Organic Honey – Does It Exist?

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Robert Pavlis

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.

Organic Honey - Does It Exist, Trader Joe
Organic Honey – Does It Exist (I am not promoting this product. I just like their packaging)

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.

Compost Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

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.

Building Natural Ponds book, by Robert Pavlis

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

canadian organic honey Certified Organic Production in Canada
Certified Organic Production in Canada Logo – can only be used on honey that is certified organic

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.

References:

  1. 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/
  2. Organic Honey is a Sweet Illusion; http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/compound-eye/organic-honey-is-a-sweet-illusion/
  3. Miticides and Agrochemicals in North American Apiaries; http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0009754
  4. Ontario Beekeepers Association – Thinking Organic; http://www.ontariobee.com/research/getting-started/thinking-organic
  5. USDA Organic Honey – What Does it mean? ; https://brookfieldfarmhoney.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/usda-organic-honey-what-does-it-mean/
  6. Beekeeping and beekeeping products; http://www.apiservices.com/databases/eu_organic_honey_standard.htm

 

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

19 thoughts on “Organic Honey – Does It Exist?”

  1. Folks are ignorant re ORGANIC. Any reasonabke minded person whoukd think out how honeybees travel around to collect nectar. As i have always contended ORGANIC HONEY is really not ORGANIC. BUYER BE WARE.Economics 101.

    Reply
  2. I think your opinion about dose is true, you will probably never reach zero pesticides. Anyway, who eats honey in quantities large enough for pesticide traces to matter? Maybe you could produce 100% organic honey on a remote island.

    There are pesticides allowed in organic beekeeping in some countries, like oxalic acid and some other organic acids. i just checked and it is apparently no longer “classified” as pesticide in US.

    Reply
    • Pesticides have always been allowed in organic farming – they can only use “organic” ones, even if they are more toxic.

      I recently talked to the group that certified organic farmers in Ontario. There is only one organic honey producer and they are located at Pelee Point, a spit of land that juts out into the lake. They are surround on 3 sides by water.

      Reply
  3. Just bought another plastic bottle of maple syrup. Current on says “organic” . Reading your info on “organic” honey, how can maple trees be organic. Thanks in advance. Bert

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    • Organic maple syrup is probably easy to make. Since the syrup comes from trees growing in a natural setting where people do not spread pesticides, they easily meet the organic requirements.

      The problem with honey is that bees travel such long distances. Good thing trees do not move.

      Reply
  4. How can ylu have “organic” honey, especially in our area, when all the “chemical” farmers spray, spray, spray?? Then they wonder why there’s so much cancers in the region!

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  5. The term organic is also widely misused over here too Robert. I am afraid for me when I see organic it means to me “do not buy this,look elsewhere”

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  6. Isn’t it a sad reflection on our society that it is very unlikely for us to get food that is uncontaminated by man made pollution and pesticides.

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  7. In recent years I’ve purchased honey while traveling in remote locations – Near Chitwan National Park in Nepal and in subsistence farming areas of Kenya for example – and it is soooo good and tastes NOTHING like Canadian, US or European honeys. Likewise wonderful-tasting wild honey from northern Uganda. I’m pretty sure these would have been ‘organic’ despite there being no regulatory frameworks in these countries!

    Reply
    • Maybe. The problem with a lot of third world countries is that there is also very little regulation on pesticides. At least in North America you can be sure that some of the most toxic pesticides are not in the honey since they are banned from being used.

      Reply
    • Not sure how a comparison can be made unless you are comparing honey made from nectar from the same plant genus, and even the same variety. For example, in Australia, honey from eucalyptus blossom is very popular – but each variety (Iron Bark, Brush Box, Yellow Box, Stringybark) – tastes different. Perhaps the sense that honey from one environment (Nepal, Kenya) is different from honey collected in North America or Europe derives more from the different sources of nectar than anything else. I would like evidence that organic and non-organic honey from the same variety of plant tastes different – there may be differences in contaminants, but whether that affects flavour would need evidence. Does varroa mite insecticide in minute quantities have a distinctive flavour?
      Of more concern to me is how the honey is treated when it is collected, for example, is it heated – with potential effects on its nutritional value?

      Reply
  8. It is sad to see that nowhere is safe from chemical residues. The Romans discovered lead as a material to build advanced plumbing systems and overlooked its not so positive effects.
    Lets hope that the complex and increasing cocktail of chemical residues we are exposed to on a daily basis will not have the consequences lead had at the end of the Roman empire.
    I for one try to minimize my chemical exposure and advocate organic food

    Reply
  9. There are no regulations to define ‘organic’ honey but when you see the USDA organic label, it is referring to how the livestock is being treated. So buyer be warned with marketing terms such as ‘organic’ and ‘all natural.’

    Reply
    • The way in which the livestock is being treated is only part of the requirement for the organic seal – as stated in the post.

      Reply

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