When it comes to honey, many of us reach for that cute bear at the supermarket without realizing that the honey inside may not be much more than corn syrup. Worse yet, it might be laced with pesticides, illegal antibiotics, heavy metals, and made by beekeepers who don’t treat their bees well. If you’re looking for pure, ethically produced honey with real health benefits backed by science (National Institutes of Health), put down that cute plastic bear and buy the real artisan honey an actual bear would eat.
Real honey is exciting, vibrant, and totally different from region to region
Carla Marina Marchese is a sort of honey sommelier, with serious credentials. She’s the first American to become a member of the Italian National Register of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey. Italians give honey the same level of prestige as olive oil and wine. But in the US, we see honey as little more than an amber-colored syrup to sweeten our tea. Marchese thinks we should take a cue from the Italians and think about honey like we do wine.
Honey should have really complex flavor. It’s sweet, but it should have flavor. It shouldn’t be just sweet. Some are fruity and some are funky.
Every region in the world produces a different flavor of honey. Honey truly is a unique expression of local flora. Orange blossom honey from California will taste different than orange blossom honey from Florida. Tupelo honey from the United States will taste different than Ling Heather honey from Scotland (some of the rarest honey the world). Honey from Alaska will taste different than honey from Hawaii. You get the picture.
It’s a product of nature and the flavor changes depending on the flower and where it grows, like wine. — Marchese
Some of Marchese’s favorite honey comes from the EU (European Union) because it has more complex flavors and isn’t as sweet. She recently tried honey from Indonesia and her sophisticated palate picked up notes of ginger, soy, and, believe it or not, duck sauce.
Contrary to commonly held beliefs, honey is not always amber colored or syrupy. Honey can be white or as dark as chocolate, depending on where the bees forage.
As you might expect, artisan honey is made by local, family-owned beekeepers, not big commercial producers. You won’t find their honey at Costco or Trader Joe’s. It’s made in small batches and each jar has distinct and complex flavors. For many of us who grew up eating honey in the plastic bear, artisan honey might be a foreign concept.
There’s not a lot of honey education. It’s very difficult for consumers to know. — Marchese
Marchese recommends buying a jar of supermarket honey and a jar of local artisan honey and doing a side-by-side taste test. Real honey will have a complex flavor and shouldn’t be a sugar bomb like most commercial honey. Marchese encourages people to pick up artisan honey from everywhere they travel in the world and taste the local flavor.
First, pay attention to where it comes from
Most of the honey produced in the US is made by small beekeepers. But they cannot supply enough honey to satisfy our sweet tooth (Americans buy more than four hundred million pounds a year), so much of the honey on store shelves is imported. The problem is the US tests only about 5 percent of honey coming into the country and the quality standards can vary dramatically. The European Union has pretty tough standards in terms of what can’t be in honey; they won’t allow additives or antibiotics, for example. Other countries like China don’t. Chinese honey can be adulterated with water, beet sugar, corn syrup, and other sweeteners, as well as heavy metals from substandard equipment. One of the scariest unwanted ingredients found in Chinese honey is the antibiotic chloramphenicol. It’s illegal in the US because it can lead to a potentially fatal bone marrow disorder (Forbes). Chinese honey is banned from the US, but that doesn’t stop smugglers from relabeling it and bringing it into the country en masse (Food Safety News). A lot of imported Chinese honey can end up in honey-flavored ingredients, like sauces, as well as in jars. The best way to avoid adulterated Chinese honey is to buy honey from local beekeepers (like the ones at the bottom of this story) and not from big box stores and supermarkets.
Real honey is raw
When a bear takes honey straight from the hive, it can contain dead bees, air bubbles, fine particles, bits of wax, and other undesirable elements most consumers wouldn’t want in their morning tea. In an effort to meet our expectations, honey is heavily filtered and pasteurized (or exposed to high heat to extend its shelf life). Some commercial honey goes through an additional process of ultra filtration where the honey is heated, watered down, and then forced at high pressure through tiny filters to remove any unwanted debris. This makes the honey smooth and transparent and delays the natural crystallization or hardening process. The problem with heating and overly filtering honey is it kills beneficial enzymes, amino acids, vitamins, antioxidants, and removes healthy pollen and propolis from the honey. It can also affect the flavor, aroma, and color of honey. What we’re left with is a sweet honey-colored syrup without much nutrition.
Raw honey, by contrast, isn’t pasteurized, heated, or filtered. It contains higher concentrations of antioxidants and retains pollen, enzymes, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals (SF Gate).
Don’t put raw honey in your tea!
When you heat honey, it loses all its health benefits. If you’ve got the good stuff, enjoy it at room temperature over cheese, fruit, or bread.
Real Honey Crystallizes
Depending on the varietal, it’s normal for honey to solidify or crystalize over time, which means it won’t stay in a runny liquid form. The rate at which honey crystallizes depends on its levels of glucose and fructose. Generally, fructose levels in honey range from 30-45% and glucose from 22-40% (Nature). The ratio depends on the flowers the bees pollinated. Honey with higher levels of glucose than fructose, such as clover, lavender, and alfalfa, tend to crystallize quckily (within a few days to a week). Honey with more fructose than glucose, such as tupelo, blackberry and acacia, can take years to crystallize (Asheville Bee Charmer). If honey has been adulterated by adding corn syrup, beet sugar, or water it won’t crystalize.
Here are four ways the Permaculture Research Institute recommends testing your honey to see if it contains added sugar or water:
- The Thumb Test — Put a drop of the honey on your thumb. If it spreads around right away or spills, it’s not pure. If it stays intact, it’s pure.
- The Water Test — Fill a glass of water and add one tablespoon of honey into the water. Pure honey will lump and settle at the bottom of the glass. Adulterated and artificial honey will start dissolving in water.
- The Shelf Life Test — Pure honey will crystallize over time. Imitation honey will remain looking like syrup, no matter how long it is stored.
- Light a Fire — Dip the tip of a matchstick in the honey, and then strike it to light. Natural honey will light the match easily and the flame will burn off the honey. Fake honey will not light because of the moisture it contains.
Buy honey packaged in glass, not in a plastic bear
The plastic bear was cute when we were five, but plastic is made with really harmful chemicals that can leach into the honey (not so cute).
Is real honey organic?
We’re used to seeing the organic label on food and feeling fairly confident that good practices were used. The problem with bees is no one can control where they fly. Bees tend to forage within a 1-5 mile radius around their home. If worker bees fly into farms that use pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or herbicides, the honey they create isn’t organic. This explains why nearly three-quarters of the world’s honey contains pesticides (The Irish News), including some organic honey. Buying USDA certified organic honey seems like a good way to be sure toxic chemicals aren’t swirling around in your honey, but currently, the USDA doesn’t have federal standards pertaining specifically to bees or beekeeping (those have been in the works since 2001).
The USDA does offer beekeeping recommendations, but those recommendations are a nonstarter for most US beekeepers. In order for beekeepers to comply with USDA recommendations, they must be able to certify that all the farms within a 2-mile radius of their hive(s) use organic farming methods (a 2-mile radius is about 12.5 square miles). The only US beekeepers likely to meet those recommendations are the ones who place hives near wilderness areas or national forests that don’t use pesticides. Hawaii (specifically a remote area on the Big Island) is one of the few states in the US that produces true organic honey (a few examples at the bottom of this post). Most organic honey sold in the US is imported from Mexico, Canada, or Brazil, where there’s more wild land for the bees to forage. Where organic standards do become meaningful is in regard to how the bees and their hives are treated, but those standards don’t go as far as some beekeepers (or vegans) would like. If you care about bee welfare, Demeter’s Biodynamic Beekeeping Standards are currently some of the highest standards beekeepers can meet, but biodynamic honey can be hard to find. Certified Naturally Grown’s Apiary Standards are also more rigorous than the USDA’s when it comes to beekeeping. You can use their database to find beekeepers who comply.
COMMERCIAL HONEY PRODUCERS AREN’T ALWAYS KIND TO BEES. HERE’S HOW TO FIND THE BEEKEEPERS WHO ARE
It can be really tough to find ethically produced honey because there’s no formal US certification process for it. You can’t pick up a jar and instantly know from the label that the bees were treated well. Most ethically produced honey is made by backyard beekeepers or small, family-run businesses. This means the honey they create may not be available year round. And that’s a good sign. If you want honey produced by beekeepers who care about the welfare of their bees, here are a few questions to ask your local beekeeper.
What do they feed their bees?
Bees tirelessly pollinate flowers almost all year long to create enough honey to get them through the winter when flowers aren’t in bloom. So what happens when beekeepers take all their honey? The starve. Rather than cut into their profits and save honey for the bees, some beekeepers will feed them high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). But researchers have found that HFRC can threaten a bee’s health because it doesn’t support their immune system in the same way honey does (Johns Hopkins Medicine). Choose honey from beekeepers who leave their bees enough honey and pollen to survive the winter.
When do they collect the honey?
If beekeepers collect honey in the spring, when flowers are in bloom, there’s still time for the bees to make enough honey for the winter. If beekeepers collect honey in the winter, it’s hard to know exactly how much the bees will need. If the honey doesn’t last, the beekeepers may end up feeding their bees sugar and sub par nutritional supplements. Sometimes, it’s inevitable, but make sure it’s not routine.
Do they let their bees forage naturally?
Large commercial beekeeping operations load hundreds of hives on trucks and drive them from farm to farm throughout the US to pollinate conventional orchards. Beware of honey from them because it’s mostly likely tainted with chemical pesticides (and the bees get sprayed when the farmer sprays the orchard). Some smaller beekeepers will routinely move their hives to create a single variety of honey, like orange blossom, clover, or lavender. But bees thrive on a abundance of diverse native plants that bloom from spring to fall. It’s stressful and unnatural for bees to be trucked around from place to place to create mono flavored honey or to pollinate acres and acres of orchards on conventional farms. Ideally, a beekeeper will keep their hives in one spot and allow them to forage naturally.
How do they get bees away from the comb so they can collect the honey?
When it’s time to collect honey, some beekeepers use a fume board soaked in a chemical repellant to remove bees from the comb. When it’s attached to the hive and left in the sun, the fumes fill the hive and drive the bees away (Bee Culture Magazine). Others use a modified leaf blower to vacuum them out. A careful beekeeper will gently brush or shake the bees off the honey comb (in a protective suit, of course).
Do they use prefab plastic combs or foundations?
It’s quicker for beekeepers to start with a prefab plastic comb and/or foundation, but plastic contains harmful chemicals and the combs are often sprayed with pesticides. Ideally, a beekeeper will let the bees make their own comb and start with a properly insulated and ventilated foundation made of wood.
Do they use miticides?
A varroa mite is a parasite that sucks on bee blood and larvae. These mites are pretty serious business—an infestation can kill an entire honeybee colony. The mites can also transmit several viruses that are lethal to honeybees. The easiest way to eradicate them is with a synthetic miticide, but those chemicals can linger in the comb and accumulate over time. If you prefer a miticide-free honey, find beekeepers who don’t have sick bees and rely on miticides. Some research shows that essential oils can be effective without as many side effects for the bees (Scientific American).
Do they give their bees antibiotics?
Antibiotics have been given to US honeybee colonies for more than 50 years to prevent bacterial disease. The problem is antibiotics kill the helpful bacteria in the honeybee’s stomach. This weakens the bee’s immune system and makes them more susceptible to disease. A Yale study found that continuous use of antibiotics could be contributing to the declining honeybee population. Warning: when beekeepers give bees antibiotics, they could end up in your honey.
Do they use local bees?
Local wild bees are better able to adapt to bloom patterns and changes in climate. Using local bees rather than bred or imported bees helps preserve the local wild honey bee populations.
Do they clip the queen bee’s wings?
Many beekeepers clip the queen bee’s wings so she won’t be able to “swarm,” or leave the hive. Clipping the queen bee’s wings also helps beekeepers identify her. Some beekeepers have described this as barbaric and potentially painful to the queen.
Do they let the bees choose their own queen?
Bees mate in flight, which makes breeding difficult to control. In order to selectively bred queen bees, they are artificially inseminated.
Do they kill the queen?
When beekeepers want to turn over a hive to a younger and more productive queen, they kill her, and often prematurely (queen bees can live six years, but are often killed every six months).
BOTTOM LINE: Ethical beekeepers will feed their bees surplus honey, not sugar; they won’t expose them to chemicals or put them in prefab plastic combs or foundations; they will disturb them as little as possible and let them forage naturally rather than move from location to location to pollinate different varietals; they’ll let them swarm and reproduce naturally and they won’t clip the queen bee’s wings.
ARTISAN HONEY FROM THE UNITED STATES
Producing honey by hand and without harming bees is very labor intensive, which is why artisan beekeepers charge more for their honey. Each of the US artisan beekeepers listed below are committed to the welfare of their bees.
Horizontal Hive’s sustainably produced honey is made in small batches. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Their honey doesn’t contain pesticides or chemicals because of the hives’ remote location in the Ozark Wilderness. The bees forage naturally on whatever is in bloom, no two batches are exactly the same. Their raw honey is unfiltered, sold in glass jars, and never heated. Read more about their practices in Bee Culture magazine. Their wilderness honey is currently out of stock, but the next harvest will be in November 2019.
Really Raw Honey
This family-run operation creates honey that isn’t heated or filtered. Their honey contains pollen, propolis, and honeycomb, and they leave surplus honey for their bees. They don’t feed them sugar or corn syrup and they don’t expose the bees or the hives to pesticides or chemicals. Their hives are located in upstate New York and their bees forage on a range of wildflowers. The honey is mostly a blend of goldenrod and aster. A one-pound glass jar is $17.74.
Red Bee Honey
Carla Marina Marchese’s (the honey sommelier) Red Bee Honey is raw and unfiltered. It’s so raw, she warns “you may occasionally find a bee or piece of beeswax in your jar.” She sells unique varietals, including sourwood, tupelo, and organic honey from Oaxaca, as well as more traditional varietals like orange blossom and wildflower. Prices range from $8-12 for a 4 oz glass jar.
L.Lanier & Sons
The Lanier family knows tupelo honey. They’ve been harvesting it from their hives near the Apalachicola River swamps in Florida for three generations. Tupelo honey comes from the tupelo tree, which blooms in April and May. L. Lanier’s honey is strained using a cheese cloth and never heated or filtered. You’ll see small black specks of pollen and beeswax at the top of the honey, which is a sign it’s the real deal. Tupelo honey will not crystalize due to its high fructose low glucose ratio. Six 6.4 oz jars are $77 and six 2 oz jars are $44. If you want individual jars, give them a call.
Silver Wings Apiary (no picture available)
If you live near Tampa, you’re in luck because the owner of Silver Wings Apiary truly cares about her bees. Silver Wings Apiary is Certified Naturally Grown and their honey is “gently” harvested from a healthy hive that’s not been treated with chemicals. The owner doesn’t feed her bees sugar, but rather leaves a surplus of honey to keep them healthy and strong. She doesn’t ship her honey, but it might be worth a trip to Florida to try it. A sample jar is $3, a one-pound jar is $15, and a three-pound jar is $45. She also sells honey with the comb.
HAWAIIAN HONEY (some of the rarest in the world)
Rare Hawaiian Honey
The Rare Hawaiian Honey company’s raw and organic honey comes from a 1000 acre Kiawe (kee ah vay) forest on the dry side of the island. Their honey, which is some of the rarest honey on Earth, crystallizes quickly into a white creamy texture with a unique tropical flavor. It’s $18 for a 8 oz glass jar. If you’re a Great White Shark lover, try their Great White Kiawe honey because 10 percent of the proceeds go toward shark research. Rare Hawaiian Honey’s owner is one of the “premiere” shark researchers in the world. An 8 oz jar of Great White Kiawe honey is $22.50.
Big Island Bees Raw & Organic Honey
As the name suggests, Big Island Bees honey comes from the Big Island of Hawaii. Their honey is organic, raw, and not heated or filtered. They don’t give their bees artificial feeds or chemical miticides. The honey comes in glass jars and is shipped in environmentally sensitive packaging. They sell three varietals: Ohia Lehua, which is one of the world’s rarest honeys and found only in Hawaii (it’s white and will crystallize), Macadamia Nut Blossom, a darker honey from the Southeast part of the island, and Wilelaiki honey, which comes from the Christmasberry trees introduced to Hawaii from Brazil. They move their bees three times a year so they can be closer to a single type of flower. The Ohia Lehua honey is $36 for three 9 oz glass jars or $54 for one 47 oz glass jar. A single 9 oz jar is available online at Vitacost for $8.54.
GOOD FOOD AWARD WINNERS
The Good Food Awards acknowledges people and companies that make good tasting authentic American craft food that’s also responsibly produced.
Two Million Blooms
Two Million Blooms is a small, family-run bee company in Champaign-Urbana, IL. Why two million blooms? That’s how many flowers honey bees have to visit to make one pound of honey. Two Million Blooms specializes in small-batch, unheated, and unfiltered honey from hives that aren’t treated with chemicals. It’s $7 for one 10 oz glass jar.
Westwind Orchard is located on a historic certified organic apple orchard in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. Their honey is raw, not heated, and they leave their bees plenty of honey for the winter. A 2015 Good Food Award winner. It’s $22 for an 11.5 oz glass jar.
Beverly Bees is the winner of two 2019 Good Food Awards for honey and honey comb. Their raw wildflower honey from Massachusetts isn’t heated or filtered and the hive is managed using organic and sustainable practices. They even developed technology that allows consumers to trace each micro bath of honey back to the individual hive that created it. They don’t clip their queen’s wings or feed them sugar. It’s $16 for an 8 oz glass jar.
Sequim Bee Farm
The Sequim Bee Farm in Sequim, Washington, knows how to win awards. They were a 2016, 2017, and 2018 Good Food Awards winner and a 2019 Good Food Awards Finalist. They were also the 2016 and 2017 Regional Winner at the Black Jar International Honey Competition. They sell wildflower, fireweed, meadowfoam, clover and buckwheat honey. It’s all raw and unfiltered. They do gently heat their honey to bottle it. Sequim Bee Farm’s mission “is to promote and protect honeybee health and welfare.” They believe that “backyard beekeepers will be the guardians of the species.” The Honey Lovers Package is $80 for three 18 oz jars. If you want a single jar, give Buddy a call.
Store honey in airtight containers at room temperature.
WARNING: Don’t give honey to children under the age of one. It can cause botulism, a rare and severe form of food poisoning
Feature image Guvendemir @iStock