The importance of honey throughout history cannot be understated. Honey has been highly prized and much sought-after for millennia. Egyptian writings dating back to 5500BC refer to honey. Of course, there is the Land of Milk and Honey referenced in the Bible. Used as a currency in trade, a sacred ingredient in religious rites, depicted in cave paintings from the Neolithic period, and recognized as a powerful medicine, honey plays an important role throughout human history. Honey was a superfood loooong before superfoods were a thing.
Bees are Important
The importance of honey also represents the importance of bees. You don’t have to look far to see bees in the news these days and for unfortunate reasons. Stories of extinction, colony collapse, pesticide decimation, and the results of too few pollinators make the headlines regularly. While honey is amazing, bees are most important for their role as pollinators. Most, if not all, of our plant-based foods require pollinators at some point along the way, either for reproduction or fruit production. But we aren’t the only ones who count on bees to help ensure there’s food. Many insects and animals also count on the product of pollination for their survival.
Preliminary research also indicates that bees can be trained. They can be trained to sniff out explosives and landmines, which has the potential to save lives. In Africa, they are using bees to reduce elephant-human conflict. Elephants are losing habitat to increased population. To add to the issue, elephants like to raid crops and farmland for the easy access to food provided there. By using bee fences, communities can protect their crops and livelihoods with much less risk to both human and elephant life.
Native Bees vs Honey Bees
Most of bad news on bees is almost exclusively to do with honeybees, which are native to Africa and Asia, not North America, South America, or Europe. Honeybees are distinguished for making and storing honey and building perennial hives. The perennial hive-building makes honeybees ideal for agricultural use, plus they produce larger amounts of the sought-after honey. Honeybees are not particularly picky about what flowers they frequent. They are only interested in the nectar and pollination is a secondary function. Most research done on bees has been done on honeybees because that is where the money is.
With over 20,000 species of native bees, they are just as important as honeybees but get little credit. There is very little research on native bees. The importance of honey is what makes research into honeybees a priority. Native bees do not produce honey in the quantity that honeybees do. Many native bees are solitary, meaning they don’t live in hives, and they can be hard to find as a result.
How to Help the Native Bees
Native bees are specialists in pollination. They are after the pollen, not the nectar, and are selective about what flowers best suit their needs. Native bees also don’t travel far and have a much more limited area to find food as a result. As an added bonus, most native bees are stingless. What few studies there are that have been conducted on native bee species found that they will often react very differently to certain threats (namely, pesticides) than honeybees. This makes extrapolating honeybee data and applying it to native bees potentially dangerous to native bees.
Most lists of “bee-friendly” flowers are referring to honeybees, not native bees. Intentionally attracting honeybees can be detrimental to our native bee populations. Often flowers that are high in nectar (so attractive to honeybees) are lower in pollen, which can make food scarce for native bees. Honeybees can also be aggressive towards native bees. Next time you want to attract some bees because you’re concerned about pollinators, investigate what species are native to your area and plant their favourite foods instead. (1, 2)
What Makes Honey so Amazing?
Honey has been prized as a food and a medicine since ancient times. What traditional cultures inherently knew, science is now catching up with. While high in a variety of sugars, honey doesn’t offer much else in the way of nutritional value. Where it shines is in the bioavailable plant compounds and antioxidants it provides. And the darker the honey the better in that respect. (3, 4)
High in Antioxidants
Antioxidants bring a host of health benefits with more discovered every day, it seems. Researchers believe honey’s unique combination of organic acids and phenolic compounds are what make honey such powerhouse. (5) Buckwheat honey in particular has been found to raise the antioxidant levels in the blood and is especially helpful for promoting health. (6, 7) These same antioxidants reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, and reduce other risks of cardiovascular disease. (8, 9, 10)
Helpful for Diabetics and Heart Disease
Honey has shown to be not just tolerable but beneficial for those dealing with type 1 diabetes. (11). For those dealing with type 2 diabetes, results are more mixed. Consumption of honey in T2D has been found to improve blood lipid profiles, but it did cause increase in A(1c). (12) But for everyone, honey has been found to reduce systemic inflammation, blood glucose levels, and improve serum lipid profiles. It has also been found to reduce homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is the by-product of the body metabolizing protein and high levels have been associated with increased risk of heart disease. There are a variety of reasons one may experience elevated homocysteine, but impaired methylation (usually via MTHFR mutation) and vitamin B12 and/or choline deficiency are the most common causes. Honey in the diet could help those with MTHFR better control their homocysteine levels. (13)
Topically, honey has been used to dress wounds and burns since ancient times. Research has found honey effective at speeding healing and reducing infection of burns, post-operative wounds, diabetic foot ulcers, psoriasis, and herpes ulcers (cold sores). Authorities believe the benefits come from honey’s antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties as well as it’s unique ability to nourish surrounding tissues, due in part to its excellent antioxidant profile, with the effectiveness and importance of manuka honey being of particular note in this capacity. (14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20)
In addition to topical wound healing, honey has proven effective as a cough remedy. While conventional cough medicines carry risks of adverse reactions, honey is safe and effective. In fact, honey has shown to be more effective than some common conventional cough medicines at both reducing cough symptoms and improving sleep quality. (21, 22, 23)
Considerations When Sourcing Honey
Honey adulteration has been a growing problem. The increased demand for honey world-wide has made it more difficult to keep up with demand. Despite honey adulteration being illegal in most countries, this continues to be a widespread problem. Honey laundering has been going on for over two decades now.
Much of the imported commercial honey originates in China, but Chinese honey has usually been contaminated with antibiotics used to keep bees “healthy” that are banned in most other countries. Both the United States and Canada have imposed high tariffs on Chinese honey to staunch its flow into these countries. The European Union has banned Chinese honey entirely. As a result, China launders their honey through other countries who re-label it, falsify documentation, and sell it in North America and Europe. Large food processing corporations are the usual market for this contraband honey. They buy it cheap and then use sugar or high fructose corn syrup to improve the taste, smell, and appearance of this contaminated honey. (24, 25)
Domestically, the ethics and importance of honey is also a topic of discussion. Our honey producers certainly hold to higher standards than those in Asia, but that doesn’t necessarily make them as clean of a product as one would like to think. Many honey producers own millions of hives. They sell or lease these hives out to orchards, greenhouses, and other producers to pollinate their crops. Hives can be transported to several areas over the course of a season as different crops require pollination. The transportation process can be very stressful for the bees and many die as a result. Greenhouses using bees to pollinate their crops will often destroy their hives at the end of the season to save on costs and labour of keeping the hives until the next season.
Know Where Your Food Comes From
As with so many other things in our food system, knowing where your food comes from is so, so important. Local honey is a huge step in the right direction. The bees are generally better cared for and don’t face the stress and danger of transcontinental travel. It also helps the local economy by supporting producers in your community. That being said, the bees’ exposure to GMO crops is a concern in many parts of the country. Around here, 99% of the local honey is canola honey. The bees may eat other things, too, but the majority of their diet comes from canola blooms, which come from GMO canola varieties exposed to increased pesticide usage.
Organic honey is becoming more readily available, but this has its issues, too. Certification is expensive and is usually out of financial reach of small producers. The certification is only as good as the monitoring/governing body it is certified through, and some are better and more rigorous than others. It also poses a logistical nightmare. Honey producers must prove that their bees do not contact pesticides anywhere in their foraging area if they wish to become certified. A hive’s foraging area is massive! If it is not in a remote location, producers must obtain sworn statements from every resident and landowner in a hive’s foraging area that they do not use any pesticides. A nearly impossible feat.
Because certified organic honey is out of reach of most North American producers, it falls to producers in developing countries to fill the gap. This creates a much larger carbon footprint for the honey and drastically increases food miles. The importance of honey cannot supersede sustainability considerations. Countries that are more sparsely populated have a much better chance of placing hives in uncontaminated locations, but the greater likelihood is that “certified” organic honey coming from other countries is not as organic as we would like to believe it is. Stories of bribes for inspectors to look the other way at less-than-organic practices is far from uncommon.
Connect with Producers Who Share Your Values
For these reasons, I do not usually bother with organic honey and avoid local honey. Instead, I connect with producers as local to me as possible who place their hives in areas less likely to be contaminated by conventional crop agriculture. I look for producers who place their hives in areas that are predominantly grazing land, crown land, or provincial or national parks, which makes for better honey and healthier bees. There are currently two places that I will buy honey. One is from northern Alberta and they have their hives in the grazing foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and the other is a small producer in the Okanagan of British Columbia. Since this honey is quite dear, we treat it like the treat it is and use thankfully and sparingly.
It took some work for us to find producers we could get behind, but knowing the importance of honey and that we are supporting local producers doing things the right way for both the bees and the environment is extremely important to us. If you are looking for a quality producer in your area, I would recommend getting in touch with your local Weston A. Price Foundation chapter for suggestions. Members of the Foundation know the importance of honey, and every chapter keeps a list of local producers committed to animal welfare and sustainability. When you do connect with producers, don’t be afraid to ask them questions about what is important to you. The more demand there is for quality, sustainable honey, the more producers will move in that direction.
If you are looking for some new and interesting ways to use honey in food, beverages, personal care products, and as medicine, check out my Great Honey Round-up!