Helping the honey bee
Organic and Fairtrade certification
Organic certification normally acts as a simple navigation tool for consumers trying to identify more ethical food products. However in the case of honey this is less obvious if you hold environmental or animal welfare issues close at heart.
Organic versus local
You cannot buy certified organic honey sourced from the UK due to strict regulations on bee foraging distances, which are particularly difficult for UK beekeepers to meet.4 The Soil Association standards state that hives must be located so that a four-mile radius of organic crops and/or uncultivated land can be maintained to provide a source of nectar and pollen for honey bees. Sufficient distance must also be maintained between hives and potential contamination sources, for example: urban centres, motorways, industrial areas, waste dumps or waste incinerators.
The relatively small size of UK farms and the fragmented nature of uncultivated land, in addition to poor, UK-wide land management practices, mean that few British beekeepers could meet the organic honey standards even if they wanted too.
Buying certified organic honey in the UK therefore means importing honey with potentially high food miles compared to honey produced and bottled in the UK. This perhaps undermines some of the environmental motivations for buying organic in the first place. There is also some debate about whether honey can ever truly be organic due to bees’ foraging activity being relatively uncontrollable. Furthermore, unless it is Fairtrade certified, organic (imported) honey may be linked to poor working conditions, depending on the country of origin and a company’s supply-chain policies and practices.
Even though UK-sourced honeys are unable to carry the organic label, many UK beekeepers still raise their hives on organically managed land and follow organic principles in regard to hive management, honey collection and processing. Buying local honey from a known source or contacting a local beekeeper directly and asking about their practices and honey sources will tell you more than a label which simply says ‘English Honey’. Perhaps honey producers could be persuaded to provide more detailed information.
Although we haven’t covered the hundreds of small UK beekeepers on the score table above, you can use the local honey directory to find beekeepers close to you. This directory provides you with contact details for beekeepers by region and some information on honey sources. You could also contact your local beekeepers’ association or natural beekeeping group who can put you in touch with local beekeepers too.
Is buying honey good or bad for bee populations?
If you are concerned about bee populations, honey consumption in its modern form is arguably complicit in contributing to declining honey bee populations, especially if sourced from a business driven by profit. Buying organic honey may cast a vote for sustainable agricultural practices, but still maintains an human-centred view towards beekeeping that often fails to put bee welfare before human desires.
Organic standards encourage the feeding of bees with organic honey rather than sugar water; limit the use of antibiotics; prohibit the clipping of a queen bee’s wings and prohibit artificial insemination. But organic beekeeping can still include a number of practices that could be conceived of as ‘unnatural’, and as violating animal rights, and are argued by ‘natural beekeepers’ to be linked to a higher incidence of pests, disease and stress.
Beekeeping practices lie on a spectrum between industrial-scale beekeeping and bee conservation. The further you move towards the bee conservation end of the spectrum, the more you encourage a colony to take control and produce a hive in its natural form and shape, without pre-set wax moulds and with minimal disturbance of the hive. Bees are allowed to swarm according the colony’s own impulses, and, rather than relying on man-made medicines which are often developed by the same companies that sell neonicotinoids, bees are encouraged to fight off pests and disease themselves in order to develop a natural resistance. Honey, if taken at all, is taken when there is true excess and in the spring once a hive has survived the winter.
Viewed from a perspective of sustainability, honey consumption by humans might be less frequent than it is now. It could be seen more as a special occasion product or medicine rather than a regular item of choice.
Is honey vegan?
The advice from PETA is unequivocal – “avoid honey”. They, and fellow vegans, see the consumption of honey as ‘theft’ from bees who rely on honey as a winter food source and therefore we shouldn’t consume it. There are also a number of arguments against honey consumption derived from the methods used in its production. Most of these issues are associated with industrial-scale honey production. Alternative bread spreads and sweeteners include jams and jellies, soaked dry fruits or maple syrup.
Choosing ethical honey
For the purpose of this guide, we have covered the most widely available national honey brands on the score table, including supermarket own brands.
However, there are hundreds of small-scale honey producers within the UK, which we have not been able to cover for reasons of practicality and space. This does not mean that local honey will not be a better buy, especially if you can get more details about beekeeping practices.
Choosing local honey
A local honey directory can be used to locate your nearest honey producer, and a few key questions can help you ascertain whether they hold bee welfare issues close to heart:
Does the beekeeper comply with organic guidelines?
What is the bee’s primary pollen and nectar source? (Uncultivated land or organically cultivated land would be preferable).
Where do the beekeeper’s practices lie on the industrial to conservation beekeeping spectrum?
Once taken from the hive, commercial honey can be processed in a number of ways including filtering and heat treating. This is done to stop the crystallisation of honey, remove visible impurities (bees legs, wings, wax particles), and ensure long shelf life by removing yeast. There is some debate over the consequences of the various treatments with many believing that some interventions, especially the pasteurisation process, reduce the nutritional value of honey and alter its taste.
However recent research by the National Honey Board analysed vitamins, minerals and antioxidant levels in raw and processed honey. The study showed that processing significantly reduced the pollen content of the honey (which can lead to crystallisation), but did not affect the nutrient content or antioxidant activity. The study did, however, state that heat treatment should be kept to a minimum as the issues around raw honey “remain poorly understood.”
Equal Exchange is a workers’ co-operative and vegetarian company and so scores positively under Company Ethos. All of their products are organic and GM free, and all of their honey products are Fairtrade certified.
Essential Trading is also a workers’ co-operative and vegetarian company and also scores positively for this.
Tiptree, owned by Wilkin and Sons, have some worker ownership. The company website states that, “through an EBT (Employee Benefit Trust), employees today own almost half the voting rights of the shares in the Company”.
Littleover Apiaries has a turnover of less than £8 million and offers a number of environmental alternatives. All of the company’s hives are managed according to organic standards, even the English honeys that are unable to achieve organic certification due to the issues highlighted above.
Baxters is a family-owned, UK-based business that produces a number of food products including honey, jam, soup and mayonnaise. The company scored worst for both environmental reporting and supply chain management due to a complete lack of information on both topics.
The Andros Group, owners of the Bonne Maman brand, also scored worst in these categories for similar reasons, as did Duerrs.
Despite farming to organic standards, Duchy Originals also scored worst for their environmental reporting and supply chain management. In 2009, Duchy Originals (which is owned by the Prince’s Charities Foundation) made an exclusive deal with Waitrose to make and sell Duchy Originals products in the UK.
Gales is owned by Hain Celestial Group which also owns the vegetarian brand Linda McCartney and vegan milk substitute Rice Dream. The company also sells meat products, however, and scores a worst mark for their supply chain management.
Raw Health organic honey is sold by Windmill Organics Ltd. Windmill used to sell BioFair Fairtrade organic honey, but sadly this product is now delisted. Windmill Organics scored worst for its environmental reporting as the company did not produce an independently verified environmental report and did not present dated environmental reduction targets.
This product guide is part of a Special Report on Honey. See what's in the rest of the report.