Honey has been harvested by humans for thousands of years. Rock paintings have depicted people collecting honey from wild colonies (still common practice in parts of Asia, Africa, South America and Australia) and bees were domesticated as far back as ancient Egypt.
But there’s a world of difference between aboriginal communities smoking out a wild colony, and today’s shopper picking up a plastic squeezy bottle of runny honey in the supermarket. Honey is a huge industry: we consume around 30,000 tonnes of it a year in the UK alone, but we only produce about 5,000 tonnes, give or take a few thousand tonnes depending on the year. The rest is imported from the world’s major honey producing countries, which include China, Turkey, the Ukraine and Argentina.
The cheaper honeys we see in supermarkets have some potential drawbacks. Taste-wise, mass produced honey isn’t as interesting, because it’s typically heated and filtered to remove every trace of wax and pollen. The result is clear and stores well, but the flavours are less complex.
More worrying is the use of synthetic pesticides and antibiotics to combat pests, which can be harmful to those handling the bees as well as to people eating the final product. In 2002, the Food Standards Agency called for the withdrawal of Chinese honey from supermarket shelves after an antibiotic called chloramphenicol was found in samples. And more recently, cases of “honey laundering” between China and the US have come to light, where diluted or contaminated honey from China has been laundered through other countries to disguise its origins and evade health inspectors. At times, this has led to honey being labelled as a product of Singapore, for instance – when Singapore doesn’t even produce any honey. That doesn’t mean Chinese honey is necessarily bad or dangerous, but much of it finds it way into anonymous or blended products so it may not be easily traceable.
One of the reasons that some unscrupulous traders are going to such lengths to export possibly dodgy honey to Western countries in the first place is because of the collapse of honey bee populations in the US and Europe. This has had a big impact on local production, with 2008 being a particularly bad year, as around a quarter of UK colonies did not survive the winter.
It’s still not entirely clear why bees are suffering so badly. The problem has been linked to the varroa mite, which attacks bee larva, but also to bad summer weather, viruses, agricultural chemicals and air pollution. This is much more than a honey issue, because bees are vital for pollinating a wide range of crops.
As consumers, we can do our bit for bees by supporting local honey. Buying from local beekeepers helps keep them in business, which is more vital now than ever with bee populations in such a perilous state. Buying local has other advantages too. The honey will obviously not have racked up many food miles, and if you buy from the source you can ask the beekeeper about their production methods. Some beekeepers may feed their bees with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup during the winter. Normally, the bees would feed on their own honey, but it makes commercial sense to harvest all the honey and sell it rather than let the bees eat some of it themselves. But feeding bees with sugar and HFCS changes the finely balanced pH levels and enzymes of the natural honey and means it also then contains whatever the bees are fed with.
Apart from buying good quality local honey – with all its marvellous variety of distinct floral notes – you can also buy Fairtrade and/or imported organic honeys. It would be great if we could all just buy local, but there simply isn’t enough of it yet to meet demand in the UK. Supporting Fairtrade and organic honey from poorer countries may come at the cost of some food miles, but it’s more traceable than some cheaper generic honeys and means small-scale producers are at least getting a fair deal and benefiting from local investment.
Ethical Consumer (see weblink below) has assessed a range of honeys and ranked them, taking into account environmental, human, wildlife, political and sustainability concerns.
1, 2 Equal Exchange honey, and organic honey
From cooperatives in Chile, Mexico and Nicaragua
3 Biofair honey
Organic and fairtrade, from Mexico
4 Traidcraft honey
Fairtrade, from Guatemala and Chile
5 Swallows organic fairtrade honey
From Mexico and Chile
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