A while ago I posted a discussion about honey where I suggested a need for us to be more mindful of how much we consume at a time when honeybees are experiencing such vast ecological crisis. In this post, I’d like to expand on the honey discussion by sharing some of the issues to be aware of when deciding where [should you choose to eat it at all] to get your sticky little hands on some delicious honey. Our power as consumers is the most accessible source of influence available to us in changing the fate of the honeybee so where you source your honey is incredibly important.
Having talked to a range of beekeepers over the last year or so, it’s become clear to me that the way we commodify the honeybee for honey production has a direct impact on their health and survival globally. We have put our dear honeybees under incredible stress with our use of pesticides, the severe destruction of their forage ground and poor treatment from beekeepers [some beekeepers, not all!] that leads to starvation over winter and the spread of pests and diseases.
Most worryingly at this time of crisis is how common it is in beekeeping practice to extract frames full of honey from hives [like the above] in autumn and as a substitute, feed the bees with sugar syrup to prevent starvation over winter. Aside from this seeming rather unscrupulous, what does it actually mean for the wellbeing of the bees to be fed on a sugar substitute rather than feeding on their own honey?
One beekeeper I know, who has looked after colonies for over 30 years, talks about how important it is to feed the bees honey over the winter. Winter baby bees [in their larval stage from January] fed with honey over the winter will develop the immune strength required to build up a resilient, healthy colony in the following season. These early bees have the incredibly important job of insuring the survival of a growing colony with the first foraging trips of spring to bring in vital honey stores. Honey truly is a miracle substance well known for its healing properties and I agree that honeybees need it all year round for optimum health.
Young bees developing over the winter in colonies who are fed on a sugar substitute lack the nutrition provided by honey. As a result, they are far less able to fight the many pests and diseases that threaten them throughout the year. Such nutrition is effortlessly provided by the wonderful antibacterial, antioxidant and antimicrobial mix of sugars, vitamins, minerals, protein and enzymes found in honey. The bees make this for themselves, so conscientiously, with their own bodies. It is a miracle substance that humans cannot replicate. So what can we do as consumers of honey to make sure that the bees are left with enough for themselves? Here are some of my findings …
One … Bee Organic
The best deterrent against the unnecessary devastation of our land with harmful chemicals is to buy organic produce where we can. The use of pesticides is detrimental to the lifecycle of all species of bee and anything else alive in the food web, including us. Look out for the organic certification marks on jars of honey like these ones …
Two … Buy local honey made by local bees
This might sound like an obvious one to those with their heads screwed on but reducing our reliance on non-renewable energy to acquire our food simply makes sense in a world running out of fossil fuels. Supporting local food production is essential for our future food security on this small island. Eating honey produced locally also offers up a delicious connection to your local flora and significantly lessens the impact of hayfever.
Here in Totnes there are a few options for buying honey locally but there isn’t really enough information presented on the labels to be sure it is actually good for the bees. How have the honeybees been treated? Were the bees fed a sugar substitute for part of the year? I’m finding that there is no real way of knowing if the bees are left healthy and with adequate honey supplies without asking the beekeeper. Some honeys market themselves bee friendly but then say ‘Produce of the EEC and non EEC Countries’ on the label which is pretty suspect. This honey could come from anywhere from anyone and there is no guarantee that the bees were left with adequate food.
Although some honey holds an organic certification mark, there is little indication of the range of forage available to the bees that made it. Bees need a varied diet just like we do and even though we can guarantee that land managed organically is pesticide free, it may still be part of a monoculture system where the bees find themselves low on forage for periods of the year. An excess dependency on particular plants, such as dandelion or rape, produce a very grainy honey which the bees have difficulty digesting and can lead to dysentery in the hive. Honeybees need a wide variety of plants throughout the year as sources of pollen and nectar to remain healthy and there is no way of knowing if they have this from the labels on honey jars.
A honeybee visiting borage … they love it!
Summing up, I’ve realised that it can all get a bit complicated when setting out in the shops to find bee-friendly honey because the information we need to make an informed decision isn’t provided. With the current labelling, it really is impossible to know how the bees are doing. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to find bee-friendly honey is to find a bee-friendly natural beekeeper. I’ve met some inspiring beekeepers who care deeply about the bees and are practicing a ‘bee-first’ approach. I think this is an attitude to beekeeping that has the potential to provide us with delicious local honey from healthy honeybees so I encourage you find someone doing it locally and support them with your money.
Three … Find your local Bee-first beekeeper
Bee-first beekeepers [or Natural Beekeepers] will mimic as best as possible the conditions bees have in the wild by allowing them the space to simply be bees. They trust in the resilience of the colony and their inherent wisdom developed over millions of years of evolution, protecting and preserving them so they can play out their vital role in nature.
As a consumer of honey, the most important aspect of bee-first beekeeping to be aware of is that the primary goal of the beekeeper is to respect and protect a colony. This ensures that only the absolute surplus honey is ever extracted from the bees. Through careful observation of the weather and health of the colony, good beekeepers will judge how much honey is appropriate to extract and will only feed substitute as a very last resort to avoid starvation.
Every beekeeper will be slightly different in their approach and there will be varying degrees to which they will put the honeybees first. It’s worth seeking them out to ask them how they feed their bees over the winter and quiz them about the relationship they have with the bees to make sure you’re happy that the bees are happy.
Bee-first beekeeping at Embercombe, Devon
The dominent food system teaches us that as long as we can pay our way, we can have whatever food we like on tap no matter what is destroyed in the process. The crisis facing honeybees highlights to me how hugely we, as living beings on this planet, have become disconnected with our living world and the natural processes required to produce our food and support our lifestyles. The bee-first beekeeping approach means that sometimes there may be very little or no honey available for our extraction because the bees need it to survive over winter and I think we need to be more aware of this. I would happily go without honey to ensure the wellness of the bee.
I hope this is helpful to anyone wondering how to source honey without causing harm to honeybees. I hope it inspires you to find and contact local beekeepers to discover more about their practices and how their honeybees are doing.
Happy bee-friendly honey hunting : )