A thought on honey

Acacia honey, lavender honey, heather honey, borage honey, clover honey, chestnut honey, sunflower honey……..

The specification of a single plant from which the nectar for producing honey is supplied seems to suggest purity, lack of contamination and unique identity, therefore warranting an ‘expensive’ tag.

But there is something very odd about this marketing spin.  I have kept bees for three years, have many bee friendly flowers in the garden, but yet, I can honestly say, that when our bees forage, I have no idea where they go, or where their pollen comes from.  They mainly ignore the plants in our garden, with the exception of elderflowers.  I’ve seen nothing like the image at my father’s home in Spain where an entire colony seemed to occupy a single carob tree as a foraging destination.

Bees travel an approximate radius of three miles from the hive.  There is evidence to suggest this could increase to 7 miles depending on the circumstances and environment.  They will gather pollen and nectar from any viable source within that range.  As I live in a semi-urban environment, the variety of plants they could potentially visit is diverse.  There would be no potential for us to label our honey as ‘elderflower organic honey’.  However, if we placed our hives in the middle of the uninhabitable areas of the Yorkshire Moors, we might then be able to claim ‘heather honey’, but as one study showed, just as the alfalfa was closer to home, didn’t mean the bees wouldn’t fly even further to obtain safflower pollen instead.  Additionally, I think the colony might object to its more exposed, unsheltered and very windy home.

I’m not trying to make the point that there is a labelling claim being made that is wrong (perhaps I’ll look into the EU regulations on this later), but I want to make the point that the concept of a single flowering plant being the source of the honey in your jar is seriously flawed from an ecological perspective.

Monoculture and ecology

At the heart of industrial food production is the practice of monoculture – the growing of a single crop on an extremely large scale.  Growing a single plant in a given area will quickly deplete the soil of essential nutrients, therefore to sustain the practice chemical fertilisers are needed (which are heavily dependent on quickly depleting oil supplies).  Pesticides and herbicides are also needed as single crop fields attract specific weed varieties and insect pests.  Additionally, the earth is bare between the neat rows of ploughed soil, exposing it to damaging UV rays, literally burning what little organic matter is left and encouraging the release of carbon into the air, contributing to global warming.  Finally, the process leads to desertification as the lack of organic matter means the soil can no longer hold water, leading to run off and leaching of the toxic chemicals into non-localised environments.

Monocrop honey

Before being lured by the label of ‘orange blossom’ honey or similar, consider how ‘pure’ this honey is likely to be.  The beehives were likely to have been placed in a single crop environment which relies heavily on fertilisers and pesticides.  Bees are as likely to be affected by pesticides as any other insect or pollinator that visits the site.   The honey might taste good, but consider the environmental damage that was incurred to produce it.   The label of ‘organic’ honey is only as good as the number of organically produced plants within the foraging range of the hive.  There is nothing beekeepers can do to control the flight path of their bees.  An organic farm which extends two miles either side of the hive may be promising, but remember that the bees might ignore the crop here in favour of one four miles away and that crop might not be so healthy.


5 thoughts on “A thought on honey

  1. Post script:
    A related thought occurred to me. Honey production that relies on a single crop has an additional problem. Many plants only flower for a limited part of the season, that is, on average for about 3 weeks. While there are flowers that bloom for longer or bloom twice a year, more commonly, annuals and perennials bloom just once. After the winter, bees need an early spring source of nectar and a continuation of food supplies through the breeding season and as late as possible into early winter. A single flowering source would naturally cause starvation of the colony. Bees need biodiversity in their environments.

    Sugar substitution is a means beekeepers use to ensure their colonies do not starve, but I have concerns about the effects of sugar feeding. Bees evolved to produce their own source of nutrition. Honey contains vitamin C, iron and calcium. Additionally, it is anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, surely something that helps to maintain the health of the hive? There are also indications that honey is anti-viral (e.g. in laboratory conditions, honey and royal jelly (the substance produced by worker bees to feed to a larvae which they wish to develop as a queen) were found to be as effective as acyclovir in the treatment of herpetic lesions). Viruses are killing bee colonies.
    Sugar feeding deprives bees of their own protective system. And we all know how good sugar is for us!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks for this very informative post Safar.
      giving the bees sugar???/ that is atrocious. im sure the people doing that believe they have the bees best interests at heart, keeping them alive, but SUGAR? its a disaster. we know just how much damage this stuff does to human bodies, and we also know how hard it is to give it up ( i dont even try… its simply in EVERYTHING)….. in one word, it might save a hive momentarily, but it would kill the bees in the long term. ( okay that was more than one word)

      isnt monsanto doing enough to kill the bees, without adding another kiler in the form of sugar?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your comment, Debbie, made me wonder if there has been research into the health effects of sugar feeding on bees.

        I don’t want to incite a beekeeper backlash, as sugar feeding is standard practice. As stated above, it is a means to keep a colony from starving after we’ve stolen their hard-earned stores. But with the principle of observe and learn, I’ve become more aware of how nature takes care of herself, Verd and I have started to question the practice of sugar feeding.

        My research did yield a couple of positive findings, for example, sugar feeding increases pollen collection, the implications of which I’m not sure. However, I came across two studies that more directly addressed my question. One looked at trace and major elements in honey and how it varied depending on the bees’ food source. Two particular toxic elements were found in higher amounts in honey produced from sugar than in nectar produced honey. The study though seemed more interested in whether the amount was within safe limits for humans rather than concern for bee welfare.

        The second study is more interesting.
        Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffmana et al (2010) investigated the effect of diet on protein concentration, hypophryngeal gland development and virus load in worker honey bees. The diet was either pollen, a protein supplement (designed for bees) or sugar syrup (protein free). Hypopharyngeal glands are secretory glands. Young nurse bees secrete a food suitable for larvae. As the bee ages and changes from a nurse bee to a foraging bee, the gland changes role to produce invertase, which inverts sugars. The glands are essential for the survival of a colony. There was little difference in the effect on bee health between pollen fed bees and protein fed bees. Protein concentration and hypopharyngeal gland size did not differ. But both these were reduced in sugar syrup fed bees. At the beginning of the study, the bee colonies had wing deformity virus. The concentration of the virus increased in all colonies, but least in the pollen fed and most in the sugar fed.

        The article did conclude that there may be a benefit to easing protein stress by supplementing the diet, but I think the conclusion should be more pollen rather than advocating an artificial protein supplement. Perhaps the bees did more pollen gathering to balance their poor diet when fed sugar!?


    1. Interesting question, Bellybytes. I come across an analogy with wine. What makes the same wine taste different from year to year? What makes one wine taste different to others? Apart from varietal differences in the grape, they also vary due to climatic differences. Different varieties of honey taste different, not only due to the difference in nectar from different plants, but also due to changes in the weather conditions. You could have a ‘good year’ if you were a connoisseur of honey! Sorry for the late reply, but work took me away from home for the weekend.


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