Organic Honey?

As there seems to be a good deal of interest in the topic of honeybees, and I’m a beekeeper, albeit relatively novice, I thought I might continue a bit of discussion.

I’ve been beekeeping for three years, and I sold my first honey harvest this fall.  Six gallons, divided into pint and half pint-sized jars.  As a newbie, extracting the honey from the frames and getting it into the jars was, by far, the messiest thing I’ve ever done.  It’s like wrestling with a living thing…the garage and kitchen still have sticky spots.  It also took forever – honey moves through a three- pail, three-filter system (eventually removing particles down to 200 microns) like…cold molasses.  Once it was properly subdued and contained, I looked into what was required for labeling.  Very interesting. And very, very, vague.

Honeybees have been described as “flying dust mops” – there is no way, unless the beekeeper owns all the land in a several-mile radius, that one knows what they’re getting into.   Our girls’ primary duty is pollination of our four+ acres of blueberries, so their primary pollen and nectar source in late spring is our four acres of blueberries. After that, they hit the sourwood, wingstem, mountain mint, and the smorgasbord of of perennials and annuals in the garden borders. We don’t use any pesticides on our farm (the cabbage looper and stink bug invasion this year is really testing me on that one). But that doesn’t mean the gentleman next door isn’t using Sevin on his squash or pyrethrins on his potatoes. And our bees are just as likely to be over at his house as ours (despite my stern lecture to them).

Noticing the honey labeled “USDA Certified Organic” sold for a premium at both my local grocer and favorite “natural foods” store, I spent some time digging as to certification standards, and whether it would be worth it to get certified. 

I came up fairly empty-handed.  There does not seem to be any USDA National Organic Program certification standards for honey.  Apparently there are some trade-law guidelines that allow honey to be imported from Canada and Central/South America labeled as USDA organic.  Very confusing, and very weird.  But apparently some U.S. honey producers, both large and small, have gone ahead and slapped USDA Organic labels on anyway.  Along with other meaningless statements like “Superior grade” or “All natural”.  Some states such as Pennsylvania are pushing for NOP standards, noting their beekeepers are at a disadvantage, marketing-wise, if they cannot certify their honey but Canadian or Argentine producers can.  On another front, beeswax, especially older wax in frames that are in brood hives for several years, can accumulate pesticides brought in from foraging bees like nobody’s business. So I’d also look askance at claims of products containing “organic beeswax.”

5 thoughts on “Organic Honey?”

  1. Thanks for sharing. I started working with corky luster of Ballard bee company this year, hosting hives in my urban garden. It’s amazing how much goes into keeping a hive healthy. He had told me about how unlikely it is to find a honey that really has come from 100% organic garden sou
    rces. Once I saw them in action, flying far and wide, i realized a local label on honey might mean a lot more than an organic one.

  2. This story came up on my Facebook page and this is the answer I got from a member of the Chicago Honey Co-op.
    “Organic certification is only allowed when the land within a (i think) 5 or6 mile radius is certified organic. Bees rarely go over 3 or 4 miles and then only when nearer nectar sources are exausted.”
    I’ve shortened the URL to the comment in case you’d like to follow-up.

  3. Mr. B. Thumb, there are no national certification standards for honey. Thus, it cannot be certified or labeled USDA Organic. Even among beekeepers (and even within my local club) there is a lot of confusion. You can produce “organic honey” you just can’t put the USDA label on it.

  4. Another question for the alleged “organic” beekeepers is if they use chemicals to treat their bees.

    As for wax contamination, this is why I don’t use foundation. When it comes time to harvest the honey I use a crush and stain method. The bees then have to build new comb. This helps lower, I believe, the amount of pesticides building up in the hive over time. And, as a plus, you don’t need an expensive extractor.

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