While arguments against honey may not be as easy to understand as those against meat or fur, for vegans, any exploitation of an animal is a violation of that animal's rights. Because honey comes from bees and bees are animals, honey is an animal product and therefore not vegan.
What is Honey?
Honey is made out of flower nectar by honey bees, in a two-step process involving two types of bees: older worker bees and young hive bees. The older worker bees gather nectar from flowers and swallow it. The bees then regurgitate the nectar when they return to the hive and the younger bees swallow it. The younger bees then regurgitate it into a cell of the honeycomb and fan the honey with their wings to dry it before capping it with beeswax. The purpose of turning nectar into honey is to store the sugars to be consumed in the future. The bees convert the nectar to honey because nectar would ferment if it were stored.
As Debbie Hadley, the Guide to Insects, explains, thousands of bees work to supply the colony with honey:
A single worker bee produces only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. Working cooperatively, thousands of worker bees can produce over 200 pounds of honey for the colony within a year.
Why don't vegans eat honey?
Keeping bees for commercial or hobby purposes violates the bees' rights to be free of human exploitation. As with companion animals or other farmed animals, breeding, buying and selling animals violates the animals' rights to live free of human use and exploitation, and bees are commercially bred, bought and sold.
In addition to keeping bees, taking their honey is also exploitative. While beekeepers will say that they leave plenty of honey for the bees, the honey belongs to the bees.
Furthermore, some bees are killed every time the beekeeper smokes the bees out of their hive and takes their honey. These deaths are an additional reason to boycott honey; even if no bees were killed during honey collection, the exploitation of the bees would be reason enough.
Bees and Animal Rights
While experts disagree as to whether insects feel pain, studies have shows that some insects avoid negative stimuli and have a more complex social life than previously believed. Because insects may be sentient and it costs us practically nothing to respect their rights and avoid insect products like honey, silk or carmine, vegans abstain from insect products.
There are, however, some self-described vegans who do eat honey and argue that insects are killed in other types of agriculture, so they are reluctant to draw the line at honey. Other vegans, however, draw a line between intentional exploiation and incidental killings, and beekeeping falls into the former category. Some people who follow a vegan diet except for eating honey jokingly call themselves "beegans."
If beekeepers merely put out empty hives for wild bees to colonize, animal rights advocates would not object. It would be like putting out a bird house for wild birds. The parts that are exploitative are breeding, buying and selling bees; and taking honey from the bees.
Doris Lin, Esq. is an animal rights attorney and Director of Legal Affairs for the Animal Protection League of NJ.