I was driving home the other day and saw a sign; Organic Honey for Sale. I started thinking about this – what is organic honey? Are the bees only allowed to visit organic flowers? How do the beekeepers keep them from visiting non-organic gardens? Or maybe the bees are trained to spot the difference between organic and non-organic?
Organic honey may not be as pure as it is made out to be.
What is Organic Honey?
In order for honey to be organic, all of the flowers visited by the bees making the honey must be organically grown.
In addition to this the beekeeper is not allowed to use non-organic honey, sugar, or antibiotics in their hives. Why does this matter? It is common practice to supplement the bees natural food with some extra sugar water, or honey during the winter. It is also common to give the bees antibiotics to help fight all kinds of infections.
The material used to make the hive has to be organic – more on this later.
Pesticides can not be used on the hive. These are commonly used to combat things like the varroa mite, which is the main cause of colony collapse.
USDA Certified Organic Honey
You will notice that the picture above is USDA certified organic honey – right? Maybe. Brookfield Honey (ref 5) had the following to say about certification, “The federal government does not inspect for organic honey. In the US there are certifying agencies that will certify honey as organic. They seem to use the NOSB recommendations. But as I (Brookfield Honey) mentioned before the USDA has never accepted the recommendations.” This is dated 2012 and still seems to be true.
So agencies can certify honey as being organic, but there are no USDA approved standards for such certification. Makes you wonder what USDA certified organic honey really is?
Large producers are scrutinized by the certification agencies but small produces are not. Brookfield Honey goes on to say “Small producers who make less than $5000 worth of organic honey in a year have it easier. They can just put on the USDA Organic Label. Someone might come round to check their records, but who knows when. ”
That small, local, organic honey producer at the neighborhood market could be doing anything and calling it certified organic.
Organic Flowers for Organic Honey
In Canada, organic hives must be located so that there is no pesticide use within a 3 km radius of the hives (ref 4) . The US and EU have similar requirements. This means that all of the agriculture around the hive also needs to be certified organic. The hive can not be near golf courses, residential areas, industries or water that might be contaminated with chemicals. Where do you find water that is not contaminated with chemicals?
Could hives be located away from agriculture? Not really since “Governments also use pesticides to control moths in forests, weeds along roadsides, and greenery under power lines”, ref 1.
The reality is that there are very few places which provide enough nectar and meet the above requirements.
To better understand this consider what bees do. Honey is made from the nectar of flowers. A single colony collects 250 pounds of nectar in a year (ref 2). Each flower has very little nectar so the hive has to visit around 100 million flowers a year. To do that they need a large territory and it all needs to consist of organic flowers.
The standards in the EU are similar to Canada and the US, ref 6.
Organic Bee Hives
Beekeepers will buy and sell wax as starter comb. The wax in hives concentrates pesticides over time. A recent study showed that most of the supply of starter comb, both organic and non-organic, was contaminated with miticides (ref 3).
Organic beekeepers either need to do extensive and expensive testing on the wax they use or they can’t buy wax from outside sources.
Organic Honey – Does It Exist
The reality is that it is very difficult to meet the standards for organic honey and few hives will be located such that they really qualify. In Canada and the EU it is very unlikely that you are getting real organic honey when you buy organic honey.
The US has no standards so you are not sure what you are getting, but it is not likely to be true organic honey.
Note: Added September 2016
There is only one certified organic honey producer in Ontario, Long Point Honey, and they are located on Long Point, surrounded on three sides by water, making it easier for them to meet the regulations.
- How Can honey Be Organic – David Suzuki; http://www.davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/queen-of-green/faqs/food/how-can-honey-be-organic/
- Organic Honey is a Sweet Illusion; http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/compound-eye/organic-honey-is-a-sweet-illusion/
- Miticides and Agrochemicals in North American Apiaries; http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0009754
- Ontario Beekeepers Association – Thinking Organic; http://www.ontariobee.com/research/getting-started/thinking-organic
- USDA Organic Honey – What Does it mean? ; https://brookfieldfarmhoney.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/usda-organic-honey-what-does-it-mean/
- Beekeeping and beekeeping products; http://www.apiservices.com/databases/eu_organic_honey_standard.htm