Honey has been used by humans for approximately 9000 years in everything from cosmetics, medicine, waterproofing, an ingredient in embalming fluid, and, of course, as a sweetener. A recent discovery in the Pyramids, found that a pot of Egyptian honey had been left in a tomb, likely as an offering to the Gods, and was still perfectly edible… 3,000 years later.
While honey and beeswax have been used by humans since the Stone Age, recently the focus has shifted to the producers themselves.
Let’s get some things straight first, not all bees make honey. There are over 20,000 bee species across the world, only a few make honey and the most prolific is the creatively named Honey Bee. Additionally, only females’ bees can sting, and the majority of bees can sting with impunity, only Honeybees die after one sting.
Only social bees ‘dance’ to communicate, and amazingly, Asian honeybees and European honeybees are able to translate each other languages when interacting. Not all bees are black and yellow, in fact the variety of colour is almost endless. Lastly, bees can range in size from the tiny, less than 2mm, to an unnervingly large 4cm.
Worryingly though, no matter the location or species, bee populations across the world are declining rapidly. One of the main reasons? Our insatiable need for honey. Like a modern day Winnie the Pooh, we consume a truly staggering amount of honey each year. In 2018 alone the US consumed 555 million pounds of honey, almost 1.7 pounds per capita, a 35% increase since 2010.
To meet this growing demand, industrial bee farming has become the norm, leading to devastating consequences for bees and humans alike. It is estimated that bees contribute roughly €265 billion to the global economy each year, but the true impact is in what they contribute to nature. Pollinating 1/3 of the food we eat, a significant loss in the bee population will have global consequences on our food supply. With a 40% loss of the honeybee in the US and 25% loss in Europe, this is not a distant threat, but a real and present danger.
How we extract honey from bees is indeed representative of how we approach agriculture in the first place, and radical reimagining of beekeeping could help lead us to better agricultural practices overall.
So, how is honey extracted? For thousands of years, honey has been extracted through a ‘smoking technique’. Essentially, a material is burned that masks the bees’ panic and response pheromones and makes them believe there is a forest fire nearby. In response, they gorge themselves on honey, intending to flee the nest with the queen and rebuild somewhere else. After eating, the bees are lethargic and nonaggressive, making extraction easier.
While it may sound cruel, this actually does little damage to the bees. They typically regain their pheromone sensitivity after 10 – 20 minutes and quickly realise it was a false alarm, returning to their natural state. Provided natural materials like pinecones or wood chips are burned, there are no known long-term effects of this practice.
It’s not how honey is extracted, but when. Ethical beekeeping practitioners take honey in the Spring, after the bees have already eaten what they need for the winter. It is considered excess that they can quickly replace and so does no real harm to the bees themselves.
In commercial hives though, honey is extracted in Autumn, just as the bees are preparing to hunker down for winter, essentially robbing them of their food source for the toughest months of the year. To stop the bees dying of starvation, they are fed artificial sweeteners of little nutritional value, which have been observed to weaken the bee’s immune system, contributing to the decline in population.
In addition to this, commercial beekeepers will often put hives into oversized dwellings, causing the bees to work even harder to fill the hive with honey. The devoted insects have been known to work themselves to death because of this.
A weakening gene pool, as a result of artificially inseminating the Queen, is also leading to a decline in bee health and longevity, with imperfections that would normally not get passed on, becoming rife in some hives.
This is the true cost of $2 honey. However, the situation, while dire, is not irreversible. Less dependence on industrial agriculture and monocultures, a reduction in harmful pesticides and allowing natural flowers to return and flourish in the wild, as well as protecting green spaces and diversity will all contribute to the bee population bouncing back.
How do you ensure that the honey you’re buying is ethical? Well, there’s a few things to look out for. Your best option is to buy local honey from the beekeeper themselves. I’ve yet to meet a beekeeper who won’t gladly tell you about their practices if you’re curious. For the carbon conscious, this is also the least food mileage intensive option.
Alternatively, organic honey is also a fantastic option.
To be certified organic, bees must only use pollen from organic sources, namely the wild or low input farmland, with no major pollutants like industry or roads nearby. This organic space must take up a 3km radius from the Hive. Beehives must also not be made from any synthetic materials, the bees must be allowed enough reserves to keep going and while feeding is allowed, it must only be organic honey or sugar, which does not under nourish the bees. The honey must be harvested naturally, no genetically altered bees can be present in the hive and it must be disease-free, with only a few products allowed for use in disease prevention.
It should be noted that organic honey certification will vary slightly from country to country and what’s listed above are the requirements for the EU. Organic certification is a challenge to get, and you’ll notice that it naturally requires things like biodiversity and ethical beekeeping practices.
You may even find that some local honeys aren’t certified organic, simply because they fail to meet one of the criteria. This is why it’s important to know the source of your local honey and the beekeeper.
Other indicators such as ‘raw’ are also a good sign of more ethical practices but be sure to check the source. As the ethical movement gains momentum, companies are realising them can take advantage of the still relatively unregulated terms and charge huge mark ups for products that are far from ethical or organic.
Incidentally, you can test how ‘pure’ your honey is by dropping a tablespoon of the honey in a glass of water. ‘Pure’ or ‘raw’ honey will gently drift to the bottom and settle. ‘Artificial’ honey, the kind that is produced on an industrial scale, has a less powerful sweetening effect, often thought to be linked to the overworked, undernourished bees. As such, it is often mixed with high fructose syrup and sugar to sweeten it. ‘Artificial’ honey will dissolve in the water.
You can also dip a match in the honey. If it burns with a steady flame, the honey is ‘pure’, if it splutters and burns unevenly, it’s ‘artificial’.
As to whether honey is vegan, that is a matter of much debate. The Founder of the movement, Donald Watson, sees it as exploitative. However, numerous counterarguments exist, primarily centred on the fact that, if done right, we only take excess honey that the bees can stand to lose.
Regardless of whether you consider honey to be vegan, we can all take steps to improve our sustainability, lower the environmental impact, and increase the happiness of our bees with the honey we buy.
It may be a bit more expensive, but know as you buy it you are contributing to the continued health of our planet and its hardest workers.