Why vegans can't decide whether they're allowed to eat honey.

What to eat. What not to eat.
July 30 2008 2:20 PM

The Great Vegan Honey Debate

Is honey the dairy of the insect world?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to enlarge.

There's never been a better time to be a half-assed vegetarian. Five years ago, the American Dialect Society honored the word flexitarian for its utility in describing a growing demographic—the "vegetarian who occasionally eats meat." Now there's evidence that going flexi is good for the environment and good for your health. A study released last October found that a plant-based diet, augmented with a small amount of dairy and meat, maximizes land-use efficiency. In January, Michael Pollan distilled the entire field of nutritional science into three rules for a healthy diet: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." According to a poll released last week, Americans seem to be listening: Thirteen percent of U.S. adults are "semivegetarian," meaning they eat meat with fewer than half of all their meals. In comparison, true vegetarians—those who never, ever consume animal flesh—compose just 1 percent.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

The flexitarian ethic is beginning to creep into the most ardent sector of the meat-free population: the vegans. In recent years, some in the community have begun to loosen up the strict definitions and bright-line rules that once defined the movement. You'll never find a self-respecting vegan downing a glass of milk or munching on a slice of buttered toast. But the modern adherent may be a little more accommodating when it comes to the dairy of the insect world: He may have relaxed his principles enough to enjoy a spoonful of honey.

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There is no more contentious question in the world of veganism than the one posed by honey. A fierce doctrinal debate over its status has raged for decades; it turns up on almost every community FAQ and remains so ubiquitous and unresolved that radio host Rachel Maddow proposed to ask celebrity vegan Dennis Kucinich about it during last year's CNN/YouTube presidential debate. Does honey qualify as a forbidden animal product since it's made by bees? Or is it OK since the bees don't seem too put out by making it?

Old-guard vegans have no patience for this sort of equivocation: Animal products are off-limits, period. Indeed, the first Vegan Society was created in 1944 to counter the detestable, flexitarian tendencies of early animal rights activists. Founder Donald Watson called their namby-pamby lacto-vegetarianism "a halfway house between flesh-eating and a truly human, civilized diet" and implored his followers to join him in making the "full journey." That journey, as the society has since defined it, takes no uncertain position on honey—it's summarily banned, along with bee pollen, bee venom, propolis, and royal jelly.

The hard-liners argue that beekeeping, like dairy farming, is cruel and exploitative. The bees are forced to construct their honeycombs in racks of removable trays, according to a design that standardizes the size of each hexagonal chamber. (Some say the more chaotic combs found in the wild are less vulnerable to parasitic mites.) Queens are imprisoned in certain parts of the hive, while colonies are split to increase production and sprinkled with prophylactic antibiotics. In the meantime, keepers control the animals by pumping their hives full of smoke, which masks the scent of their alarm pheromones and keeps them from defending their honey stores. And some say the bees aren't making the honey for us, so its removal from the hive could be construed as a form of theft. (Last year's animated feature, Bee Movie, imagined the legal implications of this idea.)

So, any vegan who eats honey but avoids milk is making the tacit assumption that the pain experienced by a bee counts for something less than the pain experienced by a cow. It's exactly the sort of compromise that so appalled Watson and the early vegans. Once you've allowed yourself to equivocate on animal suffering, how do you handle all the other borderline cases of insect exploitation? What about silkworms and cochineal bugs? Come to think of it, does a bee feel any less pain than a scallop or an oyster? Why can't we eat them, too?

(For the record, pearls aren't vegan. Oysters are killed during the harvest and often suffer the indignity of having a hole cut into their gonads.)