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Organic Honey Is A Sweet Illusion

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Worker bees ripen honey by adding digestive enzymes to nectar, heating the solution to detoxify plant defensive compounds, and evaporating off excess water.

Forgive the off-topic post, but today is Food Day here at Scientific American. As I teach a university beekeeping class, I’d like to talk about honey.

Considering the revered place of honey as the oldest natural sweetener, and considering that its insect makers- honey bees- are highly intolerant of pesticides, you might think honey would be the easiest food crop to produce for the “organic” food market. But you’d be wrong.

Here is the primary problem in map form:

The long reach of the superorganism: a typical foraging radius of a honey bee colony normally stays within five kilometers of the hive (marked by the red circle), but during times of dearth bees will fly more than twice as far in search of resources.

Honey is floral nectar cooked down into a thick carbohydrate soup. How many flowers are needed to make honey? A lot. More than most of us can easily comprehend. To survive a year, a single colony brings in about 250 pounds of nectar- an astounding weight for a small insect. It’s not as though individual flowers are generous with nectar, either. Most yield just the smallest of droplets. A standard jar of honey from the supermarket requires bees to make a million flower visits. A colony might produce 50 to 100 such jars per year.

Thus, a colony’s foragers cover a staggering amount of territory. Because bees are furry, statically attractive little animals (useful for pollen collection), their bodies readily gather all sorts of environmental particles. Any agrochemical applied anywhere within a colony’s extensive reach can end up back in the hive. Since beekeepers don’t own the tens of thousands of acres surrounding their hives, they have no control over what their bees are bringing home.

Organic honey isn’t impossible. It’s just beyond of the ability of most beekeepers. Bee yards situated in isolated spots deep in the Adirondacks, or mountain valleys in sparsely-populated New Mexico, can probably pull off honey free of agrochemicals. Most beekeepers operate within a bee’s flight of pesticides, however, making “organic” honey an illusory proposition.

Then there is a second, more insidious problem. The hydrocarbon chains of beeswax itself retain certain pesticides, including those used by conventional beekeepers against the ubiquitous Varroa mite. Over time pesticide residues accumulate in the combs, so chemicals linger or build for years beyond the original applications. By itself this might not present a problem for aspiring organic beekeepers, except that beekeepers routinely buy and sell wax as starter comb. A recent survey of pesticides in commercially-available beeswax recorded an astounding 98% of samples contaminated with miticides. An organic beekeeper who refrains from chemical pest control and situates her hives somewhere off in the wilderness is still going to have pesticide contamination unless she also abstains from using the omnipresent (and very useful) wax starter foundation.

Certainly some of the honey labelled as “organic” may actually lack pesticide traces. But I’d not count on it. None of the certification protocols take into account the newly-documented problem of wax contamination, and most underestimate the real foraging radius of a large bee colony.

As to whether agrochemical-free honey is significantly healthier for humans, that’s a contentious debate I’m all too happy to sidestep.

source: Mullin CA, Frazier M, Frazier JL, Ashcraft S, Simonds R, et al. (2010) High Levels of Miticides and Agrochemicals in North American Apiaries: Implications for Honey Bee Health. PLoS ONE 5(3): e9754. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009754

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. WarrenL 1:30 pm 08/11/2011

    Organic honey is definitely healthier. Simply repeating the word “organic” in a shrill voice to everyone you meet floods the body with antioxidants and endorphins from the overwhelming sense of self-righteousness. There is a synergistic effect when combined with the words “whole foods,” and if you follow with “yoga,” you may spontaneously combust.

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  2. 2. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 3:31 pm 08/11/2011

    Warren just made me snorf honey out my nose.

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  3. 3. Sean McCann 8:35 pm 08/11/2011

    Mwahahahhahah! Can I use that, with due credit?

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  4. 4. mem from somerville 10:15 pm 08/11/2011

    @WarrenL #FTW!

    But I want the organic “mad honey”. Deborah Blum talked about it recently here: Death in the Pot

    It was used as a weapon, actually. Apparently rhododendrons can kill you. But organically, anyway.

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  5. 5. kclancy 9:44 am 08/12/2011

    Cool post, and funny comments :) . Just out of curiosity, Alex, do you try and plant a lot of flowers near your hives? I know they range all over the place, but do you think trying to have good nectar flowers near the hives actually helps at all?

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  6. 6. Lou Jost 2:38 pm 08/12/2011

    Commenter 5 makes a good point. If you gave the bees a lot of really high-quality food close to home, they wouldn’t go the the next county…

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  7. 7. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 4:03 pm 08/12/2011

    The trouble with planting for honey bees is that they operate on an impressively large scale- which is why they are so useful for pollinating industrial agriculture. Anything short of a quarter acre isn’t going to make a noticeable difference, honey-wise, and most of we beekeepers simply don’t have the land to muster plantings even at that scale.

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  8. 8. kclancy 9:06 pm 08/12/2011

    That’s what I figured, Alex. Thanks for answering my question!

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  9. 9. _Grim_ 11:18 pm 08/15/2011

    What about large scale industrial apiculture that only works with large organic farms? Could you achieve something close to “organic” that way?

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  10. 10. ronv12 7:00 am 08/22/2011

    I’ve long wanted a suitable opportunity to make the following observation about “organic” honey. Virtually every beekeeper in the world applies smoke to his/her bees, and thus to the frames of honey etc. in the hive. Such smoke is of course a concentrated chemical cocktail of some nasty toxic substances, some of which surely get into the subsequent honey crop. Not that this stops me enjoying the honey my bees produce even after I have smoked them liberally.
    Incidentally I would like writers such as Alex wild to always put the word “organic” in inverted commas unless they are referring just to the chemistry of carbon compounds. As usually used these days “organic” is just a vague sociological term.

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  11. 11. ssalty 5:55 pm 11/10/2011

    But what about the good stuff that is filtered out or otherwise removed in grocery store honey? I read that over 90% of honey on the shelf lacks pollen, for one thing. There are other important healthy components of fresh honey that don’t make it to the stores.

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  12. 12. vanton 7:11 am 07/17/2012

    The most important as the author correctly says, is the location and the ability of the beekeeper to know where his bees go. From where I am from, Greece, the honey is one of products that are still produced using the traditional way. This doesn’t mean that all honey producers make high quality honey but you can relatively easily find good honey in the stores or e-shops. I personally prefer one that is produced in a village in Crete called Asterousia. I buy it directly from the producer but you can find it at this e-shop as well:

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  13. 13. old south honey 2:05 am 12/9/2012

    This article could have been a little sweeter! Some BEEKs work hard to provide purity for their own table and yours. All that said, if your buying ‘organic’ from a larger retail franchise then go figure.
    Best thing to do is ‘get involved and learn to keep your own bees!’

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  14. 14. bareHoney 8:34 am 12/27/2012

    I agree old south. There is a large community of beekeepers in this country that are working hard to keep pesticides out of our honey. “Treatment free” beekeeping provides some of the cleanest honey produced in the U.S.

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  15. 15. Costas 5:32 pm 03/9/2014

    Please read 1st couple of pages of “The Source” by Michener… ( in my copy, pgs 69-73). Nice free honey and Bee story.

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