Honey quality is dependent on how and where bees forage for nectar. But first, you have to start with defining what it is. Once you have a definition of what honey is, then you can move on to what makes it quality honey.
Defining What is Honey
“Honey is the natural sweet substance produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants or from the secretion of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in the honeycomb to ripen and mature.”
There are some minor differences between the EU and CA definitions; According to the EU Directive, honey is a product of Apis mellifera (honey bee) while the CA honey is defined as a product of all honey bees. I'll chalk that distinction up to the French getting involved. Nonetheless, I think we're all good with above definition. Except "excretions of plant-sucking insects (honeydew… you don't want to know), everything seems to make sense. An example of this is the USDA’s standards for grades of extracted honey:
Types of Honey
- Liquid honey is free of visible crystals.
- Crystallized honey is honey that is solidly granulated or crystallized.
- Partially crystallized honey is a mixture of liquefied and crystallized honey.
- Filtered honey is honey of any type that has been filtered where all or most of the fine particles, pollen grains, air bubbles, or other materials normally found in suspension, have been removed.
- Strained honey has been strained so that most of the particles, including comb, propolis, or other defects normally found in honey have been removed. Grains of pollen and small air bubbles would not normally be removed.”
That’s simple and understandable. The USDA also defines monofloral vs polyfloral, honey, cut comb, comb, and creamed honey. Bueno. But then things start getting dodgy when it comes to the color of honey and how it is used to grade honey. Using either a color wheel or spectrophotometry, the USDA designates honey into seven color categories from water white to dark amber. The Europeans and the honey industry use the Pfund color grader. Clear or light amber honey has a very mild taste. Darker honey possesses strong flavors. American consumers think that clear, translucent honey is somehow cleaner and healthier than dark or opaque honey. The truth is the exact opposite. The darker honey has more peroxide-fighting antioxidants which means more healing power.
Spring wildflower honey in Appalachia has multiple pollen markers and has a darker color to show for it. Our 2017 wildflower honey tested by Texas A&M had 201 different pollen markers, meaning the girls collected nectar from 201 different flowers and blooms. There is no one dominant floral source, ergo, the polyfloral label. Spring flowers compete for pollinators attention. They want to be visited first and thereafter, often. The best way to do this? Produce the sweetest and most mineral rich nectar to entice the honeybee back.
The Quality of Honey
The difference between the USDA and the EU Directive is that the EU tests and enforces regulations when it comes to toxins in honey. When I say toxins, I mean everything from pesticides like neonicotinoids which are banned in the EU, to heavy metals, illegal antibiotics or off-label use of legal antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. The list goes on. But fear not, our erstwhile USDA recently published: “Proper Labeling of Honey and Honey Products: Guidance for Industry.” Let me spare you the time of clicking on the link by directing your attention to the operative word in the title, “Guidance.” In other words, there is no certification by any U. S. government entity. This means no enforcement of codes (what codes?) and thus, no consequences for illegal and purposefully mislabeled, or adulterated honey. Marketing labels such as U.S. Grade A Pure, 100% Pure, U.S. Grade 1, America's Best Honey, U.S. Choice, or Natural and Pure are mostly hype. The USDA takes no role in the grading of honey. It’s left entirely up to the industry. When Sue Bee Honey puts “Organic” or “Natural and Pure” on their labels, who’s to say it isn’t? Yet when several consumer groups sued Sue Bee Honey for misleading and false labeling regarding high levels of glyphosate in their honey, the case was quickly stayed pending the FDA’s decision regarding the proper use of the word “natural.” The USDA has said you can certify any product as organic as long as you comply with existing regulation, but there are no American regulations, just “guidance” for honey. It means the USDA organic sticker on honey is meaningless.
It must be nice having friends in government agencies.
Bees are wild creatures. it is difficult and almost impossible, to assure that honey bees have not come in contact with agriculture. Essentially, pollinating bees are flying dust mops. As they pollinate farmers produce, they are loading themselves with any environmental contaminant previously applied to the crop. If the honey producing hive is anywhere within a five-mile radius of any agriculture, guaranteed it is bringing back corrupted nectar.
Where to Find Real, Non-Toxic Honey
How does the consumer know which honey to buy? Shop local and check the source of your honey. If the label says, “packed in….” it’s not produced in America. More likely it is from China or India and put through an ultra-filtration process that is meant to remove contaminants. This involves heating the honey to 150° for approximately thirty minutes, then heavily diluted with water, then repeatedly boiled and filtered until it returns to a natural consistency. Color is added prior to shipping. The consumer is left with a low-quality, sweet syrup that is lacking in any nutritional value.
Killer Bees Honey takes a tremendous amount of pride in producing the purest honey in North Carolina. We do not heat, infuse or adulterate any of our products. Our honey is strained using cheesecloth to simply remove bits of plants or the occasional bee wing. We do not filter or heat our honey above the temperature of the hive - 92°. Lastly, all our honey is tested for its true nectar value and purity of content by labs located in the United States and Germany. Every step in our harvesting of honey is transparent. We publish all test results and welcome the public to inspect our hives (we actually outfit you in bee suits) and harvesting equipment during tours.
Pure. Raw. Uncensored. That is our lady aviators’ mission to our customers.
(The featured photo was recently taken at a local diner in NC. The main ingredient of this honey “Blend” is corn syrup).