Getting Into Honey's Beeswax

You won't beelieve the cost of nature's liquid gold

According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way a bee should be able to fly, let alone be a master of collecting pollen and nectar.

Known for their incredible collaboration as a colony, bees are one of the world’s most influential animals, pollinating over 80% of the world’s plants, including over 90 types of agricultural crops. They help support a wide variety of wildlife through pollination, creating natural habitats for birds, insects, and mammals.

But they are probably most famous for creating a natural golden treasure — honey.

For over 13,000 years, honey has played a significant cultural role: from being used as an offering to the gods in Ancient Egypt to a form of currency in the 11th century for buying goods. Societies across the globe look to the honeybee as a sign of fertility, using honey to represent wealth in both their religion and their bellies. 

Outside of tasty dishes and sweets, honey also influenced modern companies like Bumble (a dating app focused on women being in charge, alluding to a queen bee) and Honey (the coupon company to help find sweet deals). 

Read more to see what the buzz is all about.

At a Glance 

Due to their immobility, plants had a hard time spreading pollen around. Then they evolved to incentivize small insects to help spread the sweet nectar in their flowers. Before long, bees emerged as the dominant specialized group.

Today, bees alone help pollinate over $15 billion worth of American crops every year, with one third of the food we eat supported by the bees’ work. Despite there being over 20,000 bee species across the world, only one makes honey: the honeybee.

Honey is a $9.21 billion industry on its own, with Americans consuming about 1 ½ pounds of honey per person annually and bottles selling at around $8 per pound. It’s even more popular outside of the U.S., with China being the largest producer of honey and consumer, producing more than 650,000 tons of honey annually with ¾ of this locally consumed.

Known as the only food to contain ALL the ingredients needed to keep you alive, honey is also recommended as a universal salve, containing antibacterial properties that tackles cuts, burns, infections, and more. 

You may have seen the slogan “Save the Bees” at some point. The bee population has dwindled significantly over the past several decades, and this has irreversible consequences on the environment.

Environmental Cost

To understand the environmental impact of honey, we need to understand how it's produced:

  1. Honeybees collect flower nectar that gets brought to the hive and broken down into simple sugars inside the honeycomb. 

  2. The hexagonal shape and constant bees' wings fanning helps evaporate moisture from nectar, creating viscous honey, varying in color and flavor based on the type of nectar.

  3. Humans collect the honeycomb frames in the beehive with surplus honey using smoke and scrape off the protective wax bees use to seal the honey.

  4. The frames are then placed into an extractor, which is a centrifuge that spins, removing the honey from the honeycomb.

  5. The honey is then strained to remove any additional particles before being bottled and labeled for purchasing. Some producers may add additional ingredients to the honey during this time.

Considered to be livestock by the USDA, the honeybees’ role in food production is unparalleled to any other animal, vital to growing over 100 different types of fruits, nuts, vegetables and forage crops. 

The high densities of honeybee colonies causes three major problems:

  • Increased competition between native pollinators, putting huge pressure on many wild species that are already in decline. 

  • Health threats due to climate change and disease from pesticides and parasites can quickly spread among the hive, causing a “colony collapse.” Beekeepers try to counteract this with antibiotics, which only continue to add to the collapse.   

  • Lack of biodiversity for agricultural growth, leading to the decline of wild species and health of honeybees in these colonies.   

Wild bees in Canada are “at-risk”, as many reports find that conventional beekeeping farms disrupt natural ecosystems responsible for normally pollinating the environment. Bumble bees are threatened by the honeybees due to their general foraging nature and flower monopolization, leading to exploitative competition. 

50 billion bees (more than a ⅓ of the U.S.’s bee population) were wiped out during the winter of 2018 due to colony collapses, often attributed to pesticides and disease. More bees die in the U.S. per year than any other animal or fish raised for slaughter combined. Colony collapse happens over and over again almost every year, with the $500 million bee industry spending over $2 billion to replace 10 million hives the past six years. 

Because of this decline in natural pollinators and drastic colony collapse, farmers today often contract beekeepers with honeybees to help ensure their crops are well pollinated, which is actually the largest source of income in the beekeeping industry.

Yet the challenge is, bee rentals can often help accelerate the decline in natural species and damage the health of the honeybees involved, leading to the lack of biodiversity on these farms. A common example of this is with almond farms, where the monoculture is difficult for the bee to remain productive year after year.

These colony collapses also raise pollination fees each time, forcing farmers to pay higher prices for renting bees, up to $200 a hive in 2016. This also applies to the beef and dairy industries, where foraging crops drop in production, raising the cost of feedstock, leading to higher beef and milk prices.

Transporting honey also produces a large carbon footprint. 75% of the honey consumed in the U.S. is exported, with up to 1kg of carbon emitted to provide 1kg of honey for a family.   

Animal Cost

The ethical treatment of honeybees varies drastically from farmer to farmer, with most honey produced in mass-production factory farms

These beekeepers strip bees of their honey for profit and feed the bees low quality syrup instead of the fruits of their labor. They can also trick bees to work even harder by housing them in larger hives than the colony requires, causing bees to work overtime to fill in the extra space with honey. In the winter, farmers often exterminate up to 80,000 bees to avoid supporting them when they cannot generate profit.

As mentioned before, beekeepers rent their bee colonies to large agricultural farms. This often requires long-distance travel cross-country during the hot summer, creating high stress for the bees. The lack of diversity on these farms make the bees susceptible to disease, which often ingest pesticides used on these farms.

These bee farms also prevent queen bees from creating a new colony, as they might do in the wild, by clipping their wings and replacing them in the hive every one to two years, despite their potential lifespan of seven years. This is to prevent dividing the hive and reducing honey production.

At the same time, they artificially inseminate her to create multiple queens and quickly expand the colonies. This can potentially weaken the gene pool, putting bee generations at risk to disease and eliminating the natural survival of the fittest evolution.            

Honey Today

Honey is the third most faked food in the world (the first two being milk and olive oil). 

More than ¾ of the honey in U.S. grocery stores isn't exactly what the bees produce. Tests conducted on brands show that pollen frequently has been filtered out, and without pollen there is no way to determine whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources. 

Why does pollen get removed? It's because companies want to hide where it initially came from and in almost all cases they are from China. 

The biggest incident of food fraud in U.S. history was "Operation Honeygate" where 2 importers, Honey Solutions and Groeb farms, shipped fake or adulterated Chinese honey through other countries in Asia and Europe before sending them to the U.S. This “honey laundering” scheme helped the companies avoid $180M in shipping duties. 

This happened 7 years ago, and unfortunately a lot of honey today remains fake. Manufacturers dilute the honey with syrup from plants or they chemically modify the sugars to make them look like real honey. They can undercut prices, and honey producers bear a lot of burden.

Note that there’s no evidence that fake honey is unsafe.

The Future of Honey 

At the heart of all the innovation, there's a common mission to produce honey more sustainably that is better for the bee and the environment.

A number of companies are offering PaaS, or Pollination as a Service. One group, an Israeli based startup called BeeHero, aims to use IoT to help monitor hives and improve bee management (potentially saving hives from colony collapse and mite infestations). Their goal is to help save time, hassle, and cost for beekeepers. 

Another company, BeeFlow, is tackling how to support the bees themselves, working on bioengineered food for bees. Their hope is to enhance the bees’ immune system and help them survive cold winters, while also working on teaching them how to pollinate specific targeted crops. 

Some groups are working on cutting bees out of the picture altogether! Folks over at MeliBio are extracting honey directly from the plants, biosynthesizing the honey to mimic the process honeybees use to convert nectar into honey. Edete is trying a different approach by providing a software hardware solution that collects flowers and separates the pollen from the anthers and other flower parts.  

Some groups like BlendItUp, TheSkinnyFood and Bee Free Honee are trying to create vegan-friendly sweetner akin to honey. Bees are even being grown to help with LEED certification with a green rooftop in New York City through Brooklyn Grange Farms.

Single Ingredient

We’ll help make it easy to find pure honey from honey wannabees in the store. 

According to the FDA, honey should be a single ingredient product. What might be confusing are the labels on the packaging. Let’s clear them up here.

  • Pure Honey: 100% honey without any other ingredients. This doesn’t tell you how the honey is produced.

  • Raw Honey: 100% honey without any other ingredients that has not been heated to the point of pasteurization, maintaining the naturally-occurring enzymes and vitamins. Beekeepers are often aware of how they care for their bees when producing raw honey.

  • Organic Honey: Produced from the pollen of pesticide-free plants in the entire foraging area (2-mile radius). With how far bees travel it's impossible to prove that bees aren't exposed to pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Much of the honey that is deemed organic is also imported, not necessarily produced raw.

  • Unfiltered Honey: Pollen and other particles are still kept in the honey, and is normally not heated, which is similar to raw.

  • Honey Blend: An indicator that the manufacturer mixed in some other ingredients such as corn syrup or sugar with the honey.

We mentioned that some honey can be fake. A quick way to check for real raw, unfiltered honey is to see if pollen is still kept in the honey. According to tests done by Food Safety News:

  • 76% of honey from grocery stores from TOP Food, Safeway, Giant Eagle, QFC, Kroger, Stop & Shop, King Soopers had all the pollen removed.

  • 100% of honey from Walgreens, Rite-Aid, and CVS pharmacy had no pollen. 

  • 77% of honey sampled from big box stores like Costco, Sam's Club, Walmart, and Target had pollen filtered out. 

  • 100% of honey packaged in small individual portions from Smucker, KFC, McDonald's had pollen removed.

  • All samples from natural stores like PCC and Trader Joe's had the full amount of pollen.

We tried to dig into what specific brands could be imposters, but we couldn't find a list ☹️. But, here's how to test if your honey is pure or adulterated:

  • Look for labels like "raw", "natural", "forest honey", “unfiltered”, or "organic". Unlike processed honey, raw honey comes straight from the source. 

  • The Thumb Test: Place some honey on your thumb. If it is runny and drips away, it is probably impure. 

  • The Water Test: Place a teaspoon of honey in a glass full of water. If it dissolves rather than settles at the bottom, it is likely impure. 

  • The Vinegar Test: Mix a tablespoon of honey, some water, and 2-3 drops of vinegar essence together. If the mixture foams up, there's a high chance that the honey may be adulterated.   

Alternatives to Consider 

The following brands are raw, authentic honey . Straight from the hive, Pooh bear approved. Note we are not sponsored by these brands. Please consider buying local to where you are located.

  • Bee Harmony | ~$3-$12 | Raw, Unfiltered, Berry infused options, Donates some proceeds to pollinator conservation efforts | Buy online or a store near you

  • Glory Bee | ~10 | Raw, Fair Trade, Organic options | Buy online

  • Nature Nate's | ~$10 | Raw, Unfiltered, Organic options | Buy on Amazon or store near you

  • Trader Joes | ~$12 | Raw, Organic, Unfiltered | Buy in store

  • Thrive Market | $12 (membership required) | Organic, Raw, Unstrained Honey, Non GMO | Buy online

What You Can Do

Hive five! Here are some actionable things you can do to purchase honey more consciously:

  • Know where your honey comes from — the country, how it's filtered, if there are any certifications, what flora the bees have foraged on. 

  • Look for True Source Certified honey to verify that a participant's sourcing practices are in compliance with the U.S. and international trade laws.

  • Plant some bee-friendly flowers and herbs!

  • Check out the numerous organizations and initiatives set out to help “Save the Bees.”

  • Petition against bee-killer pesticides that are high risk in agriculture.

  • Consider shopping local and purchasing from brands that treat bees right by checking out your farmers market! This is what Gibson used to do back in college.

  • If you're looking to drop honey altogether, here are some alternatives. You can also try to avoid other products that come from bees like beeswax, royal jelly, etc.

  • Friends don't let friends buy unethical honey — share this article with anyone who'd like this piece 🐝.

Questions or comments on this piece? Suggestions on what we should cover next? Send us a note.