Photo courtesy Pexels/Pixabay
A worker bee alights on a flower, in her search for nectar that will be made into honey, meant as food for bees.
By Alfred Robert Hogan
Much as cow’s milk is intended to be food for baby cows—not infant nor adult humans—honey is intended as the sole food for hungry bees. It is not created for humans. So, honey is decidedly not vegan. However, bees are one of the most environmentally essential lifeforms on Earth—certainly more vital than we Homo sapiens sapiens.
To recognize the crucial contributions made by these small insects, the United Nations instituted World Bee Day. The annual observance began on Sunday 20 May 2018. That date was chosen to coincide with the baptismal date of Anton Janša (1734-1773), who, as the UN put it, “pioneered modern beekeeping techniques in his native Slovenia and praised the bees for their ability to work so hard, while needing so little attention.” He also wrote two books on bees.
Honeybees do indeed play a vital central role in pollinating crops, as the female forager worker bees busily buzz about gathering floral nectar to make honey. Pollen adheres to bee feet, and when the bee visits another flower, that allows a piece of fruit to begin growing. One worker bee, in an average five-to-seven-week lifetime, if she was born in spring or summer, will fly about 800 km and gather 1/12 teaspoon of nectar. On each collection trip, a bee can visit about 50 to 200 flowers. To collect the nectar needed to make 1 kilogram of honey, female worker bees together must collect nectar from some 4,200,000 to 7 million flowers—and travel some 50,000 to 90,000 kilometers in all. The nectar goes into the bee’s special honey-collecting stomach, where enzymes and inversion convert it into honey, and the bee vomits it up back at the hive, where female processor worker bees take over, sealing the honey with beeswax seals into honeycombs in the hive.
Of some 20,000 bee species, only seven species are honeybees, all belonging to the genus Apis, and most notable is the species Apis mellifera . Worldwide, an estimated 2 trillion honeybees live in about 80 million to 100 million commercially managed hives. (Beekeepers are also known as apiculturists.) In the US, many bees are put aboard 18-wheeled tractor-trailers, and trucked around the country for half the year, starting in California in February (to pollinate almonds) then to Florida (for citrus), the Southeast (for cherries, blueberries, and other fruits and vegetables), the Northeast (for apples), and by late summer to Maine (for blueberries). In addition, many other bees still live in the wild.
A typical bee hive (normally kept at a near-constant 34 degrees Celsius) is home base for 20,000 to 60,000 bees, mostly female worker bees. Scout worker bees locate promising flower-abundant locales for nectar-gathering, and communicate that information to the foraging worker bees. Forager bees must then find those flowers, determine their value as a food source, navigate back home, and further share detailed information about their findings with their fellow foragers. They communicate this information with hive mates through an intricately choreographed dances.
On each trip a foraging worker bee makes from her hive, flying at a good clip of about 24 to 32 kph, she typically travels 1 to 7 kilometers away, though she can go as far as 13.5 km away. The wings of worker bees can beat up to 200 times per second. A hard-working foraging worker bee, per lifetime, flies more than 88,000 km in all, visiting as many as some 2 million flowers. In fact, altogether each day, the worker bees from a 60,000-bee hive travel roughly the distance between our Earth and Earth’s Moon. (The few male drones in a hive serve one purpose, “servicing” the queen, then they soon die.) In nature, a queen bee—just one per hive, and they are twice the size of worker bees—can live as long as four years. But commercial beekeepers sometimes kill her at just age one or two, in part to avoid her relocating the hive. Some commercial bee colonies are also mass-killed for economic reasons (usually by gassing the hives) to save unprofitable winter-over “off season” food costs. (Overwintering bees may live four to six months. About 10 to 20 percent of US commercialized bees are mass-killed each winter.)
In terms of human dependence on bees, of the world’s top 100 food crops, anywhere from one-third to 84 rely on bees as pollinators (accounts vary), as do some 400 crops overall. Indeed, in just the United States each year, honeybees pollinate US $15 billion worth of crops. Without bees, about half our fruits and vegetables would soon vanish. No bees? No almonds, apples, blueberries, cucumbers, onions, pumpkins, or strawberries, just for starters. (Certain wasps, butterflies, and bats do some pollination as well.)
Amassing evidence shows that bees, like other invertebrates with centralized nervous systems, do feel suffering and pleasure. As New York University adjunct law professor Piper Hoffman explained to Care2, bees do indeed have a central nervous systems. “I’m going to speculate here that starving [bees] causes pain,” she told Care 2. “And thanks to beekeepers, some entire hives [aside from queens] starve to death during the winter.”
Commercial plantation-scale beekeeping coldly exploits bees for capitalist profits. Of course, honey is never marketed as what it really is: regurgitated bee vomit, flower nectar partially digested and solely meant to be nourishment for bees. Worker bees seal it with beeswax caps into honeycomb cells in the hives for later use. Bees do not toil day after day gathering nectar from plants and turning it into honey for humans to then steal. Honey is the way bees store nutrient-and-energy-rich food for fellow bees, especially to tide them over winters. (Commercial beekeepers help themselves to the honey, offering bees instead low-quality sugared water.) And no, other “bee products” such as beeswax and royal jelly are not vegan either. Especially cruel but commonplace practices among beekeepers include clipping wings and mass-killing by burning hives.
And as with so much else on our planet, the No. 1 climate crisis has significantly contributed to bee population declines. This has happened via bee habitat shrinkage, bee lifespans shortening because of shifting and heating temperature zones, and bees afflicted by and succumbing to emerging diseases of bees, such as those spread via parasites such as Varroa mites and the gut parasite Nosema ceranae. (Another modern-era complication: microplastics bioaccumulate in honey, as is so much else.)
Honey Production Worldwide By Top 15 Countries, 2020
(world total 1.77 million metric tonnes in 2020)
Share of World Total
(in thousands of
(led strongly by North Dakota)
*In the UK, 95 percent of honey is imported, mostly from China and Turkey.
Source: UN FAO via Tridge
Bees have been on Earth vastly longer than even the earliest proto-humans. The limited fossil records of bees date back some 150 million years. Since humans came along, a prehistoric painting found in 1924 in Bicorp, Valencia, Spain, by local teacher Jaime Gari i Poch, shows a man with a basket climbing a tree to steal honey. That painting, in the Cave of the Spider (Cueva de la Arafia), has been dated to about 7,000 to 15,000 years ago. Later, ancient Egyptians by 5,000 years ago kept beehives for honey—the only known “food” that never spoils. They often used terra cotta jars for those hives.
Photo courtesy Pexels/Pixabay
A bee alights on a flower, in her energetic quest for nectar to transform into honey.
The limited fossil records of bees date back some 150 million years. A prehistoric painting found in 1924 in Bicorp, Valencia, Spain, by local teacher Jaime Gari i Poch, shows a man with a basket climbing a tree to steal honey. The painting in the Cave of the Spider (Cueva de la Arafia) has been dated to about 7,000 to 15,000 years ago. Later, ancient Egyptians by 5,000 years ago kept beehives for honey, the only known “food” that never spoils, often in terra cotta jars.
Aside from primates and cetaceans, honeybees employ Earth’s most complex symbolic language. Each honeybee crams some 1 million neurons into a brain just 1 cubic millimeter in size, similar to one tiny grain of sugar. Zoology professor Karl von Frisch, in Munich, Germany, spent five decades studying and understanding bee language, co-earning the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. His detailed research on the “round dance” (for nectar less than 50 meters from the hive) and the “waggle dance”(for more distant sources) bolstered our understanding of how bees communicate. (In addition to complex dancing, bees also communicate with odor cues produced by secreted pheromones.)
For those of us ethically and environmentally committed to avoiding honey, some good news: a few specialized companies in the USA (and elsewhere) now focus on offering vegan honey, and other alternatives. Aptly enough called the Vegan Honey Company, the Las Vegas NV small firm uses blends of plants, fruits, roots, alum root, raw sugar, and purified water to create such alternatives as spearmint, red clove, lemongrass, chia seed, flax seed, and juniper berry, with more in the works. Other such firms include Just Like Honey, Blenditup, Suzanne’s Specialties, and The Single Origin Food Co. (In 1999, pastry chef Katie Sanchez accidentally discovered what would later be named Bee Free Honee, while she was trying to make vegan jelly. In 2012, she started making the product on small scale, with the three ingredients of apple juice, cane sugar, and lemon juice. In 2016, she and her business partner Melissa Elms pitched the idea on ABC-TV’s “Shark Tank” program, But by 2019, that firm—despite its encouraging successes—shut down, for undisclosed reasons.
Vegan On Board and other sources list these excellent alternatives to honey:
· Maple Syrup -- Maple syrup infuses recipes with a different sweet flavor than honey, but it works well in baking, sauces, and most other recipes calling for honey. Maple syrup is collected from drilled holes in sugar maple trees trunks, is then collected. The sap undergoes further processing, creating concentrated syrup. About 400 liters of sap yields about 10 liters of maple syrup, primarily sucrose and fructose sugars. Although Canadians are the experts of the maple syrup trade, products made in the U.S.A. taste just as good – and may have travelled less to get to you.
· Brown Rice Syrup -- Brown rice syrup, available at most supermarkets, is slightly less sweet than honey.
· Barley Malt Syrup -- Barley malt syrup has a distinct, malty taste and, like brown rice syrup, it’s a bit less sweet than honey. Barley malt syrup can replace honey for in items like granola, cookies, or cereal bars.
· Sorghum Syrup -- Many grocers carry sorghum syrup, which is about as sweet as honey. It can be used one-to-one instead of honey in recipes.
· Molasses (vegan if not processed with bone char) – Rich in the nutrients iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper, phosphorus, manganese, and selenium, molasses is a byproduct of sugar refining from sugar cane or sugar beet that is dark brown, mildly flavored, viscous, moist, and sticky when cool. It can prove useful as a sweetener and thickener in cooking, specifically in baking (such as in cakes); making sauces and dips (such as apple sauce), bread, and desserts; and also in beverages. To make molasses, raw sugar cane or sugar beet juice is crushed, then boiled until it turns into a thick syrup. The four main types of molasses are light molasses, dark molasses, blackstrap molasses, and long-lasting sulfured molasses. Molasses also does not break down into glucose as fast as honey, making it a better choice for diabetics and the insulin-resistant.
· Agave Nectar -- Agave nectar is not especially healthy, but for taste and in recipes, it closely mimics honey in consistency. Used occasionally, agave syrup makes for a good honey alternative for vegans, and can now generally be found in US supermarkets. Production entails removing the juice from Mexican agave plants and cooking it into a syrupy liquid. The darker the agave color, the more intense its caramel-like smell. Its uber-high fructose content means a super-high glycemic index.
· Dandelion “honey” or dandelion syrup from flowers – It is easily made in a couple of simple steps. It is a great way keep your yard free of pesky weeds. And it helps supports local bee populations. Check out Utopia’s own dandelion honey recipe and get busy making your own in only a couple simple steps. Use dandelion syrup as you would honey in baking, as a beverage sweetener, as a spread, and so on.
· Stevia – Calorie-free stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is up to 450 times sweeter than regular sugar that can sweeten drinks. Metabolized without insulin, it is an especially good choice for diabetics.
· Other common substitutes for honey include: Jaggery, Monk Fruit, Brown Sugar, Yacon Syrup, Date Syrup, and Coconut Nectar.
And PETA 2 offers top seven reasons why you should avoid honey:
“1. Bees are factory-farmed animals, just like chickens, pigs, and cows. These insects are mass produced on bee farms, where they’re treated poorly, often injured, and confined to cramped, unnatural environments.
“2. Bees are injured in the process of collecting honey. Bee farmers can be careless when obtaining honey, and the wings and legs of the little creatures are often ripped off in the process. In addition, farmers cut off the queen bee’s wings to make sure that she can’t leave the hive.
“3. Bees naturally pollinate flowers. Bees play an essential role in pollinating plants, which is necessary for plant reproduction.
“4. Bees need their honey. Honey helps bees survive the winter, as it’s made with specific nutrients that are essential for their survival.