Will the Real Honey Please Stand Up?

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
June 22, 2012

sites/default/files/beehive.jpgIt’s National Pollinator Week, the perfect occasion to pay homage one of the small but mighty heroes of our food system: the honeybee. One out of every three bites of food we eat is made possible because of this popular pollinator, and annually, honeybees help in the production of about $15 billion worth of US crops, including many of our favorite fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

But honeybees and other pollinators are under threat. In recent years, beekeepers have reported 30 to 90 percent losses of their hives due to colony collapse disorder (CCD). The exact causes of CCD are still undetermined, but widespread use of synthetic pesticides is believed to be the primary culprit, along with other factors such as parasites, poor nutrition, environmental stress, and migratory beekeeping practices.

Beekeepers are prime players in the fate of the honeybee, and some practices that are standard in the apiculture industry may be doing more harm than good. Most commercial beekeepers place their hives on or near farms where pesticides are in common use and routinely feed their bees high-fructose corn syrup—derived from corn treated with neonicotinoids, a family of pesticides that is a prime suspect in CCD.

In addition to their vital service as pollinators, bees are, of course, the only creatures capable of making honey. Supporting local beekeepers who use sustainable and nontoxic practices may be one piece of the puzzle in sustaining healthy honeybee populations.

Honey is concentrated flower nectar. Bees gather the nectar from flowers, add enzymes to it, and store it in the hive, where other bees fan their wings to reduce the honey’s moisture content to about 18 percent. At the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, artisanal beekeepers offer a dizzying array of honey varietals sourced from Bay Area blooms such as eucalyptus, toyon, tanbark oak, sage, and manzanita, each one offering its own complex flavor profile and resinous hue of amber or gold.

sites/default/files/honeycomb_0.jpgWhile commercial honeys are blended from multiple floral sources and geographic locations, varietal honeys represent a particular terroir, the special characteristics of a unique location and season, much like fine wines and cheeses. Polyfloral honey, often called wildflower honey, is derived from the nectars of multiple types of flowers in a single locale and varies depending on the blooms in a given season. Monofloral, or single-source, honey originates primarily from the nectar of a single type of flower. Beekeepers position their hives based on where and when a particular flower blooms, and plan their harvest as the bloom is ending. While it’s impossible to control exactly where the bees forage for their nectar, experienced beekeepers like Bill Snyders of Snyders Honey are able to confirm the dominant flower source by observing the blooms and tasting.

Like farmers, beekeepers are at the mercy of the seasons and elements. For Snyders, the honey harvest usually runs from mid-May into summer, though it fluctuates from year to year. “All plants need a certain temperature to give a certain amount of nectar,” he explains. “If you get a freak streak of weather like a cooling period or a rain, that’ll wipe a bloom out. The best we can do is to have the hives prepped and ready to go.”

Another key difference between local honeys and commercial brands is processing. A recent study by Food Safety News found that 76 percent of honey bought at conventional grocery stores had been ultra-filtered, meaning that the honey was heated and filtered with high pressure to remove all traces of pollen, most likely in China. Marketing this pollenless product as “honey” is actually illegal in the US, but the FDA isn’t checking.

sites/default/files/honey_jars_0.jpgSmall beekeepers like Snyders and Marshall’s Farm Natural Honey use minimal to no heat or filtering, to preserve the honey’s healthful (and flavorful) enzymes and minerals. “For me, processing is everything—or rather, the lack of processing,” says Snyders. His raw wildflower “cappings” honey is their least processed honey, scraped straight off the caps of the honeycomb. Raw honey crystallizes over time and exhibits a cloudy appearance due to the presence of particles of wax and pollen.

What about local organic honey? Currently, CCOF does not certify honey and the USDA National Organic Program does not have specific standards for apiaries (they fall under the broad category of “livestock”). Any honey you find in the store bearing the “USDA Organic” seal is worth questioning. Though it might be packaged in the US, most “certified organic” honey is generally imported from countries like Brazil, using standards set by the EU or other entities.

Although the hives kept by Marshall’s Farm used to be registered organic through the Napa County agricultural commissioner, the Marshalls were subsequently informed that they could not label their honey as such. In order to have a truly organic honey, all blooms that bees might visit—a 2.5-mile radius—would have to be inspected. “It’s sort of like fish,” says Helene Marshall. “Fish swim, bees fly. You can’t tell them where and where not to go.”

Marshall’s Farm continues to use the same practices they did before they had to “stop using the ‘O’ word,” she says. “We don’t treat with anything. It’s survival of the fittest.” Snyders Honey does not treat their hives either, except for applying thymol (a natural thyme extract) in the fall to help control the lethal varroa mite, which has devastated up to a third of their colonies annually.

The only surefire way you can support sustainable apiculture is to get to know your beekeepers. “If you just go by packaging, it’s ambiguous,” says Marshall. “The beauty about shopping at a farmers market is you can ask the producer, ‘When was this harvested? Where is this actually from?’”

Learn more about bees and honey at CUESA’s Honey Celebration tomorrow at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. For recipes for cooking with honey, see the CUESA website. Marshall’s Farm Natural Honey can be found at the Thursday and Saturday markets, while Snyders Honey is at the Tuesday market.

Take action! Tell the EPA to protect bees from pestcides >

Photos by loomy/Flickr (top) and Barry Jan (middle).

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