Know Your Sweeteners: Honey: Part Two


Feature photo via Unsplash

This week we started our discussion of honey, uncovering how it’s produced, the differences between varieties of honey, and what exactly “raw honey” is. Today, we’re continuing our exploration by turning our attention to environmental concerns.

Though honey has been a café and culinary staple for as long as most of us can remember, the ingredient has come under fire in recent years, with questions of sustainability emerging. So what’s the truth—is honey actually bad for the environment? When uncovering the answer, there are a few things to consider. 

Bee on a pink flower.
While the “Save the Bees” movement has good intentions, it often places emphasis on honey bees—which only make up about 5% of the bee population. Photo by Daniel Dan via Unsplash.

“Save the Bees”: Distortions in Messaging

Chances are that you’ve heard of the “Save the Bees” movement, a call to help preserve and restore bee populations, under the pretense that bees’ pollination of flowering trees and plants is essential to maintaining biodiversity. However, in this article for Scientific American, Alison McAfee, Ph.D., a honey bee researcher and postdoctoral fellow at North Carolina State University’s Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, points out the distortions in the campaign’s messaging and how it’s harming, rather than helping, the environment.

According to Alison, the media disproportionately covers the need for honey bees over native bees, though only about 5% of the global bee population is made up of honey-producing bees. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Americans have taken up honey beekeeping as a hobby, believing it to be a conservation practice. In reality, native bees are the ones at risk of extinction and in need of attention and support. The increased presence of honey bee colonies has also led to increased competition between native bees, with honey bees monopolizing floral resources and taking sustenance away from already-in-decline native bee populations.

A wooden slat in a beehive is removed to expose the honeycomb.
Though questions of sustainability and animal rights have come up for honey production, many argue that honey is still a more sustainable sweetener than sugar. Photo by Bianca Ackermann via Unsplash.

While “Save the Bees“ has good intentions, it’s important to note that honey bees aren’t the only ones in need of saving. If biodiversity is what we’re after, we need to turn our attention to native bees, too.

A Double-Edged Sword

Even amidst concerns around honey beekeeping and honey production, it’s important to compare honey’s effect on the environment to other sweeteners. While honey has its own problems, many still point to the fact that it’s more sustainable than sugar for a number of reasons.

First off, honey production doesn’t require land cultivation the way that sugar production does. Sugarcane fields require acres of land, leading to deforestation and the destruction of thousands of animals’ natural habitats. In addition, honey production emits fewer greenhouse gasses compared to sugar production. It requires less equipment and, typically, less travel; most sugar in North America has to be imported from South and Central America, Australia, and the Caribbean.

Knowing all sides of the debate around honey, you can make informed decisions about your honey consumption. Photo by Emily Joy Meneses.

Making Choices as a Consumer

We can’t tell you what the right answer is for you when it comes to honey consumption—but, knowing the varying sides of the debate, you can make more informed decisions in your everyday life. Stay tuned for future installments of our “Know Your Sweeteners” series, where we’ll discuss molasses, agave, and more.


Emily Joy Meneses (she/they) is a writer and musician based in Los Angeles. Her hobbies include foraging, cortados, vintage synths, and connecting with her Filipino roots through music, art, food, and beverage.

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