I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
More and more health-conscious people are using honey as a sweetener, and they are happy to see its price coming down. But, how can this be when the bees that make honey are dying, and production is down? The unfortunate thing is that consumers may not be getting what they are paying for—low-cost imports of a product that is claimed to be honey have flooded markets in North America.
Why Are Bees Dying?
A strange ailment called colony collapse disorder has been striking hives everywhere. Various theories have been put forward:
- The widespread use of pesticides and insecticides;
- Microwaves carrying cellphone signals disrupt bee navigation so they can’t find their way back to their hives;
- Industrial emissions of diesel and gasoline fumes are stressing bees;
- Climate change alters the plants on which bees forage;
- Industrial agricultural monoculture of crops that offer no nectar ;
- A parasitic mite infestation; or
- A combination of all of the above.
In May 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that “Losses of managed honey bee colonies were 23.1 percent for the 2014-2015 winter but summer losses exceeded winter numbers for the first time, making annual losses for the year 42.1 percent.” Similar losses have been reported globally.
“Bees are dying by the tens of billions” (Netflix documentary Rotten).
Supply and Demand
The consumption of honey is going up, particularly in North America. Packaged food producers have been switching from sugar to honey to satisfy consumer demand for more natural ingredients. So, honey is turning up in cereals, potato chips, cough drops, cookies, beverages, even sliced ham.
But honey production is dropping. Economics 101 says that isn’t possible unless some other factor is coming into play. And, there is another factor.
Norberto Garcia, the President of the International Honey Exporters Organization, explains: “In some way, there seems to be a surplus of honey. Where does that honey come from? If we consider that production is decreasing, and the demand is increasing, the only way to explain that gap is honey adulteration.”
What’s happening is that honey is being diluted with cheap syrups, and, to hide its origin, all of the pollen in it is removed. Natural, raw honey contains the pollen of the plants from which the bees collected the nectar. The pollen of each plant has a unique signature so the source of the honey can be pinpointed.
Vaughn Bryant is a professor at Texas A&M University and a world-renowned expert on pollen in honey. He tested store-bought honey from around the U.S. and found that 76 percent of the honey from supermarkets was devoid of pollen. All the honey from drugstores and those little packages served in restaurants were pollen-free.
Companies Are Trying to Cut Costs
Grant Hicks runs 11 thousand hives in Canada. He and other beekeepers are watching their businesses go under as food companies switch to cheap imports.
In March 2017, The Canadian Press reported that Hicks “… and others in the industry believe some imports of honey are diluted with other sweeteners and then purchased at cut-rate prices to be used as an ingredient in cereals, granola bars, and other food products in an effort to save producers from paying more for made-in-Canada honey.”
In 2011, Canada imported 2.8 million kilograms of honey; this has risen to a current level of about seven million kg a year.
Food inspection agencies have developed ways of detecting cheap fillers made from corn syrup. But, the system could not identify syrups made from rice. This is where Chinese honey producers entered the market at prices that undercut North American honey producers. At the low prices, Norberto Garcia says “… consumers are eating a product that is not honey.”
The U.S. put a huge tariff on Chinese honey to protect domestic producers. China’s response was to tranship their honey through third countries, where the honey is relabelled and sent on its way with doctored laboratory reports.
“The only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey. And the only reason for making honey is so as I can eat it.”
— Winnie the Pooh
Suddenly, Malaysia became a major honey exporter, delivering almost 17 million kg of honey in one year; this from a beekeeping industry that was capable of producing only 17,000 kg in a year. India has become another major transshipment country whose deliveries vastly exceed domestic production.
In April 2016, U.S. government agents intercepted 60 tons of Chinese honey. Bee Culture, the magazine of American beekeeping reported that “The 195 barrels of bulk honey found in three shipping containers were falsely declared as originating from Vietnam to evade anti-dumping duties applicable to Chinese-origin honey.”
Other Honey Additives
Jessica Leeder (Globe and Mail, March 2017) reports that “Chinese beekeepers are notorious for keeping their bees healthy with antibiotics banned in North America because they seep into honey and contaminate it …”
And Food Safety News reports that “A third or more of all the honey consumed in the U.S. is likely to have been smuggled in from China and may be tainted with heavy metals,” such as lead.
There are probably about seven million honeybee hives in China and a large number of them are run by small operators. Food Safety News says “The lead contamination in some (Chinese) honey has been attributed to these mom-and-pop vendors who use small, unlined, lead-soldered drums to collect and store the honey before it is collected by the brokers for processing.”
Tracking Down Bad Honey
In 2010, the 27 countries of the European Union (EU) banned contaminated honey from China and India. The EU operates a rigorous testing protocol to try to intercept the bad stuff, but it’s an endless game similar to the one anti-doping agencies play with cheating athletes.
Here’s Norberto Garcia again, “Every time a new test is developed, adulterators develop a new method, a new product” to get around the tests.
In Bremen, Germany, a company called QSI tests honey for contamination. Gudrun Beckh is the managing director. She says “It’s like a competition from those ones who want to adulterate the honey and those ones who detect it.”
When a new test is introduced a high percentage of results show contaminated honey. After a few months, the positive tests decline. Ms. Beckh adds “This does not mean they stopped the adulteration, it just means they have found something new, which we cannot detect with the methods we have so far.”
Consumers can protect themselves when buying honey. Look for the True Source Honey logo and label on jars. The organization certifies that the honey with its label is free of contaminants.
With major food processing companies, it’s more difficult to avoid adulterated honey. However, some companies are now passing the tests and are able to state “Made with True Source Certified Honey.”
A lot of beekeepers have stalls at farmers' markets. Consumers can be reasonably safe buying from this source.
There are some ways in which consumers can protect themselves. Daily Health Post offers a few tips:
- “Put a small drop of your honey on your thumb. If it spreads it is not pure since pure honey will stay in one place.
- “Add a few drops of vinegar into a mixture of water and honey. If it foams up, your honey has been adulterated with plaster!
- “Add a few drops of iodine to a glass of water and then add some honey. If your honey turns blue, it has been combined with corn starch and is not real honey.
- “Place a dab of honey on the end of a matchstick and light it. If it ignites, it is pure.
- “Place a spoon of honey in a glass of water. If it dissolves it is fake.”
If you’ve identified bogus honey your next challenge is getting your money back from the vendor. But, at least you’ll know which brand not to buy next time.
The hum of bees is the voice of the garden.
— Elizabeth Lawrence
- A 2009 article in the journal Ecological Economics estimated the pollination of crops done by bees has an annual value of $168 billion worldwide.
- Bees can recognize human faces.
- A worker bee lives about 40 days and makes about a teaspoon of honey.
- Collecting one kilo of honey requires 195,000 kilometres of bee travel.
- “Bee Survey: Lower Winter Losses, Higher Summer Losses, Increased Total Annual Losses.” Kim Kaplan, USDA, May 13, 2015.
- “Canadian Beekeepers Blame Diluted Imports for Plummeting Honey Prices.” Alexandra Sagan, The Canadian Press, March 13, 2017.
- “Catch the Buzz – Chinese Honey Illegally Imported, Again.” Alan Harman, Bee Culture, May 20, 2016.
- Honey Laundering: The Sour Side of Nature’s Golden Sweetener.” Jessica Leeder, Globe and Mail, March 26, 2017.
- “Lawyers, Guns, and Honey.” Netflix, January 2018.
- “How to Detect Fake Honey (It’s Everywhere), Use This Simple Trick!” Daily Health Post, January 19, 2018.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor