What’s in your Honey Jar?

I don’t know about you, but the stuff in my honey jar is a mixture of fructose, glucose, and sucrose with a scant bit of protein, some minerals, pollen grains, and oh yeah, volatile compounds from plants that give it its unique flavor.

So I just came across this article in the Seattle P.I. called Don’t let claims on honey labels dupe you. It’s good, and it points out how some of the things that are on honey labels do not correspond with any sort of significant difference from label-less honey. They mention “Grade A”, Country Of Origin Labels, and Organic.

Now Grade A, according to The Hive and the Honey Bee, refers to honey that is clear of any debris, crystals, etc, so if you filter it well enough you’re good. I think of it as somewhat meaningless, not a big deal one way or another. (Grade A vs Grade B for Maple Syrup, however – there’s a difference. Grade B is thicker and yummier!) But there is a defined standard.

Country of Origin Labels (COOL) are a good idea. I would like to know that my food is coming from somewhere nearby, in general, rather than far away. But something that the COOL labeling folks need to realize, before it loses its value, is that you have to have some way to determine where it actually came from. In the case of honey, your guess is as good as mine, and few labs in the world can even take a stab at tracing the source of a sample of liquid gold.

Finally, there’s Organic honey. Let me clear my throat for a second, because this is important.


There are no USDA standards for Organic honey, so to qualify as organic all you need to do is put a label on the jar that says it’s organic.

Bees fly up to about five or six miles for flower sources, so they can pick up some pesticides, soot, or whatever on their way to and from those flower sources. They will gather nectar and pollen from plants whether they are organic, conventional, or genetically engineered. All those bees visiting GE canola in Canada are bringing home sugar from a non-organic source. You can’t track the flight paths of tens of thousands of insects per hive, or the millions of flowers foraged for each jar of honey. So essentially, you have no way of knowing whether or not your honey has what it should or shouldn’t have like you could with a certification system like Organic. I’m sure you could have Biodynamic Honey… you just have to sprinkle amethyst crystals in front of the hive the channel the life force from a nearby rotting cow skull and you’re A-Ok.

Why, then, if Organic is currently a meaningless term for honey, why do we see it on supermarket shelves or on jars at the local farmer’s market?

Given my [limited] experience in the honeybee ‘industry,’ I have two good explanations for this. The first part has to do with the beekeepers and the food producers that use the honey. They can make it sound better, without having to do anything different. Yes, there are beekeepers who are trying to raise their bees with a minimal amount of added substances and environmental stresses, and they’d like to call their honey organic to show that they are trying. But why not say that instead of slapping on a meaningless label?

The second reason is the consumer. It sounds better to call it organic – it must mean it is healthier, tastier, and better for the environment. And a busy consumer is looking for a shortcut way to decide which product to buy, and to them, organic means it will be the honey they remember from their childhood.

The intersection of these two reasons provides what I think is a major motivating factor – the higher price that perception can buy.

On the beekeeping forum, Beesource.com, there are sometimes discussions about what to call someone’s honey. Once it was started by one of those ultra-organic folks, where USDA Organic is not organic enough – it has to be practically a wild bee hive for them. No feeding the bees sugar, corn syrup, pollen substitute patties, let alone treating the hives for mites and diseases. And no large-size cells, it’s got to be the small ‘wild’ cell sizes for the comb. They were toying around with the idea of calling it “Natural”-something, and I intervened and suggested that natural was also a meaningless term. How about low-input? Something actually descriptive?

There’s a lot more attention being paid to bees lately, and I think it is good for the bees and will ultimately benefit the industry. What I most humbly suggest is that some beekeepers in this country put together a meaningful (and enforceable) labeling scheme to tell the liquid gold from the fool’s gold. Something that involves a minimum of hives being moved around, and some restrictions on the types and timings of inputs put in the hives? They could call it “Bee Friendly.” Stay away from organic on this one, my fellow melliferans – HONEY is different and should develop its own identity. A “Bee Friendly” website could also serve as a portal to educate consumers about honeybees, and help them find local honey sources. Oh, the possibilities!

For the record, if there ever was an organic standard for honey, my honey would qualify. But I wouldn’t label it as such unless it actually meant something! Nor will Grade A find its way on the jar to clutter your view of the golden goodness. I will say where it came from and the probable major floral sources (another uncertainty), and if you ask I’ll tell you all about the little buggers that made it. And then I’ll sign the jar.


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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

2 thoughts on “What’s in your Honey Jar?”

  1. Hello
    Liked your piece about bees. On my web site I refer to trying to keep my bees using organic principles, which basicly means I am not prepared to put any chemicals, even ‘organic’ ones in the hive. I have yet to produce any honey for sale (this year hopefully) and am driven by putting the bees first, they’ve been at it longer than I have. I’d love to put a link to your blog as I too am trying hard to be very Bee Friendly.



  2. Hi Peter, I’m glad you dropped by. After checking out your site, I must admit I spent a couple hours last night reading about Warre-style top bar hives and it gave me a few ideas for similar features for the langstroth. I like the idea for the insulated block on the top of the hive, I might try that. The beekeeping community is at no loss for ideas, but we seriously lack a rigorous scientific framework for investigating different hive designs to establish what works and what doesn’t.

    I started a wiki (with no content currently), hoping that beekeepers might find it useful for collecting information about bees and beekeeping. http://www.wikibeedia.wikispot.org/


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