You might have seen some news coverage recently that claimed much of the honey sold in the US isn’t actually… honey. So what is it, then?

Well, it IS still honey, and it did still come from bees. But it’s been treated and filtered to a point that it no longer meets the standard of what is properly called honey by several regulatory agencies, including the FDA:

“In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration says that any product that’s been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen isn’t honey. …Ultra filtering is a high-tech procedure where honey is heated, sometimes watered down and then forced at high pressure through extremely small filters to remove pollen, which is the only foolproof sign identifying the source of the honey.”

It’s in part a semantic quibble, but also hides a larger issue: where does the honey sold in the US actually come from?

bee by nutmeg66

Honey normally contains pollen.  Bees gather pollen from plants to feed their young, and they also drink nectar from some plants too.  When a bee is out collecting for her hive, she stores the nectar in a special pouch of her gut. When she returns to the hive from foraging, she passes the nectar to a “house bee” through a process called trophallaxis.  This is a nice sciency word for barfing up nectar so another bee can eat it.

The house bee “chews” the nectar for a while, getting the digestion started and breaking down some of the complex sugars in the nectar. She then barfs up the honey (Again! I know!) into the comb, where it gradually loses some of it’s water content and becomes the very sticky, sweet stuff that we know and love.

While all this is happening, there is pollen everywhere.  Bees are fuzzy, so in addition to the pollen they actively collect, they are usually covered with pollen.  It’s sticky stuff–but, you know, it is plant sperm.  That shit gets everywhere.

Ahem.  Anyway.

So, pollen in honey is normal. And it serves as a sort of honey provenance.  The problem with pollen-less honey is you don’t know where it came from, or what kind of plants the bees were feeding on.  The fear is that Americans are the victims of “honey dumping”—or, yes, “honey laundering.”

Instead of happy bourgeois American bees, our honey is coming from oppressed proletarian bees in China.  (I’m exaggerating of course, but that’s about the tone some of the news reports have taken.)  Chinese honey has a bad reputation, and has shown up in the US with a variety of contaminants. Heavy metals are another fear, since bees don’t recognize toxic waste dumps as places they should not forage in.  They go where the pollen is.

Support your local beekeeper!

So how can you make sure you get American honey? Buy local. And by local, I mean honey that is not part of a chain store brand, but something from a beekeeper that is in your state, with a traceable address and name.  Not everyone has access to a farmer’s market, but the analysis done by the Food Safety News Group (more about them later) suggests that purchasing organic honey is more likely to be locally or at least US-sourced honey.

Why is honey ultra-filtered? There are two reasons usually offered, one benign, and one sinister.  The reason most large honey packagers give for filtering out the pollen is that it creates a more shelf-stable honey, and it is clearer.  Basically, it’s a cosmetic treatment to make honey pretty.   That is probably true; Americans are awfully paranoid about the slightest defects in their foods.  Filtering has a shady side effect: it makes it easier for honey to be processed and shipped longer distances (like from Asia) and means that many different kinds of honey can be blended together undetectably.

Does it matter that both American and foreign honey has the pollen removed? Aside from the issue of honey tampering and tracing your honey back to a source, probably not. There are a LOT of wild health claims made for eating honey and pollen, and the best summary I can give you of the scientific support for that is “little to none.”  It probably doesn’t really matter if your honey is filtered.   From an energy conservation standpoint, eating locally produced, non-processed honey saves a lot of carbon.  Foodies can chat up their local beekeepers and find out the details of the flowers that went into their honey.  But eating raw honey will not cure your allergies, or your cold.

honey with pollen grainsSo, why the sudden interest by the media in where our honey is coming from? The study of over 60 commercial brands of honey by a leading melissopalynologist (honey pollen detective, in human speak) was commissioned by the Food Safety News Group, which is a collection of very good science journalists…. run by a legal firm specializing in food illness lawsuits.  Hmm.

This is part of a honey reporting effort by this FSN group that’s been going on for several months, and some of which is a bit alarmist, frankly. It’s clear they hope to drum up support for a law or a regulation that puts “honey should have pollen in it” in writing, as well as requiring clearer labeling on where the honey is coming from.  That’s not a bad thing, really, since it is good to know where our food comes from.

The American Beekeepers Federation has been lobbying for a “standard of identity” for honey; this month they reported that the FDA rejected their petition.  The laws about labeling honey are pretty confusing; the country of origin is only required to be declared if the honey bears a “USDA mark.” (Why organic honey has to be clearly labeled, but not other honey–the organic logo is a USDA regulated mark.)

It is possible, though, that the short term result could be higher prices for your honey.  Not because there is a major honey shortage–the frequency of Colony Collapse Disorder is slowly declining, thank goodness–but because the cost of producing honey in the US is much, much higher than it is in China, India, or Argentina.

It just isn’t possible for US beekeepers to sell large quantities of honey at low prices, when they are struggling with so many other challenges. There are so many things that kill honey bees out there right now, on top of what we all experience as rising costs of living.

It’s hard out there for a beekeeper. So I do hope that those of you that can will buy local honey!

bug_girl

bug_girl

Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really!
If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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21 Comments

  1. Avatar of daedalus2u
    November 25, 2011 at 10:24 pm —

    What they will do is filter the honey and then add back what ever pollen they are trying to simulate.

    • Avatar of Reverend Kel
      November 27, 2011 at 2:39 pm —

      I find that point of view to be totally cynical, and therefore completely true.

  2. Avatar of andiis
    November 26, 2011 at 12:00 am —

    Dear bug_girl,
    thanks for the article. It could well apply to us downunder as anywhere else. I live in an area where I can buy honey form a local bee-keeper who labels it according to the eucalyptus flowering at the time. We no longer grow crops out this way ( canola or barley ) cos of the drought or the floods or the mice plagues, I don’t remember which.
    I was just wondering if you have come across resistance to the European honey bee with regard to the disappearance of your native pollinators.
    We have some bug people here who suggest that the die-back of some of our eucalypt forests are due to the diminishing numbers of beetles and bugs that used to do the job but were overwhelmed by the introduced bee, that starts work earlier and works longer hours than our local pollinators.
    The bee keeper moves his hives on, leaving the locals with that ” WTF was that ” feeling. They all end up on welfare, drinking down the pub and eventually die from lack of interest.
    Do you have any info on this phenomenon?

    • Avatar of bug_girl
      November 26, 2011 at 9:21 am —

      I’m confused–your native bees are at the pub on welfare??

      I’m sure I missed something somewhere :)

      The issue of native pollinators down under is huge; just as it is here in the US. We have a wonderful non-profit that helps to promote native pollinators:
      http://www.xerces.org/

      Not sure if there is a similar org where you are.

    • Avatar of daedalus2u
      November 26, 2011 at 10:00 am —

      A decline in pollinators would only affect seed production in flowering plants, not already existing plants (like eucalyptus trees). Many eucalyptus do grow back from the roots following a fire. If a eucalyptus forest is dying, it is likely not due to lack of pollinators but rather due to climate change or introduction of something that attacks it (unlikely because eucalyptus are pretty well protected by phytotoxins).

      Pollinators like bees do need a distribution of plant flowering times over the season to sustain the hive. Interruption of that by the decline of a key species could have serious adverse effects. In bees, they need certain abundant flowering species at certain times to build the hive population up to have enough workers to harvest enough honey for the winter during later specific flowering events. It the hive doesn’t have the worker population to harvest enough during specific flowering events, then the hive will die during the winter from lack of food.

      It may be that disruption of the timing of flowering events due to AGW is interfering with the hive population buildup needed to take advantage of later flowering events. That same kind of thing could be affecting native pollinators too. If there are a few key species that supply nectar during specific time periods, their loss could have a disproportionate effect on pollinator abundance year round.

      I think it is unlikely that hives brought in could so deplete the nectar supply during specific periods so as to have an effect on native pollinators. Usual practice is to bring in hives for exotic crop plants when there are insufficient native pollinators to satisfy their pollination needs.

      • Avatar of bug_girl
        November 26, 2011 at 10:09 am —

        Eucalyptus IS a flowering plant. Just because it’s already grown doesn’t mean that it won’t need to be pollinated.

        Additionally, there is quite a bit of evidence that introduced bees have crowded out native pollinators, and also have introduced pathogens that negatively affect native pollinators.

        • Avatar of daedalus2u
          November 26, 2011 at 5:05 pm —

          I know that eucalyptus is a flowering plant. But it won’t die if it isn’t fertilized (I think, but I am not an expert on this). Usually when trees are not fertilized they don’t set fruit and don’t produce any seeds and try again the next year. The loss of those seeds could have detrimental effects on other species that are also pollinators (bats, birds?), but the decline of eucalyptus forests due to loss of pollinators would be due to no new eucalyptus trees and so would be somewhat slow, around the lifetime of eucalyptus trees.

          In Hawaii there are plants that used to depend on a single pollinator species and that pollinator species has gone extinct. Now they depend on human pollination.

          I agree that introduced feral bees could crowd out native pollinators, but captive hives maintained by beekeepers and moved to fertilize exotic crops that need pollination are not likely to do so because they are moved around to capture the nectar from the exotic crops, not the native flowering species.

          Feral bee hives could be very bad for native pollinators if the natural cycle of the bees causes a population explosion before a period of insufficient nectar for native species. Then I agree the native pollinators could be out competed.

          I completely agree that introduced diseases and parasites could be very bad for native pollinators. I think (but am not an expert on this), that feral hives would be more of a risk. It is my understanding that captive hives can be prevented from going feral or producing feral hives by using queen excluders. I would think that this would be normal practice with captive hives that are transported to pollinate crops. If it isn’t, it should be, especially in places where honey bees are exotic.

          • Avatar of bug_girl
            November 26, 2011 at 5:59 pm

            Many of the crops pollinated in the US ARE native plants-squash and blueberries, for example. And they are pollinated by hives of imported honey bees.
            Also, just because you put a hive in a field of almond trees (for example) the bees are not going to ignore nice sources of pollen and nectar around the field that are not their target species. They don’t understand fences or boundaries.

            The major issue for most native species is loss of host plants and nesting area. It’s the nesting areas that are the most critical for a lot of the US species; few of them are specialists on just one plant like what you have on island systems like Hawaii. It’s a very complex system, and the competition dynamics are not linear.

            I’m not sure why you are so invested in arguing about this, D? A lot of what you are saying is…well, wrong. Queen excluders can’t prevent honeybees from swarming, for example. It’s used to prevent the queen from laying eggs in supers where the honey is, not keeping the queen in the hive.

            Xerces.org is a great resource for learning about how to promote native pollinators. Bumble bees in particular are quite threatened, not from competition, but from disease:
            http://www.xerces.org/bumblebees/

          • Avatar of Felicia
            November 27, 2011 at 12:34 pm

            Actually bug, queen excluders can be used to prevent swarms, and often are, at least in Swedish beekeeping. An even more common method here is cutting part of the queen’s wings off. The swarm will still leave the hive in both cases, but the queen will either end up stuck in the excluder (usually dying in the process)r or on the ground, and in most cases the bees return to the hive. However, bees are tricksy and often fihure out ways around these obstacles (such as quickly raising new queens and swarming). I don’t think there are any completely failsafe ways of preventing swarms from getting away without constant monitoring.

          • Avatar of bug_girl
            November 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm

            That’s really odd. Maybe everyone I know here has just given up using queen excluders to prevent anything besides brood in one part of the hive. Bees are tricky indeed!

  3. Avatar of Autochton
    November 26, 2011 at 5:04 am —

    I’m not certain when that particular law was repealed, but in Denmark, I do know that tampering with honey was at one time (including through the entirety of the Middle Ages) a capital offense. Yes, mislabeling honey for sale could see you hung.

  4. Avatar of Louis Doench
    November 26, 2011 at 9:19 am —

    –the frequency of Colony Collapse Disorder is slowly declining, thank goodness–

    Really? That is good news and this is the first I have heard of it. Yay Bees!

  5. Avatar of Felicia
    November 26, 2011 at 11:41 am —

    As a Swedish beekeeper I was pretty horrified to learn this about the US market. Not because I think honey has any sort of magical properties that are ruined by filtering, but it’s just so UNNECESSARY. A huge waste of time and energy, all because the US public are uneducated about honey.

    Am I right in assuming it’s to do with crystallisation? The shelf life of honey, as long as its water content is below 20 %, is VERY, VERY LONG. The only thing that can go “wrong” with it is that it crystallises, which makes it look grainy. The presence of pollen and other particles probably provides seeds for the crystallisation process and it seems to me like filtering them out should delay the crystallisation even when the glucose content is too high to render the honey naturally liquid.

    In Sweden, there’s only one or two species of flower that gives naturally liquid honey, so it’s pretty much impossible to get non-crystallised Swedish honey in the store. So there’s just no reason to filter out microscopical impurities; it won’t change the honey at all, and the public is used to honey being opaque, thick and creamy or even hard. However, in later years we’ve had an influx of liquid honey from other parts of the world and a lot of recipes call for it (for no good reason), making it even harder for Swedish beekeepers to make a living…

    (Apologies about the random rant. I’ve spent today talking about this with customers at a christmas market. It’s so hard not to yell at the ones who admit they buy acacia honey. Fucking acacia! It tastes of syrup! *grumble*)

    • Avatar of bug_girl
      November 26, 2011 at 5:44 pm —

      Yeah, it’s just a cosmetic treatment because Americans are so perfectionist about our food. Sigh.

      • Avatar of almulhida
        November 29, 2011 at 6:04 pm —

        I find it incredible that the clear liquid stuff is considered cosmetically superior. I never knew that’s why they did that before this post, I’ve been wondering for years why honey in the US is so weird!

    • Avatar of davesnothere
      November 27, 2011 at 5:09 pm —

      In NZ honey comes in a vaiety of types, from the white clover honey that tends to crystalise if you let it dry out even a little to very liquid honeys like kiwifruit and citris. I haven’t seen a real preference (I prefer my honey with chunks of comb in it, like when I was a boy :)

      One thing that amuses me is that NZ is now exporting manuka honey with some sort of numerical rating for “magicness” (http://manukahoney.com/). And pricing it like caviar, so presumably there’s a market. $40 for a 250g container, which has made me reluctant to try it to see whether it’s the same as the manuka honey we had when I was young.

      What’s trashing the forests in NZ is introduced wasps. They strip the forest of honeydew (and other things), which upsets the various nectar-feeders and further breaks the forest. They also upset people, as they’re agressive. But IIRC it’s still possums doing most of the damage.

  6. Avatar of miskidomleka
    November 26, 2011 at 8:52 pm —

    I find those claims of honey being soooo good for your health very funny, because honey is basically a mixture of fructose and glucose, quite similar in composition to high-fructose corn syrup. Which, as we so know so well, is a terribly unhealthy killer toxic stuff made by greedy corporations to make us all fat and sick.

    • Avatar of Otoki
      November 29, 2011 at 12:10 pm —

      I think the key difference for most people (besides the taste) is that honey is usually something people add to food and drinks THEMSELVES, so they know how much is going in there. There is some research out there that indicates that honey can help suppress coughing to some extent, which won’t cure a cold but can help your throat recover a bit faster by preventing some damage. Bug Girl, do you have any good links about that?

  7. Avatar of Madfishmonger
    November 29, 2011 at 1:10 pm —

    I love honey (one of the reasons I could never be strictly vegan) and I buy locally as much as possible as there are a lot of apiaries right around Winnipeg. It’s a little pricier, but it’s so damned delicious I don’t mind. Thanks for educating us on this, I didn’t know any of this.
    I am generally annoyed by cosmetic improvements in food. If I want to make a fancy plate of fancy food by myself, that’s up to me, but I don’t like a company deciding for me how my food should look. It should look like what it is. Artichokes are kind of weird-looking, but that doesn’t stop me from eating them. I think cosmetically changing food is a sort of pat on the head from the industry to me. Like I couldn’t possibly handle how food is supposed to look, I’m too fragile and easily frightened.

  8. Avatar of honeymonster
    March 6, 2012 at 5:48 am —

    I agree not all honey needs to be unethically sourced, checkout these guys, they have a really sensible approach to how the honey is harvested and how the bees are treated. http://www.greenbayharvest.co.uk

  9. Avatar of Lyla Burns
    July 20, 2012 at 12:52 pm —

    Bee’s are so interesting to me, and we can get great health benefits from them. I’ve been looking for places to get manuka honey usa. It would be so nice to be able to buy it where I do my regular grocery shopping.

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