Friday, August 5, 2011

Is Your Local Honey Really Local?

When we travel, we like to meet local beekeepers and try local honey. What we've found is that just because honey is sold locally doesn't mean the bees are gathering nectar and pollen locally. For some people, it doesn't matter, as long as the honey doesn't come from China or hasn't been super-heated to the point all of the beneficial enzymes are dead. As long as it tastes good, that's all they need to know.  

This post is not for these people.

Image from

 For people hoping to use honey as a natural remedy for allergies, where the bees forage is extremely important. The idea is that local pollen, found in local honey -- especially comb honey -- will help the immune system build up a resistance to the pollen in question.

Pollen the bees are storing for their protein needs.

For those of you interested in honey for this purpose, here are some questions to ask the next time you see a road-side stand or farmer's market booth advertising local honey:

1. Are you a beekeeper?
2. If yes: Where do you keep your bees?
3. If no: Where does the beekeeper keep the hives? Or, where does the honey come from?
3. If the honey is gathered from multiple sites, is it bottled separately or combined?
4. Is there a primary nectar source for the bees?
5. Is your honey heated? (Once honey is heated -- some say above body temperature -- you lose some of its enzymes and health benefits.)

Now, the label may tell you some of this information.  Some honey is labeled "buckwheat," "clover," "sage," or "wildflower." That tells you the primary nectar source or dominant flavor of the honey. The label may say "single estate" which generally means the honey comes from one place. Most people don't bother to have their honey tested, and in general it would be hard to say that the bees foraged only on one particular plant type.

Here is a story to illustrate the importance of these questions.  While in California earlier in the summer, a friend mentioned she'd seen a guy set up on a corner, selling local honey. She wanted to try some for her allergies.  Mark and I saw him and stopped.  Here is our conversation:

Keri: "Hey, are you a beekeeper?"
Sales Guy: "I used to be, but now the Mexicans do all the beekeeping for us."
Keri: "Oh. Where are your hives?" (Tries to keep her surprise and disappointment to herself. Looks down, sees several varieties of honey based on plants she knows don't grow in the area.)
SG: "This honey comes from hives down around Ojai. This comes from a couple different places south of Santa Barbara."
Keri: "Oh."  (Thinks to herself, honey from over 100 miles away is NOT local honey. It won't help her friend's allergies at all.)

Now, to be fair, the honey was delicious, pretty in the jar, fairly priced, and tasty -- he let us sample and we bought some. We didn't care about the local factor, but we made sure to tell our friend that it wasn't really local honey.

I'm not trying to undermine anyone, and I want all beekeepers to be able to sell their products. But, I also want consumers to be informed. It is a common practice for beekeepers to sell their honey to someone who is more interested in the marketing side of honey, and that person resells it. Sometimes the  middle man is a beekeeper. The honey in question may or may not come from the same county or region of the state, but it's all bottled under the same label. Therefore, most people assume when they buy this honey, it's local, because they bought it from a local beekeeper. It may be local, and then again . . .

Another possibility is that someone buys honey in the 55 gallon drum from a commercial beekeeper, then bottles it and sells it. This person isn't a beekeeper, but a honey purveyor. The product is still better than what you'd buy off the shelf at a super store, but it may not be local honey. 

This is not an argument about quality. I've eaten honey purchased in all of these situations. It's a matter of knowing where your food comes from and getting truly local honey if that is what you're after.

So be an informed consumer. Just because a local individual is selling honey doesn't mean it's local honey. Investigate. After all, you might meet some beekeepers, and they're crazy nice people.

Local bees hard at work in Steens, MS

No comments:

Post a Comment