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A Sticky Situation: An Introduction To The Complex (And Sweet) World Of Honey
If all you know about honey is what you read on the back of bottles from the supermarket, it’s time you found out more; there’s an entire world of honey out there. This article will provide an introduction to honey, including its various forms and some of the chief issues in honey and beekeeping today.
I wanted to talk to a number of experienced, knowledgeable beekeepers about questions such as the differences between straining and filtering honey, the cause(s) of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and China dumping honey in the US. I soon found out that doing so would not bring any easy answers to my inquiries. While the beekeepers to whom I spoke agreed that the dumping of often-questionable Chinese honey in the US is a huge problem, they agreed on little else. To my way of thinking, this demonstrates the complexity of the topics facing American beekeepers today.
What is Honey?
There are two basic types of honey. Honeydew honey, also called forest honey, is made from the exudations of certain insects and is not covered in this article. Blossom or floral honey, the type familiar to most Americans from childhood, is a sweet, viscous, sticky fluid produced by honeybees. According to the Animal Planet website (http://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects), the process begins when a honeybee travels to a flower and gathers the flower’s nectar. Most flower nectars are a mixture of sucrose and water, with other beneficial compounds. Via a combination of enzymes produced by the bee, the nectar is transformed into a solution of glucose and fructose (the glucose-fructose percentages are different for each variety). Nectar is manipulated in the bee’s mouth parts, then placed in small droplets on the upper portion of hive cells; the bees fan their wings to cause air to circulate and remove excess moisture. Because of the low moisture content (usually no higher than 20%) and honey’s low pH, it is not a favorable environment for bacteria, mold, or fungi, which explains why honey can last for so long without spoiling. It takes a lot of work to make honey; to yield just one pound, bees must visit around two million flowers, and each worker will produce far less than one teaspoon of honey in her lifetime (all workers, also known as foragers, are female).
Unfortunately for Americans, to date, the FDA has not created a Standard of Identity for honey. A Standard of Identity is a legal definition of a food. Because of this lack of a Standard of Identity, unscrupulous producers, importers, etc. can concoct sweet, viscous, sticky fluids from substances such as rice syrup or any of several kinds of sugars (cane, corn, or beet) and legally pass them off as honey (since honey has a great number of color and flavor variations, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between these mixtures and real honey). Doing so is much cheaper and far more reliable than depending upon bees, whose populations and production can suffer from drought, excessive rain, disease, or other factors. Some individual states now have a Standard of Identity for honey, including Florida and California. But there is no federal standard.
Forms of Honey
Liquid Honey is the most popular form in the US. This is the form you find in bottles and those little plastic squeeze bears. Liquid honey contains no visible crystals. It’s extracted from the honeycomb via centrifugal force, straining, or gravity.
Naturally Crystallized Honey is liquid honey in which part of the glucose has spontaneously crystallized, according to the National Honey Board. The crystallization does not mean that the honey has gone bad! All honey will crystallize of its own accord over time; the rate at which this happens depends upon the type of honey and the conditions under which it’s kept (for instance, storage in cold conditions causes honey to crystallize more quickly).
Whipped Honey (also called Crème Honey, Candied Honey, White Honey, or Spun Honey) is deliberately crystallized. However, unlike naturally crystallized honey, the crystallization process is controlled, so that crystals in this type of honey are quite fine-grained. Whipped honey is spreadable, like jelly or softened butter. It is sometimes flavored; flavorings might be anything from lemon to cinnamon to jalapeno.
Comb Honey is honey as it’s found in the hive--that is, honey inside of honeycomb.
Cut Comb is liquid honey with chunks of honeycomb added.
Honey Sticks (also called Honey Stix) are liquid honey sealed in a plastic straw. Usually, each straw contains a teaspoon or so of honey. You bite the sealed end to tear the plastic, then squeeze the honey into your tea (or your mouth!). The honey in these sticks is frequently flavored.
Straining, Filtering, and Ultra-Filtering
Honey extracted from the honeycomb will contain bits of wax from the comb, propolis (a resinous compound used as “glue” for hive materials and to fill unwanted open spaces), pollen, and other hive debris (including fragments of bee wings). Sometimes, this honey is bottled and sold as is. The wax will rise to the top (along with some other debris), and the propolis often sinks to the bottom. This honey will be opaque, not the crystal-clear honey you find on supermarket shelves. Untreated honey like this tends to crystallize quite quickly, depending upon the variety (some types of honey are quick to crystallize, while others can take much longer).
So, what’s the difference between straining and filtering? That depends who you ask. A beekeeper in New York State told me that it all comes down to semantics. He notes that honey which is described as “strained” sounds less objectionable; the trick, he says, is to make your honey seem as little processed as possible. (Not all beekeepers agree with this.) Straining can be done through a colander, kitchen strainer, or other equipment, usually with larger openings. Straining removes wax chunks, propolis, some pollen, and hive debris. Strained honey has a somewhat opaque appearance; it still contains suspended fine particles and air bubbles.
How does filtering differ? That depends upon the kind of filtering you do. One type is called gravity filtering. Here, a filter (a standard piece of equipment purchased from a beekeeping supply house) is usually placed on top of a five gallon bucket (that’s a standard size in small-scale beekeeping), and honey drips through the filter into the bucket. These filters can have tiny openings, often measured in microns (200, 400, and 600 microns are common sizes; a micron is 1/25,000th of one inch). Sometimes, filters are stacked in this arrangement, with those having larger openings atop those with smaller openings. Filtered honey will be clearer than strained honey, without many of the suspended fine particles and air bubbles.
Gravity filtration, however, is not the only way in which honey is filtered. In some cases, honey is heated---sometimes to high temperatures—before being pumped through filters. Honey that’s heated to higher temperatures becomes much thinner in consistency, and it’s far easier and more manageable to work with when you have a mechanized bottling system (most smaller-scale beekeepers do not have such a system). Heating to a high temperature and then filtering will result in crystal-clear honey that is very slow to crystallize, the preference of most American consumers. On the other hand, heating honey to temperatures far below boiling (over 150 degrees F), even for a short time, has negative effects on honey’s flavor and color. And processing at a high temperature will kill off many, if not all, enzymes, pollens, yeasts, etc. remaining in the honey after straining.
There’s also a process called ultra-filtering, which is akin to what the Chinese do to their honey. Micropore filters are used for this, filters with openings even smaller than those in the 200 micron filters described above. Because the openings in these filters are miniscule, honey must be pumped through them. The honey is heated, and sometimes has water added. After it’s pumped through the filters, any extra water is evaporated. Ultra-filtering is done routinely in making mead (honey wine) in order to force the proteins out of honey, as proteins will cause problems in fermentation. One beekeeper to whom I spoke, who did not want his name used in this article, told me that the Chinese have been using ultra-filtering to remove any traces of antibiotic contamination in their honey. He told me that the Chinese maintain a heavy use of antibiotics (some of which are prohibited in the US) to prevent disease among their bees. If Chinese honey coming into the US is tested for prohibited substances, and the test results are positive, that honey will be refused. Ultra-filtering would skew the results of any such tests, as antibiotic component particles, larger than protein particles, would be caught in the filters and removed during the process.
Another problem with ultra-filtering is that it negates the possibility of tracing the honey to its area of origin, something which can only be done by examining the honey’s pollen grains under a microscope. If you have a sample of honey of suspect or uncertain origin (see Honey Dumping), and the honey contains no pollen, there’s no sure way to know the source of that honey.
Blends versus Varietals
If you purchase a jar of supermarket honey and the label doesn’t specify any particular variety, chances are that you have bought a blend of honeys. These blends tend to be lighter in color and flavor than many varietals. Honey blends often use imported honey because it’s cheap. Manufacturers are required to tell you the honey’s country or countries of origin, and it’s not uncommon to find honey from multiple countries in one jar. Consistency is the key to these blends; manufacturers know that Americans want a product to be identical every time they use it, so that’s what they strive for. One important note here: do not buy anything labeled as a “honey blend”, unless you check the ingredients first! That might sound odd, but products called “honey blend” may contain corn syrup or other inexpensive sweeteners in addition to honey.
Varietal honey, also called monofloral or unifloral, has become increasingly popular in the US, and it’s no wonder, given the wide range of flavors available. Several hundred varieties are produced in the US alone, including macadamia, pumpkin blossom, fireweed, guajillo, and echinacea (also called purple coneflower). The term “monofloral” is something of a misnomer, in my opinion. Many honey sellers offer a wildflower honey, or honey harvested by season. Wildflower honey is produced from more than one species of flower, as is a honey called, for example, Early Summer or Spring Blossom. All are varietal honeys, but you couldn’t call them monofloral.
I’ve heard claims that varietal honey is merely a marketing term. It’s true that bees can and do fly for several miles collecting nectar in any one trip, and they’re not trained animals, so obtaining honey that’s 100% from any particular type of blossom isn’t generally viable. However, according to the Uriah Creek Apiaries website (www.uriahcreek.com), all flowering plants, even those within one area, do not produce nectar at the same time of year (or even the same time of day). A good beekeeper can judge when the flowers from which he or she wishes bees to collect nectar actually have nectar flowing, thus encouraging the bees to work with the desired plant source(s).
Many people forget that honey is an agricultural product. Varietal honey will not be the same from year to year. The honey harvested will vary (sometimes radically) in color, viscosity, and flavor, depending upon what’s happening with the weather, the environments in which the bees live and forage, hive health, and other factors.
The Right Buzzwords: Organic, Pure, Natural, Artisanal, Raw, and Kosher
What about organic honey? That has to be the best for you, without all those pesticides, right? At this writing, the USDA simply doesn’t have any standards for organic honey. According to the Simple Organic website, “a good forager will travel a couple of miles from the hive to collect nectar and pollen. Can anyone know for sure that the millions of flowers within a two-mile radius are all non-GMO and untouched by man-made chemicals? No, and even if you could, nothing is stopping your bees from taking a drink from the highway runoff or breathing in the polluted air.” Despite this, I’ve seen honey in the US that’s certified organic. How can that be? Most of the organic certifying agencies in the US are private businesses, and enforcement of organic standards in this country is almost non-existent. While there are certified organic honey sellers who adhere strictly to the letter of the rules governing general organic production, if you’re going to pay extra for certified organic honey, it’s best to deal with a beekeeper you know and trust.
You’ll sometimes run across a jar labeled as “artisan” or “artisanal” honey. Usually, you’ll see this with a monofloral or varietal type. Now, my dictionary defines an artisan as “one trained to manual dexterity or skill in a trade”. I’m not denying that it takes some skill and manual dexterity to care properly for bees and harvest and process their honey, but I think the real artisans here are those who make the honey---the bees. If you see honey labeled as “artisan” or “artisanal”, ask the beekeeper why it’s so special; he or she might well be able to give you a legitimate answer. If you can’t get a real answer, however, it’s just a marketing term.
You’ll see a lot of honey advertised or labeled as “pure” or “natural”. With the exception of some minimal standards for meat, the term “natural” has no legal definition in the US. This is another marketing term, as is “pure”. Anybody can put anything into a jar or a bottle and slap either word on the label, so please don’t buy honey solely because you see one of these terms (or both!) on the label.
The raw food movement has gained considerable momentum in the US over the past five to seven years. There are innumerable honeys labeled “raw”. Is this accurate? There’s no way to know. That’s not the fault of those beekeepers who carefully process their honey at low temperatures; it’s merely that there’s no legal definition of the word “raw” as it applies to foods. Anybody can put honey into a jar and label it as “raw”, no matter what type(s) of processing it undergoes or how high its temperature gets during processing. (That brings me to another point: There’s also no consensus among raw food devotees as to the maximum possible temperature their food is allowed to achieve.) “Raw” is a popular marketing term, because it implies that the honey is less processed and therefore better for you. If you are interested in consuming honey processed under a certain temperature, again, find a beekeeper you can trust.
More and more honey is being certified kosher. Kosher certification is big business these days, and if you think the only people buying certified kosher products are observant and Jewish, you’re much mistaken. According to an article in the New York Times (“For Some, ‘Kosher’ Equals Pure”, January 13, 2010), only 15% of people who buy kosher products do so for religious reasons. Among other consumers of kosher products, there’s a belief that kosher certification denotes foods that are more pure and wholesome.
Is Honey Healthy?
This subject, which is an enormous one all by itself, is beyond the scope of this article. Dr. Andrew Weil has this to say about honey: “Honey contains fructose, glucose and water plus other sugars as well as trace enzymes, minerals, amino acids and a wide range of B vitamins. The amount of these micronutrients varies depending on where the honey comes from. In general, darker honeys contain more vitamins than lighter ones and also provide more trace minerals such as calcium, magnesium and potassium.” Honey also provides antioxidants.
Because honey is not a good environment for bacteria, fungi, or molds, it is sometimes used topically, especially for burns. Historically, and even continuing up to the present day, some cultures have used honey medicinally. Bear in mind that the heating and filtering most supermarket honey undergoes will render it useless in the medicinal realm; you need honey that still contains pollens, enzymes, vitamins, and the like.
There are people who claim that honey assists with everything from sleeplessness to weight loss to fighting cholesterol. I urge you to do your own research and make up your own mind about these, and other, claims.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)
You’ve probably read that the honeybee population is in trouble. The United States is a massive consumer of honey, but, more importantly, honeybees are the biggest pollinators we have. The scale of agriculture in the US is almost beyond comprehension. At least one-third of the crop species in the US are pollinated by honeybees, including everything from nut trees to the clover used to feed cattle to citrus fruit to soybeans.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) killed more than one-quarter of the country’s 2.4 million bee colonies in the winter of 2006-2007. When you consider that a healthy colony contains between forty and eighty thousand bees, we’re talking about billions of honeybees. CCD has been found in a number of other countries, as well. But just what is CCD? And can it be treated?
Again, that depends upon the source you ask. Some beekeepers believe it’s a combination of invasive diseases, pests, and pathogens. From the early 1900’s to the 1980’s, the US had few diseases or pests that affected honeybees. The vast increase in world trade since the early 1980’s has meant an equally massive influx of exotic diseases, pests, and pathogens. With the advent of fast container ships, a shipping container left open at a port half the world away can become home to a bee swarm. Once that container is closed, it might be in a US port in three or four days, and the colony can survive that long without food or water. Many containers that arrive in US ports are not inspected, so a colony can easily remain undetected; once the container is opened and the swarm flies out, there’s no putting the figurative genie back into the bottle. Bees from other lands will naturally bring with them diseases, pests, and micro-organisms to which bees in the US have no resistance.
But there are multiple contrasting theories of possible cause(s) for CCD, ranging from poor colony management practices to overuse of pesticides to a lack of genetic diversity in queen bees. Some insist there are currently no solutions to CCD; some don’t agree (for instance, I’ve been told by an expatriate beekeeper that hives kept according to organic principles stand a much better chance of escaping CCD). There are even beekeepers who insist that the entire thing has been overblown by the media, and that the CCD problem isn’t that serious. It’s true that bees in the US have experienced large-scale die-offs before, even prior to the days of a global economy (in the 1880’s, 1920’s, and 1960’s). As someone who’s been able to do only a few weeks of research into this issue, I do not know what to think at this point. When I said that some issues facing today’s beekeepers are intricate and often puzzling, I wasn’t kidding.
In the 1990’s, American beekeepers faced an economic problem. Chinese honey was arriving in the US at an unprecedented rate, and it was very cheap. The honey was of uncertain quality, but those who bought it in large quantities and thought only of the price were delighted. Eventually, however, it was agreed that the Chinese were engaging in predatory trade practices. As a result, beginning in 2001, a stiff import tariff (215%) was imposed on all honey imported from China.
Honey imported from China began to disappear. Almost as soon as that happened, honey imports from other countries, countries not known to be big honey producers (Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia, India, and others), increased miraculously. The Chinese are engaging in transshipping, or honey laundering. They ship honey to other Asian countries, where it gets relabeled as to country of origin and imported into the US. In this way, the Chinese avoid the tariff on honey exported to the US.
Alternatively, the Chinese set up “shell” corporations. A July, 2010 press release from Senator Chuck Schumer of New York described the situation: Chinese honey comes to the US via “fly-by-night importing companies that are thinly-capitalized and specialize in importing questionable food products. When (US Customs and Border Protection) tries to collect antidumping duties or (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) tries to take enforcement actions, these companies shut down operations and become insolvent; the owners simply disappear. The companies are then replaced with new, undercapitalized shell companies, often run by the same owners of the previously-shuttered entities.”
According to Nancy Gentry, another way the Chinese avoid the US honey tariff is through a sweetener called “packers’ blend”, a mix of 60% honey and 40% corn syrup. This mixture is not subject to the tariff. The problem is that packers’ blend often gets relabeled as honey and used by manufacturers who need enormous amounts of honey for their products. Ms. Gentry states that these manufacturers know that this suspiciously cheap “honey” really isn’t honey at all, but it’s cost-effective for them and they don’t have to change their nutrition labels to reflect the use of corn syrup. The Chinese are also known to intentionally mislabel honey as another kind of sweetener, such as malt sweetener, to avoid paying import duties.
The big losers in this game are American consumers. The FDA has come up with a Standard of Identity for more than 280 foods, for everything from maple syrup to Parmesan cheese. But they haven’t managed to devise a Standard of Identity for honey, despite the fact that beekeepers and consumers nationwide have been asking for one since at least 1975. Inspection of foods imported into the US is utterly insufficient in these days of a truly global market. While not all honey imported from China is mislabeled or contaminated, there’s no way for consumers to know whether their Chinese honey is really honey at all, or whether it has traces of heavy metals and banned antibiotics in it.
A Little Help From Their Friends
As an individual, what can you do to support honeybees and small-scale beekeepers? According to the USDA’s Agricultural Resource Service (ARS), the best action you can take is to not use pesticides indiscriminately, if you must use them at all. In particular, don’t use pesticides mid-day, as honeybees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar at that time. Consider becoming a backyard beekeeper (if it’s legal in your area; it isn’t legal everywhere in the US). If beekeeping is a little farther than you want to go, or if it’s not legal where you live, cultivate a bee-friendly garden. Choose plants that will bloom successively over spring, summer, and autumn, and make sure they’re good nectar sources (red clover, foxglove, and bee balm are three examples). If you don’t know where to start for a bee-friendly garden, your local nursery should be able to help you. For more information on how to help, see “Helping the Honeybee” here: http://www.gooserockfarm.com/gpage1.html.
A Random Sampling of American Honey
Below, in alphabetical order, are the honeys I tasted while working on this article. Many were chosen more or less randomly---on my travels, via friends’ recommendations, or because I had heard about the beekeepers behind the honey. Honey varieties in italics denote those I especially liked.
Amen Bee Products, www.amenbeeproducts.com. Olallieberry. No online ordering. This business offers some very unusual types of honey (broccoli honey, anyone?) in addition to more conventional varieties.
Ames Farm, www.amesfarm.com. Dandelion, Blooming Prairie.
Bay Area Bee Company, http://bayareabeecompany.com. Civic Center. No online ordering. The honeys here are named after the areas in San Francisco in which the hives are placed.
Cross Creek Honey Company, www.crosscreekhoneyco.com. Palmetto, Florida Everglades, Year End Bold. Nancy Gentry, part of the mother-and-son team here, was instrumental in getting a Standard of Identity for honey established in the state of Florida.
Once Again Nut Butter/Dawes Hill Honey, http://onceagainnutbutter.com. Wildflower. Note that not all honey offered on this site is produced in the US, but the Wildflower is. While individual jars are available in some retail locations, at this writing, this honey can only be ordered by the case online.
Golden Rule Honey, http://beeuntoothers.com/. Kirk Webster’s Vermont Honey, Dee Lusby’s Arizona Rangeland Honey. Honey sold here is only from beekeepers who don’t medicate or artificially feed their bees or transport the bees for monoculture pollination.
Grampa’s Gourmet Honey, www.grampashoney.com. Tamarisk, Chamiso “Rabbit Brush”, White, Desert Wildflower.
Harvey’s Honey, www.harveyshoney.com. Butter Bean, Palmetto Blossom, Blueberry Blossom. No online ordering.
Native Nectar, www.thunderheartbison.com. Guajillo. Webstore undergoing renovation at this writing.
Northwest Wild Foods, www.nwwildfoods.com. Wild Olympic Red Huckleberry, Wild Olympic Blue Huckleberry, Wild Mountain Blackberry. Because huckleberry honey is so low-moisture, it’s very thick and has an intense flavor. Other honey is blended in with the huckleberry honey here to reduce the thickness and lessen the concentrated taste. The Red Huckleberry Honey is blended with Montana Red Clover Honey; the Blue Huckleberry Honey is blended with Cascade Fireweed Honey.
Seaway Trail Honey, www.seawaytrailhoney.com. Early Summer, Fall. Beekeeper Pat Bono has been a driving force in attempting to get New York State to adopt a Standard of Identity for honey.
Texas Range Honey, www.rangehoney.com. Indian Blanket, Dark Allergy.
The Hamptons Honey Company, www.hamptonshoney.com. Creamed Spring Blossom.
Warm Colors Apiary, www.warmcolorsapiary.com. American Basswood, Raspberry Blossom, Deerfield Wildflower.
The National Honey Board, www.honey.com
American Beekeeping Federation, www.abfnet.org
“Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey”, by Andrew Schneider (www.foodsafetynews.com, November 7, 2011)
“Relax, Folks. It Really is Honey, After All.”, http://m.npr.org/news/front/142659547?page=3
“Can Honey be Organic?”, http://simpleorganic.net/can-honey-be-organic/?doing_wp_cron=1327322029
Annemarie Praus and Kris Noiseaux
Uriah Creek Apiaries, www.uriahcreek.com
Nancy Gentry, Nicholas Gentry, and Jennifer Gentry, Cross Creek Honey Company, www.crosscreekhoneyco.com
Dan Conlon, Warm Colors Apiary, www.warmcolorsapiary.com
“Honey Standard of Identity”, www.rochesterhoney.com
“For Some, ‘Kosher’ Equals Pure”, www.nytimes.com/2010/01/13/dining/13kosh.html?pagewanted=all
Honey Traveler, www.honeytraveler.com
Gooserock Farm, www.gooserockfarm.com
American Honey Producers Association, http://www.americanhoneyproducers.org/Members/Tsunami%20of%20Indian.pdf
USDA Agricultural Resource Service, http://www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=15572
Rick LaMonte, Northwest Wild Foods, www.nwwildfoods.com
Laurie and Dean, Golden Rule Honey, www.beeuntoothers.com
Scott Berk, MD
“Mead: History, Current Technology and Prospects”, www.gotmead.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=324&Itemid=487
Andrew Weil, MD, www.drweil.com/drw/u/QAA400590/Is-Honey-Healthy.html
Top Photo Credit: The National Honey Board
Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) is a freelance food writer.