I’m vegan, but I will make exceptions to my veganism if I know that a certain product was raised in an ethically and environmentally responsible way, if I know everything about how it was grown. So by default, I’ve never eaten honey because it is an animal product. I’ve always wanted to know more about how honey is produced on an industrial scale and on a smaller scale. So I wanted to do some research about beekeeping (also known as apiculture) and I’ve tried to summarize what I learned in the following post.
To start off with, about 3/4 of the honey you buy in stores is not certifiably honey. This honey is ultra-filtered to remove all pollen, which is the only way to identify the honey’s source or be sure that it even is honey. Ultra-filtering honey may also take away some of honey’s health benefits. According to the FDA, if the product doesn’t contain pollen, it isn’t honey. A recent study shows that your chances of finding honey with pollen in it are much better if you buy it from a place like Trader Joe’s or if the honey is labelled organic. The interesting thing about an organic label on honey is that bees will fly far from the hive to get nectar from flowers and it is impossible to be sure that there are no non-organic pesticides, fertilizers, etc. in that huge of a radius. The study also shows that most of the “organic” honey comes from Brazil, where the organic standard may not be regulated or held up very well.
There is really only one reason that foreign producers of honey like China would ultra-filter their honey. Since removing the honey renders its geographical untraceable, China can try and sneak its honey into the US market. They’ll go through other countries and counterfeit documents to do so. Why would China need to sneak its honey into the US? We’ve tried to stop China from selling their honey here because its so cheap that it pushes US honey producers out of business. Not to mention China’s lack of environmental regulation means that their honey can often illegally contain antibiotics. The honey may be diluted with other sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, as well. Many doubt how well the FDA checks for all of these additives or for ultra-filtration. They claim to have never detected ultra-filtered honey but often fail to elaborate or release details about their detection process.
So after learning this, I wasn’t eager to eat any store-bought honey even though I didn’t really know the industry’s practices for beekeeping. I found more out later, with some research. As you might expect, a lot of the typical practices aren’t very good for the welfare of the bees’ themselves. It’s almost just like factory farming adapted to honeybees. Often, the industry tries to get the absolute most out of the bees and don’t care about their health, which means they have to provide inputs like pesticides to keep the bees alive.
The Langstroth hive, which is used by the majority of beekeepers, has easily removable frames on which honeys build their comb. This hive design encourages the farmer to check up on his bees fairly often by removing a few frames. The bees spend their time creating a complex atmosphere of the perfect scent and temperature to ward off pests and communicate with each other, but removing a frame completely destroys this carefully cultivated environment. Bees also obviously spend a lot of energy to produce honey, their food source. When a beekeeper takes all of the bees’ honey and leaves them with only sugar water to eat over the winter, the bees become less healthy and weak. Honey is nutritious and antibacterial. It is what the bees are used to eating. Sugar water is a simpler food that isn’t enough to keep the bees strong over winter.
These methods along with others common to the industry, tend to weaken the bees so that they require the use of pesticides and antibiotics as protection from microbes, pests, etc. If kept in a way that was more respectful of their own processes, bees could fight these pests on their own. The pesticides or antibiotics used may also breed resistant pests and bacteria or end up in the honey itself. The pesticides can also destroy bees’ abilities to navigate and find their way home, which may lead to Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. CCD is a huge problem for the bee population. CCD is the name given to an increasingly common phenomenon in which all the worker bees from a hive (the ones that get the pollen) suddenly disappear.
I think that beekeeping probably requires occasional intervention in the bees’ life cycle. We are indeed trying to take honey from these bees which necessarily involves some manipulation of their usual environment and life. I could even see how the occasional and responsible use of pesticide can be justified and not too harmful for the bees, the environment, or us. But many industrial practices like the ones outlined above are damaging and unhealthy for the bees. Beekeepers may try to justify their practices with increase yields and economic efficiency. It is true that we need more and more food to feed an ever-growing population. But think about how important bees are for every food we grow: they pollinate the flowers that give us fruit and that give us the seeds we need to continue farming the next year. If industrial beekeeping practices are indeed harming bees, contributing to CCD, and decreasing bee population than they can’t be justified.
Bees are really fascinating animals that employ lots of complicated methods for communicating, maintaining hive health, and producing honey. Any honey that I buy must respect and support their life cycle and processes. There are lots of different hive designs and approaches to beekeeping that are better for bees than the traditional industrial methods. Beekeepers may take only the bees’ surplus honey, which allows the bees to live through the winter on their own honey and stay strong. Using a different type of hive such as a vertical top bar hive allows the bees to continue with their processes uninterrupted so they can stay warm and healthy, especially in the winter. In general, intervening less and using less inputs (pesticides, sugar water, etc.) helps support the hive as it would function in nature- with other insects living alongside bees and maintaining a hardy and complex ecology.
So I think the next time I see a produce stand selling honey, I’ll be sure to ask them about their methods- what hive design they use, what inputs they add, etc. As consumers, I think we should support this kind of low-impact beekeeping when possible. But to be completely realistic, it’s hard to decide exactly what to do in our every day lives and purchases with all this information. There really isn’t a simple go-to answer. I think for a start it’s good to know where our honey comes from and to be sure it’s produced in the US. Then all we can do is learn more about the specific practices involved and try to support what we see as the most sustainable producer. Maybe even ask the honey people at your local farmers market about their practices. Even if the beekeepers use a Langstroth hive or can’t get rid of some inputs, I bet that they use a lot less pesticides than the unknown Chinese producers who grew the honey at the drugstore.
Here is a cool, informative Food Safety News article/study if you want to learn more.