Industrial beekeeping is abusive and exploitative. It takes away the food of the honey bees that forces them to work harder. Farmers feed colonies with man-made sugar mixtures that lack nutrition. Many honeybees die accidentally due to careless harvesting practices. Many used in pollination services are exposed to insecticides that kill them.
These industrial practices are against what veganism stands for, and therefore eating honey is not vegan, The Vegan Society states.
"Honey is made by bees for bees, and their health can be sacrificed when it is harvested by humans. Importantly, harvesting honey does not correlate with The Vegan Society's definition of veganism, which seeks to exclude not just cruelty, but exploitation."
While this conclusion stands from an ethical and animal liberation point of view, it gives a rather polarised picture of the landscape. First, not all beekeeping is conventional. Second, vegan-friendly alternatives such as molasses or agave nectar, as The Vegan Society recommends, have a tremendous carbon footprint. In the age of the climate crisis, pushing for a higher carbon footprint to exclude environmental exploit will fall short. Sugar cane cultivation is one of the drivers for deforestation from Brasil to Bolivia to Australia, agave is primarily produced in Mexico, whereas honey is local to most parts of the world. Describing honey purely as a sweetener overlooks another important fact too: honey is medicine.
In her article “Is honey vegan?” Hilary Kearney, the author of book Queenspotting, discusses the practices of responsible beekeeping. She calls for supporting small, local farms with sustainable practices.
"Responsible beekeepers will leave their bees with enough of their own honey to survive the winter and will only harvest what they perceive to be excess. […] I have seen horrible practices amongst ignorant hobbyists and I have met commercial beekeepers with tremendous respect for their bees who are willing to sacrifice profits for the well being of their colonies. The problem is that unless you know and trust your beekeeper, you have no idea what’s being done to the bees who make your honey.”
Paul Wheaton, in his book “Building a Better World in Your Backyard” cares about the topic of beekeeping too. Paul, an advocate of working with nature, lists a dozen beekeeping practices for healthy bee colonies that follow permaculture ethics; that is care for the Earth, care for people and fair share.
"While conventional beekeepers lose 40% of their colonies annually, organic beekeepers report 10% losses. And beekeepers who follow treatment-free methods using feral bees tend to have near-zero losses. The more in line with nature the practices are, the lower the losses are.”
While veganism rejects beekeeping from a consumerist perspective, the story of a Brazilian community unfolds another perspective: in several cases, apiculture can be a tool for restoring ecosystems and creating better living conditions for human communities.
Honey is medicine
Raw honey is considered as medicine in both traditional and modern practices, both according to Western and Ayurvedic science. It has antibacterial and antifungal properties. It soothes burns and heals wounds, treats sore throats and coughs, and strengthens the immune system.
Ayurvedic literature explains further benefits. Honey is a boon to those with weak digestion is a treatment for anemia. It helps maintain gums and teeth in a healthy state. It’s the only sweetener that’s tridoshic because raw honey is heating.
While it’s common to add honey to hot tea or use it as a “healthy alternative” for baking desserts, according to Ayurveda honey should never be heated to above 40°C. Besides losing its medicinal properties, it becomes toxic for the body.
"According to ancient Ayurvedic literature, honey should never be cooked. If cooked, the molecules become a non-homogenized glue that adheres to mucous membranes and clogs subtle channels, producing toxins. Uncooked honey is nectar. Cooked honey is considered poison."
Conventional beekeeping is exploitative. Therefore it’s not considered vegan, and it’s not in line with permaculture ethics neither. In contrast, raw honey is wonderful medicine. Treat it as such. Buy honey products from local, ethical beekeepers.