and variety of opinion; it allows us to remain open-minded, receptive to criticism (and adept in responding to it), and it means that we aren’t so dedicated to a principle that we lose our capacity to raise individual concerns. I think it’s also important for non-vegans to see that veganism does allow for some wiggle room when it comes to minutiae, and to be reassured that going vegan doesn’t mean you have to surrender to one single ideology. Long after you go vegan, you can be curious about the logic of the lifestyle, and ask questions.

When I think about my own vegan choices, I always return to The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism: “a way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practical—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals.” Sometimes, determining what constitutes “exploitation and cruelty” is a little tricky, and I think that’s where a lot of the honey debate comes in. So let me share what I responded in my comments section to the reader who inquired about honey. (I’ve edited it a little, because I responded early this morning, before I’d had so much as a sip of coffee!!)

I know vegans who don’t care about honey at all (though those are primarily those who only identify as health oriented vegans, or plant-strong eaters). I know vegans who are adamantly opposed to consuming honey, and I know vegans who enthusiastically support small scale, local beekeeping. I’ve heard excellent, intelligent arguments from both pro-honey and anti-honey vegans. As someone who has listened to both viewpoints, I’ll just give you my personal perspective.

For many vegans, the choice not to consume honey just feels like a question of moral consistency. If you’ve vowed not to eat any other sentient beings, keep them in captivity, or take anything that comes from them, honey feels off limits. It’s worth saying that a certain amount of stress and injury to bees does result from beekeeping operations, large and small. In industrial-scale honey production especially, smoke is used to pacify the bees, queen bees are often killed by the beekeepers, bees are fed artificial diets (more on that in a moment), and some bees are invariably crushed in the hives or when honey is collected. So regardless of how extreme avoiding honey may seem, it’s really just an extension of the logic from which a vegan lifestyle grows.

Some people have a hard time empathizing with bees in the first place. My feelings can be summed up in this post: to me, veganism is all about finding empathy for all living creatures, even tiny ones!

What about CCD (colony collapse disorder)? It’s a tremendous problem, and I think vegans and non-vegans alike share in scientists’ bafflement and desire to help to stop it. Some believe that beekeeping is actually key to preserving and protecting colonies, but there is another point of view: BeeCulture magazine (which is actually a magazine for beekeepers) recently reported that beekeeping may actually be a culprit in the disappearance of bee populations: “Beekeepers move infected combs from diseased colonies to healthy colonies, fail to recognize or treat disease, purchase old infected equipment, keep colonies too close together, [and] leave dead colonies in apiaries.’ Artificial diets, provided because farmers take the honey that bees would normally eat, leave bees susceptible to sickness and attack from other insects. When diseases are detected, beekeepers are advised to ‘destroy the colony and burn the equipment,’ which can mean burning or gassing the bees to death.”

Others have suggested that migratory beekeeping, in which bees are packed into trucks and shuttled across great distances, is a part of the problem. And other commonplace beekeeping practices, such as splitting or combining hives, applying chemical miticides, or administering antibiotics, may also be playing a role. This is all yet still a topic of debate, and the causes of CCD remain unclear.

It may well be that small, local beekeeping operations manage to avoid any of the injury that takes place on the industrial scale. But I must also admit that I feel inherent discomfort with all forms of animal farming, small scale or not, because it continues to share the message that it’s acceptable to keep living creatures captive and take their products, so long as we do so in a particular way. That “particular way” can quickly start to include all kinds of abuse, evidenced in the fact that many “humane” dairy and egg farms still perpetuate injury/stress to animals, and end up participating indirectly in animal slaughter by selling old or young animals to neighboring farms in which slaughter actually occurs.

Then there’s the issue of the public example we set with our food choices. Whenever I’m asked that famous question about keeping a hen as a companion animal, and whether or not I’d eat her eggs, I say that the main reason I wouldn’t do it is because my eating the eggs would share the message that it’s desirable or necessary to do so. And as long as people think animal foods are necessary or desirable, they will find cheaper, quicker, more efficient ways to produce them than the small-scale, local model. They also may think, “well, if I can find a way to eat eggs, surely I can find a way to eat beef, too”—and now we’re talking about breeding and slaughter, rather than taking an egg. So my personal feeling is that I can do more for animals by simply living a life in which I don’t eat them or their products at all.

Last point: what about the fact that some bees are used in the production of a huge number of vegetable crops? Here, please allow me to admit some ignorance. I’m not quite sure which farming operations do this–whether it’s all farms, some farms, etc. Having seen a lot of small vegetable farms in action as a child in New Hampshire, I never saw bees being used as a part of the process, so I don’t imagine they’re a vital part of all farming. I’ll do what I can to research this.

As for another common argument—some insects get killed and squashed in vegetable farming, too–what do you have to say about that, eh vegan??—well, it’s a good argument, but I return to “possible and practical.” Whereas it’s 100% possible and practical for me not to buy honey, my diet would surely be limited (nearly nonexistent) if I were to stop eating vegetables, too. And it would not be a diet I could realistically promote to other people, which means I couldn’t help anyone else to go vegan, let alone vegetarian, or even vegetable-centric!. So I just do my best to shop organic whenever I can (which at least eliminates the chance that pesticides have killed a lot of insects), all the while humbly acknowledging that, yes, there are some inconsistencies in my actions and outlook. I do what I can to minimize them, but they’re there.

A year or two ago, an author of mine—a law professor at Stanford—asked me about oysters (which some have speculated cannot feel pain at all). I responded that, although I hear what folks are saying, I continue to feel uncomfortable because I fear the slippery slope syndrome. We don’t know for certain that oysters cannot feel pain, but even if we do, what’s next? Mussels? Shrimp? Soon, you’re finding ways to justify all sorts of seafood consumption. “I know what you mean,” he said. “To some extent, it’s helpful to just have a couple of bright line rules.” (If you don’t’ know what these are, I didn’t either.)

That idea is a part of what governs my choice not to eat honey, or oysters. But there’s also the fact that those foods don’t feel very essential to my diet. If I were to seek them out, and eat them—or go about adopting a hen so that I could eat her eggs—it would feel as if I was purposefully trying to make exceptions to my veganism. My diet seems so abundant to me; I guess I don’t really feel this impulse. In the case of honey, I have agave, maple syrup, yacon syrup, dates, coconut crystals, and stevia. So many delicious options to choose from! Tomorrow, I’ll share at least one delicious recipe that is delightfully sweet, yet honey free.

Bright line rules aside, I see the danger of allowing a matter of principle—vegan or other—to become arbitrary, or occlude one’s capacity for nuance. That’s why I think conversations like this are healthy and interesting; they allow everyone, vegans and omnivores alike, to think about subtleties! And there’s certainly a lot of subtlety in the great honey debate. I hope you guys have found this conversation interesting; I sure do. As usual, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Funny: as I was writing this, I thought about the first time I heard about the vegan diet. I thought the whole thing was pretty bonkers, but the honey bit in particular struck me. “Now that’s just silly,” I thought.” It’s so funny to think about how much my own views have changed over time.

Till tmw, folks!


Tagged with →