Bee Products and Honey: Are They Vegetarian?

honey jar with honey comb

While vegans avoid the use of any products coming from an animals, for vegetarians the distinction between what is acceptable and what is not may not be as clear.

Bee products are gathered from hives in different ways. Some, like honey, are made in excess by the bees and may be more acceptable to vegetarians. Collecting other products may cause damage or disruption to the hive, and may be less acceptable.

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About Honeybees and Hives

Honeybees are insects that live as a colony in a hive. The inside of the hive is made of honeycomb, which in turn is made of repeated six-sided cells. The cells are used to store things like honey and to raise new bees.

According to the USDA, 90% of our food crops are pollinated by bees.

Honey

Honey is made by bees from the sugary nectar they gather from plants. It’s stored inside a body part called the honey sac, where enzymes break the nectar into small sugar molecules. For every 8 pounds of honey used by the bees for the hive, humans can harvest 1 pound – the surplus is not needed.

Royal Jelly

Royal jelly is the substance secreted by young worker bees and fed to developing (young) queen bees. Since the worker bees make excess royal jelly it is possible for humans to collect it without causing damage to the developing queens or to the hive. However, stimulating the hive to produce queens is an unnatural process.

Royal jelly is used in cosmetics and as a dietary supplement.

Beeswax

Beeswax is secreted by the abdomen (belly) of a honey bee. It’s chewed and shaped before being used to cap cells in the honeycomb where the bees live and fill holes in the hive. Humans can collect beeswax at the same time as honey from cells that have been capped, or covered over, by the bees.

Beeswax is used to make candles, cosmetics and other household waxes.

Pollen

Pollen grains are collected by bees from flowering plants. Pollen is stored by the bees in the hive where it ferments, turning eventually into “beebread”. Harvesting beebread destroys the brood (young developing bees) and the comb cells nearby. To otherwise collect pollen, people put traps outside the hive that scrape the pollen off the bees as they enter. Collecting too much pollen can interfere with colony growth and honey production.

Some types of bees store pollen in “honey pots” inside the hive. These pots can be harvested without destroying the hive, but may still deplete their stores to dangerous levels.

Pollen is used as a natural remedy or dietary supplement.

Propolis

Propolis refers to the mixture of beeswax and resins from plants. Bees use propolis to line part of their nests, repair damage to the hive and cap the hive cells where new brood are developing. Bee colonies only make 10-300 grams of propolis per year. Humans can collect the propolis using a sheet that looks to the bees like damaged hive – they fill the damaged parts with propolis, which can then be removed.

Propolis is used in skin-care products and cosmetics.