Britain is bestowed with an abundance of bee species. There are around 270 species of solitary bee and 25 species of bumblebee, which buzz around the endless fields of flowers and urban parks to collect nectar for honey-making and pollinate the flowers they visit.
But that buzz is quieting down, which means one thing: the bees’ population is decreasing. A recent study shows that a third of British wild bees and hoverflies have been declining in terms of areas they were found in since 1980. Despite this, in 2020, an estimated 11.51 million people used honey in Great Britain, compared to 10.51 million in 2019.
With such high demand for the product, honey laundering has become more common. This is the practice of honey manufacturers diluting honey with cheaper ingredients such as corn, rice, and beet syrup.
Here is how to recognise 100% natural honey from artificial, and how to ethically produce and consume honey without harming the bees.
Can you read the labels?
For ethical consumers, reading the food labels is an essential part of their food journey. Yet honey certification poses a struggle for them.
First of all, organic British honey is hard to find. This is because the Soil Association organic production standards are very hard to meet in the UK, due to the small size of UK farms and the poor management of land. Therefore, some of the certified organic honey in the UK is imported. A lot of honey travels many miles from major honey-producing countries, which works against the environmental motivations for buying organic products in the first place.
Nevertheless, a lot of local producers still follow organic beekeeping principles. This involves the natural production of a hive by the bees, allowing bees to swarm in line with the colony’s own impulses, and encouraging bees to fight off pests and diseases on their own to develop a natural resistance.
Whilst local, certified Organic honey might not be widely available in the UK, Organic and fair trade honey is the next best option for ethical consumers. Sarah Main of Traidcraft, a UK-based fair trade company, commented: “it’s important to carefully consider the eco-credentials of every single element along the supply chain when buying ethical honey, from the ingredients that are used to the production method utilised in the product’s creation”.
What is honey fraud?
In an ideal world, honey should only be taken when there is excess in the spring once a hive has survived the winter. However, with honey being in such high demand, unethical industrial-scale production is on the rise, as well as honey laundering.
The UK is the world’s biggest importer of honey from China, and about a third of the country’s honey is exported from there. Chinese honey is cheap, can be about a sixth of the price of UK-produced honey, but oftentimes is incorrectly labelled as “100% pure” by supermarkets.
For example, Sainsbury’s “So Organic Clear Honey (340g)” costs £3.15, but the supermarket deterred questions about its origin by saying it “can be traced back to the beekeeper”. Nevertheless, the product is a “blend of non-EU honey”, according to the label.
Rick Mumford, Head of Science, Evidence & Research Directorate, said: “While there is no evidence that any honey on sale in the UK is unsafe, it is a product that can be at risk of fraud. Products which declare a premium status, have a high price by weight, have complex supply chains or are subject to a spike in demand, can be particularly vulnerable to fraudsters.”
Indeed, laboratory tests from beekeepers in other countries suggest that some of the global supply of Chinese honey is subject to fraudsters who dilute it with cheaper sugar syrup. Although the Chinese authorities have been warned of this, honey laundering is still on the rise.
In 2020, Mitchell Weinberg, a New York-based food-fraud investigator, together with QSI, a leading German laboratory, tested nine jars of UK supermarket own-brand honey. The results indicated that eight of the nine samples tested had adulteration. Nevertheless, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) requires more work to accept the validity of such results.
Is honey production harmful to the bees?
Honey production can be categorised into three types: wild honey collection, small-scale production, and industrial-scale production. The latter, also referred to as factory farming, can be extremely harmful to the bees’ welfare.
The way industrial-scale honey production works is by putting the bees under a number of unnatural processes and procedures. The most common process is the culling of hives. In autumn, entire hives of bees are killed to avoid feeding them in the winter. Alternatively, they’re being fed sugar water instead of real honey, so that there is more to sell. Other harmful procedures include clipping the queen’s wings to prevent swarming, long-distance bees’ transportation for crop pollination, and treatment with antibiotics.
For ethical consumers, it’s important to make sure that the companies you buy honey from have established bee welfare policies. Moreover, a number of supermarkets pride themselves on their public-facing bee campaigns, which focus on planting pollinator-friendly plants and building bee hotels. However, they fail to address bees’ welfare during honey production and also exclude bees from their animal welfare policies.
The effect of pesticides on bees
Apart from harmful industrial-scale honey production, another major issue affecting the declining bee population is the use of pesticides and insecticides. Pesticides are chemicals that are widely used in the UK. They kill insects that can eat or damage the crops by spraying them onto food crops. The issue with that is that many pesticides are highly toxic to bees and can either kill them immediately or cover them so that they lose their sense of direction and can’t fly. Although some of them manage to return to their hive, pesticides make bees less resistant to diseases and impair their reproductive functions. As a result, pesticides jeopardise the survival of the entire hive.
In 2018, there was a near-total ban of neonicotinoid insecticides. These are both the most widely spread insecticides and the most harmful. Nevertheless, a pesticide containing thiamethoxam has been approved for use in 2022, because of a virus that affects sugar beets. Charities and campaign groups aren’t happy with this as it can be dangerous for the bees, even though a limited use of the chemical was promised.
Although some action has been taken, honey production transparency is still an issue not just in the UK but across the whole world. There has been strong backlash from activists, local beekeepers, and ethical consumers against harmful actions towards bees’ welfare and honey laundering. Yet we still need to be more conscious of the products we buy and raise those issues until more proactive action is taken.
https://cdn.friendsoftheearth.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/Ethical consumers guide to honey.pdf#:~:text=Despite%20this%20decline%2C%20demand%20for%20honey%20remains%20high.,the%20UK%2025%2C000%20tonnes%20are%20consumed%20each%20year.