What Is Ethical Honey?

ethical honeyPhoto by Agence Producteurs Locaux Damien Kühn on Unsplash

As an ethical eater, do you eat honey?

Ethical eating involves eating humanely. You can choose to avoid animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs. Or, you can choose the more comfortable option; feeding on ethically raised animals. So, to filter ethical food from non-ethical food, you look for labels such as “MSC certified”, “pasture-raised”, or “certified humane”.

Understandably, we forget that honey too is sourced from animals. Additionally, you won’t find labels such as “pasture-raised” on honey products. So, how do you ensure the honey you eat is ethical? Read on to find out.

You Can Consume Honey Ethically

The point of this post is not to debate whether or not ethical eating should exclude animal products, including honey. The goal is to help those who want to continue eating honey to make better choices.

Honey is a healthy food with incredible healing benefits. However, its commercial production is, in most cases, environmentally unsustainable and inhumane to the bees. Like you avoid meat from factory-farmed bees, you can avoid honey from factory-farmed bees.

Ideally, ethical honey is honey from bees allowed to:

  • Eat their natural diet
  • Make use of their natural instincts and behaviors, in a free-roaming safe environment
  • Thrive in an environment that mimics their natural habitat as closely as possible

The Concerns Of Commercial Production Of Honey

“Factory farm” is a phrase that applies to bees too. Most beekeepers pay little regard to the welfare of bees to meet the insatiable demand for honey at the lowest production cost possible. As a consequence, most commercial bee farms are congested, unhealthy, and downright inhumane to the bees.

The following are the three major ethical concerns regarding commercial beekeeping.

Over-working bees

Bees are naturally hard-working, hence the expression “as busy as a bee”. Greedy beekeepers take advantage of that and overwork the bees to produce more honey.

They overwork the bees by keeping them in a larger hive than the colony needs. The bees put in the extra work and fill the over-sized hive with honey before winter. They have to fill the space with honey both for insulation and to have enough food during winter. Since they have a deadline to beat, the bees can work themselves to death, literally.


During the fall months, most hives have enough honey to feed the colony in the cold winter months. Remember, the bees need the honey for survival; it was never meant for harvesting by humans. In the early days of beekeeping, farmers were as practical as to harvest the excess honey after winter. However, today, commercial beekeepers harvest all the honey in the hive during fall; when the bees need it the most.

Commercial honey farmers then replace the honey with a sugar syrup that is not nutritious enough for the bees. Due to malnutrition, most of the bees do not survive winter. And the bees that survive the cold months are susceptible to pathogens that often infiltrate beehives during the warmer weather.

Interfering with the queen

The queen is important for the survival of a colony. But the natural way of her rule can inconvenience commercial beekeeping. For instance, once the colony grows too large, she relocates with more than half of the colony. For that reason, most commercial beekeepers clip the wings of the queen, which is inhumane since bees are sentient beings that feel pain.

Additionally, beekeepers artificially inseminate the queen, using a gruesome process. Then, they harvest the eggs to create multiple queens and colonies. This unnatural way of creating queens and colonies results in a weaker bee generation. Remember, only the strongest drone gets to mate with the queen.

Long-distance traveling for commercial pollination

Another way for commercial beekeepers to earn money is by renting their bee colonies to large farms for pollination. These farmers subject bees to long-distance journeys across state lines in the hot summer months. The long distances are stressful for the bees that still have to feed on sugary water instead of honey.

Moreover, after arriving, the bees do not enjoy natural foraging. Instead of getting nectar from a wide range of flowering plants, they get nectar from the one plant in the large-scale farm. Bees need a mix of different flowering plants to get all the nutrients they need to stay healthy.

How To Find Ethical Honey?

Of course, you want to continue eating honey. And as mentioned before, ethical honey is a thing. Now the challenge is finding ethical honey. How do you ensure what you buy does not come from exploited bees?

  • Consider buying honey from small local farms. Visit a local farm and see for yourself how they are practicing beekeeping. Ask questions about their practice. And then decide for yourself if their honey production is humane, sustainable, and ethical.
  • Try finding honey at the local farmers’ market. True, you will not be able to verify the practices used to produce the honey. However, you still get to ask the farmer questions about their beekeeping practices.
  • Choose family-farmed honey at the store—most grocery stores stock family-farmed honey. Typically, family-run farms are more ethical than large commercial beekeeping farms.
  • When shopping local honey online, on the label, look for terms such as “raw”, “biodynamic”, “unfiltered”, and “organic”. These claims do not guarantee ethical beekeeping practices. However, they are terms that hint at sustainable farming of honey, which in turns implies more humane beekeeping methods.

Honey from beekeepers who care more about the health and welfare of the bees than increasing profits is ethical. It seems counterintuitive, but that is not to say such bee farmers do not exist.

Questions To Ask A Farmer To Determine The Ethical Nature Of Their Beekeeping Practices

If you get a chance to speak with your local bee farmer, ask:

If they allow the bees to engage in their natural instincts

  • Do you allow natural breeding or practice artificial breeding?
  • Do you allow the bees to expand their colonies naturally?
  • Do you clip the queen bees’ wings?
  • Do you allow the bees to build their own honeycombs?
  • Do your bees forage on organic flowering plants?
  • Is there biodiversity in the plants that your bees forage?

How they treat the bees

  • Do you use artificial or more natural materials for your hives?
  • Do large-scale farms rent your bees for pollination?
  • Do you use antibiotics to treat your bees?
  • What products do you use to remove parasites that invade the hives? (they should use organic compounds such as formic acid)

How they harvest the honey

  • When do you harvest your honey?
  • After harvesting, what do you place in the hive as a substitute for honey?
  • Do you save honey for emergencies, like when the honey left in the hive will not sustain the colony till the end of winter?

Asking these questions will help you get the answers you need to make an informed decision.

Clay Miller
the authorClay Miller
I am the creator/writer of Ways2GoGreen.com and Ways2GoGreenBlog.com. I'm an advocate for oceans, beaches, state parks. I enjoy all things outdoors (e.g. running, golf, gardening, hiking, etc.) I am a graduate of the University of Kentucky (Go Wildcats!!). I'm also a huge fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I was born and raised in the beautiful state of Kentucky.

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