Can honey be vegan? How do bees make honey? Is it good for us? Join Abi Aspen Glencross to get to the bottom of some of the questions surrounding our favourite sweet treat.
1. What actually is honey?
Honey is a by-product of flower nectar (the sugar-rich liquid produced by flower nectary glands), plant secretions or plant suckling insects and the digestive tract of a bee. ‘Forager’ bees collect nectar from numerous plants by drinking it. As they feed they collect pollen (which the male part of the plant produces) on their tiny bodies. They then transfer the pollen to the next plant they gorge on transferring it to the stigma (the female plant part) in the process known as pollination. It is estimated bees pollinate about 1/6 of flowering plant species and around 400 different types of agricultural crops.1
The bee then brings its nectar prize back to the hive and passes it via their mouth to an indoor bee. These indoor bees pass from mouth to mouth until the water content of the nectar reduces from 70% to about 20% when it is deposited in honeycomb. It is capped with beeswax ready to feed newborn bees; the true purpose of honey.2
2. How is honey harvested?
Beekeepers must understand how much honey to remove from the hive while still leaving enough to sustain the bee population, and minimise disruption. It takes a lot of energy for bees to make honey and it’s estimated that to produce a standard jar of honey, a bee must make over a million flower visits.3
The conventional way to extract honey is to ‘smoke’ the bees, distracting them (as when exposed to smoke they begin to eat honey) from the intruder. The combs can then be removed and the bees blown or brushed off. Smaller scale honey producers use a knife to uncap the honey, larger scale use a machine. Honey is generally filtered, heated and strained. However, raw honey is left unfiltered and unpasteurised (temp below 35ºC). The honey is then packaged ready to sell.
There is a new ‘flow’ hive technology which has been developed to be less intrusive to the bees. Here, instead of scraping the honeycomb, a tap is turned and the honeycomb splits allowing the honey to flow out of the honeycomb.4
3. What is honey made of?
Honey is around 80% carbohydrates in the form of fructose and glucose. However it’s also has a good portion of water (18%) and proteins (with 18 amino acids), vitamins (e.g. B vitamins), minerals (e.g. calcium) and pollen (2%).5 The proportions of these compounds change with the type of honey. For example, certain bioactive (has a biological effect) compounds in Manuka honey have been linked positively to nutritional and wound healing effects.
4. So is honey good for me?
Honey has been used throughout the ages for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties due to it range of compounds such as vitamins and minerals that assist in healing processes, and bacteria combating characteristics such as high acidity and sugar concentration.6
When you compare that to say, refined white sugar, which only consists of… you guessed it, sugar, honey exhibits a number of beneficial properties. However it is also a very high percentage of simple sugars, therefore it’s recommended to be eaten in moderation.
5. Is all honey the same?
There are about 320 different varieties with flavour, colour and smell, depending on the sources of plants visited by the honey bee.7
There are four main classifications though. 1. Blossom Honey. Obtained mainly from the nectar of flowers. 2. Honeydew Honey. Collection of secretions from Rhynchota insect which collect plant nectar. 3. Monofloral honey. Where bees forage predominantly from one type of plant. 4. Multifloral/Polyfloral/Meadow Blossom/Forest Honey. Where bees forage from many types of plant.
6. Is a ‘honey blend’ a mix of these?
Actually no. A honey blend can be two things. It can be when honey is cut with sugar or corn syrup which, unsurprisingly are cheaper sugar alternatives. This often explains inexpensive ‘honey blends’ sold in other countries.8
Alternatively, ‘blend’ can mean the honey is from mixed geographical origin, and the label must always state either: Blend of EU honeys; non-EU honeys; or EU and non-EU honeys.
7. How do I tell if I’m buying a sugar-cut honey blend?
In the UK, the only ingredient in your honey should be honey. Law states that to be labelled “honey” on the pot…it must be honey in the pot! This however doesn’t tell you how it was extracted, how it’s been purified, if it is pasteurised and so on.9
8. Is it better to buy British honey?
Buying local UK honey reduces the impact of shipping and freighting and supports UK bee keepers. It is often hard for the small artisan honey producers to compete with the low prices of large scale imported goods so sourcing locally can help. Be careful of labels ‘packed in the UK’ which means the honey can still be sourced from abroad.
Still, as discussed above, there can be both positive ecosystem management when it comes to honey production and also destructive and intrusive management, regardless of geographical location. Your best bet is to buy honey from a trusted source, and research its origin and production with the retailer or producer.
9. What is organic honey?
Organic honey is made when the bees feast on plants that have not been applied with synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. This is a tricky thing to quantify as it has been estimated that the European bee foraging distance is up to 12km.10 With the UK being a small land area with organic and non-organic farming, certification is proving difficult.
This is a poignant topic as a 2017 study showed pesticides show up in 57% to 86% of worldwide honey samples, with one-third of all samples containing levels that are shown to adversely affect bees.11 So it is an important consideration when choosing your honey.
10. Can honey ever be vegan?
This is a tricky one as it depends very much on why people are vegan. If they disagree with using any animals in food production then no, bees are still used to make honey. If it’s a worry about killing insects then it depends, as honey is a by-product of a bee. Certainly we are cultivating and intruding on their natural life-cycle and some bees may get harmed in the process of honey-making. If it’s for environmental reasons, bee cultivation when farmed properly can aid in biodiversity and pollination of important edible and non-edible plants. Of the risks, a beekeeper can extract pollen and nectar from the environment removing wild bees’ food. Beekeeping can also spread disease and create competition if not properly managed.12
And don’t forget to check out the amazing UK honey suppliers that Farmdrop work with here.