‘Pure’ honey is an excellent source of carbohydrates, antioxidants, vitamins, and other things that are good for you. (Photo by Lyn Hacker)
First in a two-part series
You’ve been told about the health benefits of “pure” honey, and you’ve seen pure honey offered in stores and at local farmers markets, so you’ve decided to take the plunge and try some. That is a great idea.
First of all, pure honey an excellent source of carbohydrates, as well as antioxidants, vitamins B1, B2, B5 and B6, and trace nutrients such as calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, zinc and amino acids – lots of stuff that is good for you. And although a study at the University of Connecticut was not able to prove honey makes people immune to allergies, many anecdotal accounts swear to it.
Second, the disappearance of honeybees is a real crisis in the making, and buying local honey can help good beekeepers stay in business. This in turn helps them care for bees, which in turn helps them sustain the honeybee population (which may be the best reason for buying local). So as you’re looking for pure honey, also keep an eye out for a dedicated beekeeper. They usually go hand in hand.
Right off the bat I’m going to advise you to engage your local beekeeper in a discussion about his or her beekeeping practices. Although it’s possible to buy what is sold as pure honey in stores, with the plethora of honest beekeepers in the area, backed by county bee associations and a state association dedicated to the education about and promotion of local honey, why not support the local economy instead?
It’s a simple thing – if you buy from the beekeeper, you can ask questions; from a big store, nobody knows. Also this interaction with their customers is something most beekeepers relish. I don’t know many beekeepers who aren’t happy to talk a person’s ear off about their bees.
Broach the subject of pure honey and you will be assailed by the sheer weight of articles and advice regarding the subject. Trying to define pure honey is about like trying to thread spaghetti through a colander – possible perhaps but highly unlikely and trying to the soul.
Sue Daly, of the Legislative Commission of the Central Ohio Beekeepers Association, writes, “We have allowed the word honey to go into the public domain where it is commonly used, yet many times (the product) contains little or no honey. The word is used to lure customers into believing that the product is nutritious and wholesome because when customers see honey, they automatically assume it is natural and good for you.” She calls for a scientific standard to be established, also because adulterated honey from China, which has been banned in Europe, is flooding the American market.
Let’s get the question of organic honey out of the way. A summer beehive usually contains anywhere from 30 to 60,000 female worker bees, who among their other chores, collect pollen and nectar for the hive. These bees can forage as far as three to four miles from their hives, so logically it would seem there is little way to control where they forage (and therefore to claim whether a certain honey is “organic”), unless:
1. The beekeeper owns or leases, or the bees have access to, a 4-by-4 square-mile parcel of land which is insecticide-, herbicide- and GMO-crop-free;
2. The beehives are set smack dab in the middle of that area; and
3. The bees are managed organically as well.
Legally, according to the USDA’s National Organic Program, farmers who make less than $5,000 a year can market their produce as organic, without being certified, as long as they keep records to prove they’re using organic methods. Unfortunately farmers markets, like big box groceries, are not always immune from “greenwashing.” Without official organic certification, it’s uncertain what terms like no-spray, natural or chemical-free actually mean. Some farmers may pre-spray fields before planting, and because the plants aren’t actually being sprayed, it’s considered no-spray.
“There are no regulatory requirements for no-spray or chemical-free programs,” says Don Franczyk, executive director of Baystate Organic Certifiers, third-party inspectors that certify farms under the USDA’s National Organic Program. “The terms are meaningless.”
You can’t control where your bees forage, but you can choose to manage them organically. Bees are beset by many pests and diseases, which any good beekeeper should try to keep a handle on. It’s possible now to handle these in organic ways, although it may cost a little more or take extra work. Nosema, European foulbrood, American foulbrood, small hive beetles, tracheal mites, wax moths and varroa mites are all important enemies of the bees, and it’s the responsibility of a good beekeeper to treat for them, as the severe drop in honeybee numbers is a real crisis.
Some organic choices are extremely simple, such as feeding them powdered sugar mixed into a rendered fat such as Crisco, which helps to combat tracheal mites. But some treatments, for instance for varroa mites, involve the use of insecticides that are placed in the hives during certain parts of the year. Some of these treatments can be used during a honey flow, but others should only be used prior to a flow or after one, never during. Honey supers that were on the hive while these treatments were done, should never be used for human consumption – only dispersed and fed back to the bees for winter stores.
Another consideration in the make up of honey is the forage from which it’s made. Beekeepers feed sugar water in the early spring and late fall, or with new hives, to stimulate brood rearing and stave off starvation during lean times. This has been considered perfectly acceptable, historically. New information, though, has cast a less favorable light on the practice as some researchers feel, because sugar water doesn’t provide the necessary nutrients from actual forage, the bees suffer from the lack of compounds such as p-coumaric acid that appear to help detoxify and strengthen their immunity to disease.
Some researchers think the bees can produce and add some of these amino acids back in, but the concern is the honey will be made from sugar water, not from nectar and pollen, and therefore will have little nutritional value to either bee or human. And high-fructose corn syrup can be GMO.
“The widespread apicultural use of honey substitutes, including high-fructose corn syrup, may thus compromise the ability of honey bees to cope with pesticides and pathogens and contribute to colony losses,” notes a study by scientists at the University of Illinois, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. One good beekeeping practice, is to allow the bees to collect enough honey for themselves to last through the winter and into next year’s spring and late fall, when stores are thin. One should never sell honey that has been produced from corn syrup or sugar water.
Lyn Hacker is a Lexington native raised by Appalachian parents to be not only educated but proficient in the living arts – working very hard, playing music, growing gardens, hog farming, orchard management and beekeeping. The UK graduate has been a newspaper staff writer and production manager, a photography lab manager, a Thoroughbred statistics manager, a Bluegrass singer and songwriter, a registered respiratory therapist, a farmer, a Standardbred horsewoman, a Red Barn Radio promoter and a beekeeper. Currently, Lyn is at work on a pediatric asthma primer as well as a novel called Loose Horse, while keeping bees with her family on her small, rocky Sadieville farm.