Who is not familiar with sticky, sweet, delightful honey? Honey has been used as a sweetener (and more) for thousands of years, but do you know how it’s produced? And did you know there’s honey that’s certified organic? Let’s take a closer look.
Honey is produced by honeybees, of course; they’re the only insects to produce a food consumed by humans. Honeybees live in beehives in large colonies. Just one healthy hive can house thirty thousand to sixty thousand workers, five hundred to one thousand drones and one queen. The queen is the matriarch of the hive, and all other hive inhabitants are her children. The queen is also the sole sexually-developed female of the hive. While all of the workers are also females, they neither mate nor lay eggs. The drones, who are all males without stingers, have one and only one job, and that’s to mate with the queen. Honeybees are highly social insects, and their cooperation in maintaining and caring for bee larvae and their hive is remarkable.
Because this article is about organic honey, I won’t go into any detail on the other huge task honeybees perform, pollination. But it should be noted that the USDA estimates that about one-third of the human diet is from insect-pollinated plants and that the honeybee is responsible for an incredible 80% of this pollination.
How is honey “manufactured?” The worker bees in a colony fly within a three- or four- mile radius of their hive, collecting nectar from available flowers by sucking it out with their long tongues. Nectar contains about 80% water, as well as some polysaccharides (complex sugars). Excess nectar, that which the worker bee doesn’t require for her food, is stored in what’s called a “honey stomach” (she also has a regular stomach; the honey stomach is only for nectar storage). Each worker must visit up to 1,500 flowers to fill her honey stomach, depending upon the type of flower, time of year, and other factors.
Once a worker returns to her hive, nectar is sucked from her honey stomach by other workers called “house bees.” The house bees chew on the nectar for some time, during which enzymes break down the polysaccharides into simple sugars that are both easier for the bees to digest and less vulnerable to any bacteria in the hive. The nectar is then spread throughout the hive’s honeycombs to dry out somewhat; the bees assist this process by fanning it with their wings. Once the nectar has lost enough moisture content, rendering it almost bacteria-proof, the honeycomb cells are sealed off by the bees with wax plugs and the honey is stored in the hive until it’s consumed (most often, this happens during cold months, when flowers are not in bloom. Honey can keep a hive fed until spring). In one year, a bee colony can consume up to 200 pounds of honey, all the more remarkable when you consider that just one pound of honey is the result of nectar gathered from literally millions of flowers. Whoever coined the phrase “busy as a bee” certainly knew what he was talking about! Luckily for people, bees often make more honey than they can use in a year: A colony averages some 80 pounds of extra honey annually. Photo of honeycomb by Mateusz Atroszko.
Why Organic Honey?
Obviously, pure honey is a natural product, not something manufactured by humans. So why would anyone require certified organic honey? Some people are very concerned with pesticide and fertilizer residues in their foods. A great deal of beekeeping is “controlled” these days; that is, the hives are moved from area to area depending upon what the beekeeper wants. This might mean anything from a beekeeper looking to harvest a honey produced from a particular type of flower, such as buckwheat or clover, to a beekeeper who has made a deal with a farmer for his or her bees to pollinate the farmer’s field of crops.
However, there’s no guarantee that the bees will be foraging in flowers free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or pollen “drift” from genetically-modified crops. In fact, many fields of flowers and flowering crops are sprayed with pesticides and fertilizers on a routine basis, and “drift” from genetically-modified plants can occur at far greater distances than honeybees fly from their hives. Further, if insecticides are applied to a field, they may kill beneficial insects, such as honeybees, as well as “nuisance” insects. And they can drift, as well.
There’s also the question of antibiotics. In honey, you ask? Like other living creatures, bees are unfortunately subject to a host of pests and diseases. These include the varroa mite, which caused serious damage to American and European honeybee numbers during the 1990s, and diseases such as American (or European) foulbrood (there are two different kinds of it), sacbrood, and nosema. Pests and diseases can quickly decimate a hive or even wipe out a colony completely; American foulbrood is particularly noted for its destructiveness.
There are a number of antibiotic treatments available to beekeepers for the various illnesses and infestations which can affect their hives, such as fumagillin (used in the treatment of nosema) and Oxytetracycline, the only antibiotic in the U.S. approved for American foulbrood. Then, of course, there’s Chloramphenicol. Chloramphenicol is a broad-spectrum antibiotic. It is not used in the U.S. in humans except in cases of desperation, where other antibiotics have failed. The FDA has a “zero tolerance” policy for the presence of this antibiotic in food because it is known to cause aplastic anemia, a sometimes-fatal disease which affects the ability of one’s bone marrow to produce red blood cells. Chloramphenicol is also a suspected carcinogen.
But the antibiotic has been found in honey imported from both China and Thailand. In fact, honey from China was banned in the European Union in 2002 (the ban was rescinded two years later). There are allegations that Chinese honey was smuggled into other countries, relabeled, and offered for sale at remarkably low prices to both the U.S. and European Union countries, but such claims are hard to prove, and they are beyond the scope of this article. Incidentally, as late as September 21 of this year, Chloramphenicol was still an issue in honey in the U.S. On that day, The Office of the Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Forestry in Louisiana issued a Declaration of Emergency to immediately implement testing of honey sold in that state for the presence of Chloramphenicol. Photo of honey by Mateusz Atroszko | Sxc.
What about bee killing? There are producers of conventional honeys who kill their bees before extracting honey from the hive. Hives must be maintained over the winter if they’re to be viable the following year, and this involves time, effort, and expense. Add to that cost the fact that being stung isn’t pleasant, and some beekeepers simply find it cheaper to start anew every year. This is a disgraceful practice, but it doesn’t occur with honey that’s been certified organic, because the certification process is too expensive. Honeybees have a short enough life as it is, and, given how useful they are to our species, perhaps they deserve a little gentler treatment at our hands.
In any case, concerns about traces of numerous toxic substances have prompted some demand for honey that is certified organic.
In addition, most honey sold in the U.S. is heat-treated and/or pasteurized to delay the onset of crystallization and to prevent fermentation by yeasts—i.e., to assure long shelf life. Honey is known to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as multiple antioxidants. Honey has long been known as an antimicrobial agent (it prevents infections); it has antioxidants, and its concentration of phytonutrients* has some cancer-preventing properties. But when the raw honey is filtered and heated, the benefits of the phytonutrients largely dissipate.†
Because of this, people interested in any health benefits of honey often prefer their honey unfiltered and non-heat treated. This type of product is called raw honey. Almost all of the organic honeys I have seen offered for sale have been raw honey. It’s also worthy of note that the finest varietal honeys, although they may not be certified organic, are also raw honeys. The honey that is collected by these top-tier beekeepers is so fine, there is no need to filter or treat it. See Savannah Bee Company, one of THE NIBBLE’s Top Picks Of The Week, for an example.
*Nutrients from a plant source; foods high in phytonutrients are called superfoods.
†For a more elaborate discussion, see The World’s Healthiest Foods.
Organic honey is more difficult to find than conventionally-produced honey, even conventionally-produced raw honey. In part, this is probably because the use of antibiotics in hives in the U.S. is more widespread than it is in some other countries. When the large-scale varroa mite problems hit in the 1990s, many beekeepers felt they had little choice but to use antibiotics if they wanted to save their hives, and the feral bee population in the U.S. suffered badly, as well.
But finding sufficient organically-maintained land on which bees can forage may be even a greater challenge. Remember, bees will forage in roughly a three to four mile radius from their hive, meaning that if your hives were at the center of an imaginary circle, you’d need an area organically-maintained land up to eight miles in diameter, let alone any “buffer zone” between your land and any treated with synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, insecticides, GM (genetically-modified) crops, and the like. That’s a huge area, and in most places in the U.S., it simply isn’t feasible.
Tropical Traditions offered an organic honey for sale on its website, stating that “…finding pollution-free…areas clear from herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers to place beehives is extremely difficult and not available in most areas of North America. Isolated areas in the northwestern corner of North Dakota and the Upper Frontier of Canada are to date the only ranges of certifiable (organic) land.” Unfortunately, the company’s Canadian-based supplier couldn’t meet demand and began importing honey from Brazil. This honey did not meet the company’s standards, and the product has been discontinued until another source is found.
So what do you do if you want organic honey?
While there is organic honey produced in the U.S. in somewhat limited quantities, one must often turn elsewhere. For some purveyors, this means New Zealand, a nation touted for its “clean and green” attitude and policies (though there are those who debate the “clean, green” image in today’s consumerist society there). Manuka honey*, produced only in New Zealand, has international appeal, and not just for its organic production. Reportedly, Manuka honey has a wide range of therapeutic uses, both internal and external. I’ve also seen websites advertising organic honey from Argentina, Brazil, Canada and Zambia. *Not all Manuka honey is produced in accordance with organic standards.
While I’d prefer to believe that a mere few strokes of a Presidential pen could begin transforming the U.S. into a more environmentally-friendly nation, I’m not naive enough to think that’s going to happen anytime soon. Unless and until it does, if you seek organic honey, be prepared to do a little looking around, or turn to the bees in other lands.
A Short List Of Companies Offering Organic Honey
In a short time searching the web, these are a few of the companies found that offer organic honey. Try these honeys for yourself, and see which you like.