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Bees and Honey


Honey, and other bee products such as beeswax, propolis and royal jelly, are animal products and therefore vegans do not consume or use them.  In common with other animals kept to produce food products bees are farmed and manipulated, and the honey they produce for themselves is taken from them.  Vegans do not eat products taken from any animal, including bees, because it is neither desirable nor necessary to exploit animals in order to obtain food for humans.

There are an estimated 40,000 beekeepers in the UK maintaining more than 200,000 colonies of honey bees, of whom 300 are commercial bee farmers with around 40,000 colonies.1The majority of honey consumed in the UK is imported.  UK honey production is normally around 4,000 tonnes per year, whilst more than 25,000 tonnes per year is consumed.2

To produce honey, worker bees drink nectar from flowers and store it in their honey stomach, where the nectar is mixed with secretions from two glands (including the salivary gland) which will transform the nectar into honey.  On returning to the hive the worker bee transfers the nectar to a ‘house’ bee who drinks the nectar, and may regurgitate and re-drink it several times to mix more secretions with the nectar and may pass it on to another bee to do the same, and then places it in the honeycomb.3Each worker bee will produce 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.4

The queen bee is usually killed every year and a new queen introduced to the colony.5  The queen may have her wings clipped to prevent her from flying; this is to stop the bees carrying out their natural instinct to swarm (the old queen and a large proportion of the bees leaving the nest once the colony has provided a new queen to replace her).6

Far from being ‘just’ simple insects, bees have a complex communication system, display co-operative behaviour and take part in activities such as collective decision-making, organisation and conflict resolution.7

Farmed bees are vulnerable to insect attacks and diseases such as American Foulbrood and European Foulbrood, Varroa mites and associated viruses, which have increased significantly in the UK over the last 5-10 years, along with a decline in bee numbers.8  One method of dealing with American Foulbrood is to burn the hives while all the bees are inside.5 

Other bee products include beeswax (E904), royal jelly, propolis, venom and bee pollen.  Bee products are used as ingredients in cosmetics, candles and toothpaste and as a glaze on sweets.

With so many delicious plant-based alternatives to honey available, there is no need to take honey from bees.

Bumblebees and other wild bees

It is not only the bees that are kept for honey and beeswax that are endangered by humans. Wild bees are also threatened by man-made changes to their environment. For example the populations of bumblebees within the UK have been declining in the last 50 years. Two species have already become extinct, six are very rare. Biologists state similarly negative trends for bumblebees worldwide. Alterations of landscape, such as a decrease in the number of hedgerows, the use of pesticides, monoculture and general pollution have affected this development.9 Another threat is the use of commercial bumblebee colonies in greenhouses to pollinate plants. Exotic diseases are thereby brought to native bee species and escaped greenhouse bumblebees may become competitors for shelter and food.10

The declining number of wild bees is not only a problem for the insects themselves; they are also important pollinators of crops. Some, such as particular kinds of beans and soft fruit or alfalfa and tomatoes, won’t yield much fruit without the help of wild bees. A large proportion of the food production worldwide depends on pollination by wild bees which are important parts of ecosystems. The biodiversity of wild plants also benefits from their pollination as well as birds and bears do for berries and fruit.11

Bee-friendly gardening

In addition to avoiding the consumption of honey and other bees’ products, consider helping bees by adjusting your garden to the bees’ needs.

Many native wild flowers are a good source of nectar and pollen for wild bees. Just grow a varied range of flowering plants in order to provide food for the different types of bees, other insects such as butterflies will be attracted as well. Knapweed, Yellow bedstraw, Meadow buttercup, Cowslip, Oxeye daisy, Black medic, Field scabious, Selfheal and wild parsnip are examples of bee friendly plants. It won’t make much work as the less you disturb your wild patch the better it is for all the bugs living there.

Apart from food, wild bees need shelter. For solitary bees, shelters are easy to make out of hollow plant or bamboo stems. Or screw holes of various diameters in pieces of wood and put them on a sunny, rain protected place. Bumblebees and other bees living in colonies require larger shelter. Don’t remove hollow trees and abandoned birds’ or rodents’ nests as some social insects like to make their home there. Generally speaking, bees prefer gardens that are not too tidy. You can buy manmade shelters for wild bees as well.

For detailed information see for example www.bumblebeeconservation.org.uk/gardening_for_bumblebees.htm, www.buglife.org.uk/getinvolved/gardening and – on bee-friendly window boxes – www.bumblebee.org/Windowbox.htm.


The Vegan Society (UK) is an educational charity that promotes and supports the vegan lifestyle. The Society was formed in 1944 by a group of vegetarians who recognised the ethical compromises of eating eggs and dairy products. Read the original article.


1. The Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA).  Honey bees.  http://www.fera.defra.gov.uk/plants/beeHealth/ (accessed 10 March 2010)

2. The Honey Association.  Honey information. http://www.honeyassociation.com/aboutho.htm (accessed 10 March 2010)

3. Ball, D The chemical composition of honey. Journal of Chemical Education. 2007; 84(10): 1643-1646 http://jchemed.chem.wisc.edu/HS/Journal/Issues/2007/OctACS/ACSSub/p1643.pdf (accessed 10 March 2010)

4. The Honey Association.  Quick reference honey trivia. http://www.honeyassociation.com/honeytrv.htm (accessed 10 March 2010)

5. Cramp D. A practical manual of beekeeping Oxford: Spring Hill; 2008

6. British Beekeepers Association.  Swarm control for the beginner. http://www.britishbee.org.uk/files/swarmcont_B3.PDF (accessed 10 March 2010)

7. The Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects: University of Sussex.  Our research. http://www.sussex.ac.uk/lasi/research/ (accessed 10 March 2010)

8. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).  Healthy Bees.  London: Defra; 2009 http://wales.gov.uk/docs/drah/publications/090429beeplanen.pdf (accessed 10 March 2010)

9. Williams P. H./Osborne J. L.  Bumblebee vulnerability and conservation world-wide, Apidologie (2009) 40. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/research/projects/bombus/Williams&Osborne09_review.pdf (accessed 4 May 2010); Bumblebee Conservation Trust. 

10. Winter K. et al.  Importation of Non-Native Bumble Bees into North America: Potential Consequences of Using Bombus terrestris and Other Non-Native Bumble Bees for Greenhouse Crop Pollination in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. A White Paper of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign. August 2006. http://www.pollinator.org/Resources/BEEIMPORTATION_AUG2006.pdf (accessed 4 May 2010)

11. Goulson D.  Bumblebees, their behaviour and ecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003; The Bumblebee Pages. The Economic Importance of Bumblebees. http://www.bumblebee.org/economic.htm (accessed 4 May 2003); Bumblebee Conservation Trust.  Bumblebees in Crisis. http://www.bumblebeeconservation.org.uk/bumblebees_in_crisis.htm; Convention on Biological Diversity. Key issues. http://www.cbd.int/agro/pollinatorkeyissues.shtml (accessed 10 March 2010)

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