Honey

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 28 honey brands.

We also look at organic vs local, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Wainwright (previously called Tropical Forest) and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying honey:

  • Is it made using natural or conservation beekeeping methods? Some beekeepers choose to minimise their interference with the bees and only take surplus honey.

  • Is it organic? Organic farming is generally better for the overall health of bee and pollinator populations, organic certification protects from some more harmful beekeeping practices. Both our best buys are certified organic.

  • Is it fair trade? Choosing a fair trade option means that the beekeeper gets a fair price for their honey.

     

Best Buys

Our Best Buys are also Fairtrade and organic:

Buying local honey from a known source produced by practising beekeepers is recommended. Check the local honey directory.

Essential [O], Raw Health [O], Traidcraft [F], Hilltop Honey [O, F] are also recommended buys.

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying honey:

  • Does it have high air miles? Try and avoid jars of honey sourced from too far away, there is no real need to have New Zealand or Australian honey in the UK.

  • Are bees harmed in the beekeeping process? Some conventional beekeeping methods are harmful to bees, avoid honey produced on an industrial scale.

  • Are they enabling farming practices which are harmful to bees? Many companies selling honey are also selling other foods. If this is grown with pesticides then you could be supporting a system that is harmful to bees.

Companies to avoid

We would recommend avoiding the supermarkets at the bottom of our table, which not only scored poorly but had no bee welfare policy.

  • Asda
  • Tesco
  • Sainsbury's
  • Morrisons

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Equal Exchange organic honey [O,F]

Company Profile: EE Wholesale UK
17

Wainwrights organic Fairtrade honey [O][F]

Company Profile: Tropical Forest Products
16

Raw Health Organic honey [O]

Company Profile: Windmill Organics Ltd
14.5

Essential organic honey [O]

Company Profile: Essential Trading Co-operative Ltd
14

Hilltop honey [O, F]

Company Profile: Hilltop Honey Limited
14

Wainwrights honey

Company Profile: Tropical Forest Products
14

GfM organic honey [O]

Company Profile: General Food Merchants Ltd
13.5

Traidcraft honey [F]

Company Profile: Traidcraft plc
13.5

Essential honey

Company Profile: Essential Trading Co-operative Ltd
13

Hilltop honey [O]

Company Profile: Hilltop Honey Limited
13

Littleover Apiaries Organic Honey [O]

Company Profile: Littleover Apiaries Ltd
13

Tiptree organic honey [O]

Company Profile: Tiptree Jam Company
13

GfM honey

Company Profile: General Food Merchants Ltd
12.5

Littleover Apiaries English Honey [O*]

Company Profile: Littleover Apiaries Ltd
12.5
12.5

Hilltop honey

Company Profile: Hilltop Honey Limited
12

Littleover Apiaries manuka honey

Company Profile: Littleover Apiaries Ltd
12

Tiptree honey

Company Profile: Tiptree Jam Company
12

Comvita manuka honey

Company Profile: Comvita Limited
10

Bonne Maman honey

Company Profile: Andros UK Limited
9.5

Rowse organic honey [O]

Company Profile: Rowse Honey Company
8.5

Waitrose Duchy Originals honey

Company Profile: Waitrose Limited
8.5

Rowse honey

Company Profile: Rowse Honey Company
7.5

Co-op honey

Company Profile: Co-operative Group Ltd
6

Marks and Spencer honey

Company Profile: Marks & Spencer Group plc
6

Gales honey

Company Profile: Histon Sweet Spreads
5

Aldi honey

Company Profile: ALDI SOUTH Group
4

Lidl honey

Company Profile: Lidl UK GmbH
3.5

Morrisons organic honey [O]

Company Profile: Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc
3

Morrisons honey

Company Profile: Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc
2

Sainsbury's So Organic honey [O]

Company Profile: J Sainsbury plc
1.5

Sainsbury's honey

Company Profile: J Sainsbury plc
1.5

Tesco organic honey [O]

Company Profile: Tesco plc
1.5

Tesco honey

Company Profile: Tesco plc
0.5

ASDA honey

Company Profile: Asda Group Ltd
0

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Our Analysis

Who had the best bee welfare policies?

We asked companies to send us their bee welfare policies (and searched the websites of those that didn’t respond). We expect companies to be discussing issues such as wing clipping, artificial insemination and the use of harsh chemicals in the hives.

Only three companies appeared to have comprehensive bee welfare policies. Wainwrights (Tropical Forest) had the most comprehensive policy and discussed natural beekeeping methods as well as prohibiting the most harmful practices.

Equal Exchange, Hilltop Honey and Littleover Apiaries also had adequate policies. Windmill Organics (Raw Health Honey) did not have a policy, however it was only selling honey that was certified as organic which was considered a mitigating factor.

All the other companies lost half a mark under Animal Rights for having limited or no bee welfare policies. The absence of a policy does not necessarily mean bad practices are taking place. However, the rarity of a comprehensive and public bee welfare policy among companies selling honey could be seen to demonstrate a real need for a change in attitude towards honey bees and honey production.

Why isn't honey vegan?

Honey is categorically not vegan. However, this does seem to cause some confusion and the internet is full of people asking, “is honey vegan?”

The Vegan Society explains: “There is a common misconception that honey bees make their honey especially for us, but this couldn’t be much further from the truth”.

Essentially, honey is not vegan because it involves the exploitation of animals. Honey not only protects bees from starvation through the winter months, but it also has the right nutrients to keep them healthy.

The sugar syrup many beekeepers provide as a feedstuff during the winter is a poor substitute for the honey. Even if the honey is sourced from more ethical beekeeping methods, it still involves some human interference with what would happen naturally.

 If you are avoiding honey check out the most ethical vegan alternatives to honey.

What’s wrong with conventional beekeeping?

Trying to produce honey at an industrial scale has led to many highly interventionist beekeeping practices that aim to manipulate the natural behaviour of bees to increase honey yields and reduce costs. These interventions can put colonies under a lot of stress and, even when done in the name of bee health, are arguably damaging to bee populations as a whole.

Image: Bees

Clipping the wings of bees

It is not uncommon for beekeepers to clip the wings of the queens. Wing clipping is done to prevent queens from leaving and the bees from swarming. However, queens that cannot fly can instead fall to the ground, meaning that the bees swarm there instead or take off with a new queen. Swarming is a natural behaviour and one that is important to the breeding and lifecycles of bee populations.

The British Beekeepers Association’s assessment criteria can require trainee apiarists to demonstrate that they can clip wings:

“You may be asked to clip and mark a queen. Where there are strong objections to marking and/or clipping queens, a drone may be substituted. If you object to clipping wings on religious or moral grounds you will be expected to simulate the task.”

While they allow for people to choose to simulate the task, the fact that it is included demonstrates that it is considered standard practice.

Beekeepers that are more accepting of swarming can leave ‘bait hives’ out to try and encourage the swarming bees to take up residence there. The Natural Beekeeping Trust states,

“Swarm suppression is often justified on the basis that it increases honey yields; but beekeepers who allow swarming and operate an extensive rather than an intensive beekeeping system dispute this. Moreover, bee-centred beekeepers are not generally honey-driven, seeing the bee as a pollinator first and provider of honey second.”

Tropical Forest/Wainwrights, Hilltop Honey and Littleover Apiaries stated they did not practice wing clipping and organic certification also prohibits the practice. The lack of policies in other companies again makes it difficult to know which companies are doing what.

Control of disease and parasites in honey

Both conventional and natural beekeepers would probably agree that the biggest threat to bees, in terms of pests and disease, is the varroa destructor mite. However, approaches to dealing with these blood-sucking parasites is very different.

Varroa mites have often been treated with oxalic acid. However, some of the methods of treatment were actually found to be directly damaging to the bees’ health. Using oxalic vapour has been found to be effective at killing varroa mites whilst not harmful to the bees themselves.

A study, published in 2016, argues the case for a natural selection approach to managing diseases and parasites in bees, arguing that constant treatment of bees is preventing them from evolving resistance naturally.

Bees can also be treated against illness and infections with antibiotics. A study from the University of Austin found that in many cases treated bees were more likely to die than untreated ones. This is because the antibiotics can destroy the important microbiome in the bees’ gut.

Either way, killing varroa mites is still not great from an animal rights perspective as they are just as much a living creature as the bees themselves, even if they have been given a rather ominous name.

As very few companies had public bee welfare policies, it is not transparent what methods of disease control are being used by each company.

Culling bees for honey

There are some accounts that beekeepers in colder climates could cull bees in the autumn in order to avoid the costs of keeping them alive over winter. However, there is little evidence that this is still practised and there were no indications that this was what companies in our guide were doing. However, it is still mentioned on some beekeeping forums so, if you live somewhere with cold winters and are buying from small scale beekeepers, it might be worth checking what their overwintering policies are.

Interestingly, bees are not necessarily kinder to themselves. It is not uncommon to see drones being pushed out of the hive in the lead up to winter. This is because they have little purpose in the winter months and the honey reserves can be put to better use feeding other types of bees. However, this benefits the hive as a whole and the dead drones provide an important food source for other wildlife.

Pesticides and monocropping

Monocropping, the farming practice whereby one type of crop is grown on the land year on year usually on a large scale, is not great for bees. Only having one type of crop leads to a lack of diversity in insect populations as all the flowering will happen at once. This also means that certain pests are not kept in check by a natural ecosystem leading to increased reliance on pesticides.

Many GM crops are created to be more resistant to pesticides to allow them to be grown as monocultures which means that even higher levels are used. Neonics, a commonly used pesticide now banned in the EU, were considered to be a key factor in the increase of colony collapse disorder.

Unfortunately, evidence suggests that new chemicals used as replacements are not necessarily much better. For example, scientists have suggested that, ‘safer’ pesticides, sulfoxaflor and flupyradifurone could also be linked to disruption in bee colonies. The fact that pesticides are bad for bees does not seem like it should come as that much of a surprise.

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infographic: supermarkets ranked on use of pesticides pollinators bees

The Pesticide Action Network ranked supermarkets on their approach to pesticides, including a specific rating related to bees and pollinators. Four ratings were given: lagging behind, could do better, making good progress and outstanding. The ratings in the bees and pollinators section were:

PAN stated: “Currently, most UK supermarkets do have some measures in place to protect pollinators but fall significantly short of ensuring that bees and other pollinators are not harmed by their operations. Bee-harming neonicotinoids are still used widely in the majority of supermarkets’ global supply chains. In fact, while some other supermarkets monitor or restrict the use of neonicotinoids, only Aldi has banned their use by all of its suppliers, regardless of whether they are based within the EU or further afield.”

All of the supermarkets, except Iceland and M&S, were also selling pesticide products for domestic use.

GMOs and ‘frankenbees’

Honey itself cannot be genetically modified, however, it can contain traces of pollen from GM plants. GM crops are not commercially grown in the UK so this isn’t an issue here, however it could affect honey imported from other countries.

From an ethical standpoint, the concern is more about what effect GM crops have on the honey bees. GM often tends to go hand-in-hand with high chemical use and monocropping. Choosing honey that is GM free, so local, organic or GM free certified, means supporting a better system for honey bees and the environment as a whole.

Research has also been ongoing to create genetically modified honey bees that would be more resistant to the multitude of problems currently impacting bee populations. Nicknamed ‘frankenbees’ by campaigners, serious concerns have been raised that these super bees could spell disaster for other wild species that already struggle to compete. For example, honey bees have been found to spread disease to bumble bees when feeding from the same flowers as well as acting as direct competition for nectar and pollen.

Outside of their honey production all of the supermarkets, as well as Andros Group (Bonne Maman) and Hain Celestial (Gales), were marked down under Controversial Technologies for not having policies prohibiting the use of both GM ingredients and GM animal feed.

ethical-honey-honey-comb-bee-hive-zambia-tropical-forest

Better honey

While there are strong arguments for cutting down our honey consumption, or even avoiding it altogether, we obviously want to make sure that the honey we do buy minimises harmful practices.

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. 

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 to.

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. However, there is plenty of organic-certified honey being sourced from Europe.

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.

We went to visit a group of natural beekeepers who explained more about their bee-centric approach.

Fairtrade

It’s not just bees we have to think about when buying honey. Small scale beekeepers stand to lose out when trying to compete with industrial-scale honey producers and, for many people, being able to get a fair price for their honey is hugely important for them to be able earn enough to look after themselves and their families.

It can also help them look after their bees. The Fairtrade Foundation states:

“Many Fairtrade beekeepers are also farmers – the bees they keep help to pollinate crops which they can sell and subsist on. Fairtrade works with beekeepers to establish surroundings in which bees can flourish, for example by advising them on bee-friendly cultivation methods. Many beekeepers have also used the Fairtrade Premium to switch to organic cultivation.”

Getting paid a fair price for their honey can reduce incentives for beekeepers to cut costs elsewhere in a way that could be harmful for bees.

Mānuka Honey

Mānuka honey is often hailed for being a natural product with numerous health benefits and has become widely sought after. It seems that, while some health benefits (lowering cholesterol, reducing likelihood of diabetes, aiding sleep or helping with hay fever) are not necessarily well evidenced, mānuka has been shown to have antimicrobial properties that can help prevent infection and promote healing of wounds.

Interestingly, studies have even shown this to work on superbugs resistant to most antibiotics. So, while it might help in relation to specific cases, it does not seem to be necessary to be consuming the honey on a regular basis, furthermore its production seems to be rife with controversy and scandal.

Mānuka is a Māori word and most mānuka honey is sourced from New Zealand. If you are in the UK, then mānuka is not a good choice if you are trying to avoid those air miles. There is also currently a conflict going on between New Zealand and Australia over the rights to the word mānuka, as Australia is also home to the tree.

The sharp rise in demand for mānuka honey also led to bees being caught in the crossfire of a competitive and lucrative honey market. Theft, vandalism and massacring of honey bees in New Zealand became a real problem.

Fake Mānuka honey has also been hitting the market, with New Zealand starting to take action against this. A recent article in The Guardian reported “In the first case of its kind, the company [Evergreen Life Ltd] is accused of adding synthetic chemicals – including one commonly used in tanning lotion – to honey it sold as ‘mānuka’.” This is because adding these chemicals can increase the levels of methylglyoxal (the ingredient that gives mānuka its antimicrobial properties). The higher these levels are, the more the honey can be sold for.

One of the companies in this guide, Comvita, is a key player in the New Zealand Mānuka industry. During our research we found some criticism of how the company had dealt with an issue related to placing of new beehives in an area next to land where bees were already being kept.

A report on the New Zealand Herald website stated "Glen Miru, a member of a Kiwi shareholding group which controls an adjoining land block, said competition from the Comvita hives combined with a poor season for honey had forced him to move some of the 160 hives he had been maintaining for four years out of the area. Comvita said its hives were within the accepted range for the industry. Tinopai activist Mikaera Miru, Glen's brother, told the Bay of Plenty Times there were 'hundreds' of Maori shareholders involved in the land who should have been consulted.”

Company behind the brand

Tropical Forest Products own Wainwrights (previously called Tropical Forest). The company imports fair trade and organic honey and beeswax from forest beekeepers in Zambia, Ethiopia and Cameroon. It was actually the first company to import organic from Africa to the UK.

It also runs multiple apiaries across England and Wales which provides a more local option. The company was considered to have a positive policy on bee welfare and GMOs.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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