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Why Ethical Honey Brands Need to Start Making Noise

In an ideal world, mass honey producers would care more about preserving the environment than profits. We need to arm consumers with the right information so they can make the ethical choice.

Honey is up for debate like never before. And we can see why. Big money, corrupt practises and mass production have tarnished the industry. That’s why it’s a good time for ethical brands to shout about their credentials, because consumers are ready to listen.

For some, honey will always be a cruel exploitation of bees. We don’t subscribe to that, but then we do (full disclosure) work with honey brands. Done right, we think beekeeping is good for the environment and us — bees pollinate flowers, vegetables and fruit. And the honey they produce is rich in antioxidants, heals wounds and prevents infections.

But it’s not always done right. Large, commercial honey suppliers have become greedy — there’s big money in trading the sweet stuff in bulk. That’s led to ‘honey laundering’ scandals which involve companies adulterating honey with sugar syrups and mislabelling content and origins (watch “Lawyers, Guns and Honey” — part of Netflix’s series, “Rotten” — for insight into honey’s shady side). Other unnatural processes involved in mass production include feeding bees sugar substitutes to boost production and intensive use of antibiotics to prevent disease in the hive.

Many of the cheaper honey brands you see in the supermarket are labelled as ‘a blend of EU and non-EU honeys,’ often with no reference to what plants the bees have foraged or how the honey has been processed. In fact, these are usually a blend of mass-produced honey, often from China; mixed with smaller quantities of stronger honeys for a consistent ‘sweet’ taste, uniform colour and low price. Even premium mono-floral honeys (made from the nectar of one plant species) are often a product of multiple origins and quality.

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In an ideal world, mass honey producers would care more about preserving the environment than profits. That means avoiding crop monocultures, which damage biodiversity, as well as fertilisers and pesticides. Sustainable beekeeping practises ensure sufficient food and resources are available for the wider bee and insect populations. For more on this, take a look at Bees For Development’s practical steps for basic and natural beekeeping that supports bees through the seasons.

At Windward, we’ve worked closely with smallholder farmers producing honey sustainably in places including Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Zambia and Tanzania. We’ve seen how the income it generates is a powerful motivator when it comes to protecting bees and their environment. Indonesian forest honey generates an income that means local communities are standing up to illegal logging and fighting against the encroachment of palm oil plantations. In Zambia, Ethiopia and Tanzania, among others, decades of support given by local agri-businesses to smallholder beekeepers has changed the economics and preserved the landscapes of remote forest areas.

We need to arm consumers with the right information so they can make the ethical choice. That’s means telling them:

  • what country the honey is from

  • what flora the bees producing it have foraged on

  • how it’s heated — gentle heating, no higher than hive temperature, preserves the honey’s natural enzymes and antioxidant properties.

  • how it’s filtered — light filtering preserves pollen and propolis content (while removing bits of wax or larger pieces of honeycomb)

  • crystallised honey isn’t bad — it’s a natural process, resting the jar in warm water will turn it back to liquid

  • to look for genuine organic certifications, such as from the Soil Association

Most importantly — single-origin, naturally processed honeys taste better. They’re richer, more interesting and change in colour and texture depending on the season. Each jar is an adventure to the place it came from. Rich, dark, organic Tanzanian forest honey (with a hint of currants); light, floral, Bulgarian lavender honey; or amazing multi-floral honey from Solsbury Hill, down the road from us in Bath.

The future for honey is bright — but only if we help consumers shape it by buying products that are good for the environment and good for bees.