Honey

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 22 honey brands.

We also look at organic vs local, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Equal Exchange 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.

What to buy

What to look for when buying honey:

  • Is it local? Buying local honey from a known source (ideally organic or uncultivated land) and produced by individual beekeepers, who practice balanced beekeeping, means your honey is more likely to come from well-treated bees.

  • Is it organic? Pesticides are partially responsible for declining bee populations. Looking for organic would also help to address other environmental issues around agrochemicals - from emissions from production to pollution of waterways through use.

  • Is it Fairtrade? Like all agricultural products, honey is often produced by overworked and underpaid workers. Look for Fairtrade to ensure that the person who produced your honey is given a fair price. 

Best Buys

Our Best Buys are also Fairtrade and organic:

Eating honey as a special treat, and reducing consumption, is likely to support a more sustainable approach to beekeeping.

Buying local honey from a known source (ideally organic or uncultivated land) and produced by individual beekeepers, who practice balanced beekeeping, is recommended. Check the local honey directory.

Equal Exchange organic and Fairtrade honey (£5.35) is the best scoring brand on our table.

Next best is Tropical Forest’s Fairtrade and organic honey (£3.19).

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying honey:

  • Eaten to often? 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. Eat honey less often to maintain bee populations.

  • Are they factory farmed? Factory farming does not take place for bees in the traditional sense, but honey producers do often engage in practices that harm the animals and violate their rights, such as clipping of the Queen bees wings and artificial insemination. Look for organic as it prohibits some of these practices.

  • Is it mass produced? Honey produced by big multinational corporations has been connected to a multitude of issues - from GMOs to lobbying to laundering by Chinese producers. Look for local, sustainable beekeepers to minimise the impact of your sweet tooth.

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)

Tropical Forest organic Fairtrade honey [O][F]

Company Profile: Tropical Forest Products
16

Equal Exchange organic honey [O,F]

Company Profile: Equal Exchange Ltd
15.5

Tropical Forest Fairtrade honey [F]

Company Profile: Tropical Forest Products
15

Equal Exchange honey [F]

Company Profile: Equal Exchange Ltd
14.5

Raw Health Organic honey [O]

Company Profile: Windmill Organics Ltd
14.5

Essential organic honey [O]

Company Profile: Essential Trading Co-operative Ltd
14

Tropical Forest honey

Company Profile: Tropical Forest Products
14

Suma wildflower honey

Company Profile: Triangle Wholefoods Collective Ltd
13.5

Essential honey

Company Profile: Essential Trading Co-operative Ltd
13

GfM organic honey [O]

Company Profile: General Food Merchants Ltd
13

Littleover Apiaries Organic Honey [O]

Company Profile: Littleover Apiaries Ltd
13

GfM honey

Company Profile: General Food Merchants Ltd
12.5

Littleover Apiaries English Honey [O*]

Company Profile: Littleover Apiaries Ltd
12.5

Traidcraft honey [F]

Company Profile: Traidcraft plc
12.5

Rowse fairtrade honey [F]

Company Profile: Rowse Honey Company
12

Rowse organic honey [O]

Company Profile: Rowse Honey Company
12

Baxter's honey

Company Profile: WA Baxter & Sons Ltd
11.5

Tiptree organic honey [O]

Company Profile: Tiptree Jam Company
11.5

Rowse honey

Company Profile: Rowse Honey Company
11

Duerr's honey

Company Profile: F Duerr & Sons Ltd
10.5

Tiptree honey

Company Profile: Tiptree Jam Company
10.5

Bonne Maman honey

Company Profile: Andros Group (Andros et cie)
10

Duchy Originals honey

Company Profile: Waitrose Limited
6.5

Gales honey

Company Profile: Hain Celestial Group Inc
6.5

Co-op Fairtrade Honey [F]

Company Profile: Co-operative Group Ltd
6

Co-op honey

Company Profile: Co-operative Group Ltd
5

Waitrose organic clover honey [O]

Company Profile: Waitrose Limited
4.5

Sainsbury's So Organic honey [O]

Company Profile: J Sainsbury plc
3.5

Waitrose honey

Company Profile: Waitrose Limited
3.5

Morrisons organic honey [O]

Company Profile: Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc
3

Sainsbury's honey

Company Profile: J Sainsbury plc
2.5

Morrisons honey

Company Profile: Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc
2

Tesco organic honey [O]

Company Profile: Tesco plc
2

ASDA Organic & Fairtrade honey [O,F]

Company Profile: Asda Group Ltd
1.5

Tesco honey

Company Profile: Tesco plc
1

ASDA honey

Company Profile: Asda Group Ltd
0

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Our Analysis

The production of honey is part of the symbiotic relationship between bees and plants. Flowering plants provide nectar which foraging bees turn into their foodstuff, which enables them to develop thriving colonies. While collecting nectar, bees fertilise the flowers so that fruit and seeds are formed, thus allowing the plants to reproduce. 

However, over the years this relationship has been exploited to meet a growing demand for honey, with intensive bee-farming methods leading to numerous problems for bee colonies. The spread of pests and diseases, the use of insecticides (especially neonicotinoids – some of which are subject to a temporary ban in the EU) and loss of natural habitat, have in recent decades been a major factor in the decimation of honey bee populations, especially in Europe and the United States.

In Europe 15% to 35% of honey bee colonies have been lost between 1985 and 2005, while in the US this figure is even higher, standing at 60%. Less is known about honey bee populations in the tropics, except that their decline appears to be happening at a faster rate.

Despite this decline, demand for honey remains high. In the UK 25,000 tonnes are consumed each year. However just 1,500 tonnes can now be produced by British beekeepers as the number of commercial honey bees has declined by 45% since 2010. The rest is imported from major honey producing countries such as Thailand and China (the world’s largest honey producer). To meet the demand there has been a 45% increase in farmed colonies globally over the last 50 years.

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. 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.

Factory-farmed bees 

There are roughly three types of honey production: the collection of wild honey, small-scale production and industrial-scale production. The latter is the most widely criticised type of beekeeping and is akin to other types of factory farming. With industrial honey production, bees may be subject to a variety of processes and procedures. These include artificial feeding regimes, artificial insemination, treatment with antibiotics, inhumane transportation conditions and culling. Here are some of the main issues regarding honey bee welfare.

Culling of hives

One of the most brutal aspects of industrial-scale bee farming is culling. This occurs once the honey is collected (usually in autumn). In some cases it is cheaper to kill off entire hives rather than feed the bees through the winter. In cases where bees are not culled they are sometimes fed sugar water as a replacement for the honey taken for human consumption. 

Short live the queen!

In wild hives a queen bee may choose to lead part of the colony to a new hive. A new queen then takes her place in the old hive. This is basically how the species reproduces. However this needs to be prevented in industrial beekeeping as it can leave a hive without enough bees to produce a financially viable amount of honey. 

One tactic used by beekeepers (in both large- and smaller-scale farming) to keep production high is clipping the queen’s wings. This helps to prevent swarming. Because the queen is not able to fly, the swarm simply masses next to the hive. They are then collected by the beekeeper and returned to the hive. A second tactic used by beekeepers is to periodically kill and replace the queen. In wild colonies the queen is selected by the worker bees and specially fed in order to become sexually mature. 

In factory farmed hives the beekeeper selects the queen and often replaces her every two years. This is because as a queen gets older she produces fewer pheromones. These pheromones are essential to stop swarming as they act as a magnet to the worker bees. Once the queen’s pheromone excretion begins to slow down the workers are more likely to swarm and, as described above, commercial beekeepers argue that they cannot ‘afford’ for this to happen. Queens may also be artificially inseminated using drones, which die in the process.

Transportation

In some instances bees are transported thousand of miles to pollinate crops. For instance, in the USA, honey accounts for only a small percentage of the total income generated from honey bees. Most comes from the rental of hives to help pollinate fruit and vegetable crops. Commercial bees are used in the production of about 100 foods, including almonds, avocados, and broccoli. Over a million honey bee colonies are moved around the US, going from crop to crop as they come into bloom.

This transportation occurs all year round meaning that bees get no chance to hibernate as they would do in the wild. The transported bees are fed a diet of high-fructose corn syrup (and/or culled in winter) as their honey is removed for sale. Poor husbandry and breeding practices have reduced their genetic diversity and left them susceptible to large-scale die-offs. 

Treatment with antibiotics

Treatment against mites has become an important part of large-scale honey production as bee colonies become increasingly susceptible to them. However the treatments against Varroa mite in particular are increasingly found to be ineffective, as the mites develop resistance. A key natural defence for honey bees against Varroa is for the bees to groom one another and become ‘hygienic’ and able to remove the mites from larvae and their bodies.

Antibiotic treatments can be passed from bees to humans via honey. One of the most dangerous antibiotics, that is used outside the US and EU, is Chloramphenicol. This is known to cause aplastic anaemia, a sometimes fatal disease which affects the ability of bone marrow to produce red blood cells.

This antibiotic has been found in honey imported from both China and Thailand. In fact, honey from China, the world’s largest honey producer, was banned in the European Union in 2002 (the ban was rescinded two years later).

In more humane methods of beekeeping, pests are less of a problem. In commercial farming, beekeepers will have hundreds or even thousands of hives and, as with all agricultural systems, high populations are linked to increased pest and disease issues. 

Bee welfare policies

Only three companies that responded to our questionnaire had a bee welfare policy. These were Littleover Apiaries, Tropical Forest and Rowse. Littleover Apiaries are 100% chemical free in all their hives and operate to organic standards even when the product is not intended as organic. Organic standards do contain some criteria for bee welfare. Other companies in the guide offering certified organic honey include Windmill Organics which sells the Raw Health brand. 

Another company to have a policy was Rowse. While this policy lacked any specific detail it did begin to address the use of antibiotic treatments. The policy stated that, “we are passionate about looking after the health of bees and for nearly five years we’ve been one of the largest contributors to the Sussex Plan for Honey Bee Health & Well-Being. The funding we have given has been used in several project areas. One is on a form of natural defence to diseases called ‘hygienic behaviour’. LASI research has shown that this reduces the build-up of two important honey bee pests and diseases, the Varroa mite and the deformed wing virus.”

The Tropical Forest policy was also vague and only stated that, “On my own bee farm I have found that I am able to maintain the health and number of my beehives through careful husbandry. The most important aspects are careful selection of queens and bringing on a large proportion of new stock each year in the form of small, nucleus hives.”

Supermarket greenwash

Public-facing bee campaigns have been run by a number of supermarkets including the Co-operative’s ‘Plan Bee campaign’, Waitrose’s bee app, and Sainsbury’s ‘Operation Bumblebee’. All focus on planting pollinator-friendly plants, promoting biodiversity or building ‘bee hotels’. However, companies failed to address or identify the role of the honey industry and its practices in supporting bee populations. This is despite the economic and environmental importance of bees, and other pollinating insects, being widely recognised. Bees are also omitted from supermarkets’ animal welfare policies.

Image: Bees

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?

Processing honey 

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.”

A New Hope: Natural Beekeepers

There is a growing apiculture movement, known as ‘natural beekeeping’, that promotes a beecentred approach to hive management: the beekeeper becomes a giver rather than just a taker. The chief proponent of this method is Phillip Chandler, aka the Barefoot Beekeeper. He defines six categories of beekeeping. These are:

1. Honey farming:

production-focused, intensive management of bees for maximum honey yield and/or for migratory pollination. 

2. Sideline beekeeping:

a smaller-scale, part-time version of honey farming. The principal aim is profit, but your livelihood may not entirely depend on it.

3. Association beekeeping:

a miniature version of commercial or sideline beekeeping, as promoted and taught by most beekeepers’ associations. Usually the intention is still to produce the maximum amount of honey, but from fewer hives and not necessarily for financial reward.

4. Balanced beekeeping:

the emphasis is on bee welfare and facilitating the natural behaviour of bees. Honey and other bee products only taken when plentiful and appropriate. 

5. Natural beekeeping:

similar to ‘balanced beekeeping’, with the emphasis on ‘do-nothing’ approaches. Little or no management is attempted.

6. Conservation beekeeping:

bees for their own sake; no honey is taken and no inspections, treatments or feeding. 

Natural beekeepers report some interesting and hopeful findings: 

Bee colonies foraging on predominantly organically cultivated land, and subject to husbandry orientated by the species specific needs also exhibit better resistance to viruses and parasites. Winter survival rates are far better in colonies that have swarmed and overwintered on their own honey as opposed to sugar water or worse... [and there is] mounting evidence of feral colonies faring better than those kept by beekeepers”.

When bees are allowed to create their own shaped comb, they often create smaller cell sizes, or ‘natural’ sized cells. A number of studies have linked smaller cells to reduced Varroa mite populations. Considering that the Varroa mite has been identified as the biggest single contributor to bee population declines, this observed trend is of paramount importance. 

In addition, beekeepers motivated by honey yield will tend to select bees that produce higher yields of honey and are gentle to handle. Through selecting more docile bees, and those that are better honey producers rather than prioritising locally adapted bees, you end up with a bee population that is unsuitable for the local climate and vulnerable to pests. If it wasn’t for beekeepers importing and exporting bees, we may not have ended up with such a prolific problem with an exotic pest – the Varroa mite.

Tim Lovett, the Public Affairs Director for the British Beekeepers Association, says that “a balance needs to be struck between selecting bees for one characteristic and what is best suited to the local climate. A certain feistiness is needed in bees in order to fight off wasps and hornets and be capable of working hard and dealing with bad weather”.[1]

Evidence presented from the natural beekeepers movement suggests that honey should be used as a special treat or medicine, rather than an everyday commodity, in order to reduce demand and create a more sustainable, beecentred honey industry. Sourcing honey from a local beekeeper who practices balanced beekeeping would be the best honey buying option if you care about animal welfare but can’t resist honey. 

The Natural Beekeeping website provides a map with contact information of natural beekeeping groups around the UK.

Company behind the brand

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.

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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References:

  1. Phone interview, Tim Lovett, 9/10/2014