On May 20 we celebrate World Bee Day. Bees, like other pollinators, play a key role in making life possible on our planet.
Without pollination there is no life
It is known that 75 percent of the world’s crops depend on pollinators; without them, most of the fruits, flowers, and seeds that we know would not exist. Without pollinators, we would not witness the diversity we still enjoy today, despite the great damage that humans have caused to landscapes and ecosystems. The ecosystem service provided by bee pollination and other pollinators is crucial and immeasurable.
There are approximately 20,000 species of pollinating wild bees distributed throughout the world —except for Antarctica—and approximately 1,800 of these species live in Mexico, the second country with the largest diversity of bees in the world after the United States 1.
Beekeeping practices with “domesticated” bees are very diverse and vary from region to region: from stingless bees in Mexico and Guatemala to the practices of the Gurung, collectors of hallucinogenic honey from the Himalayas.
Pollinators’ life under threat
Pollinators in general, and Apis mellifera in particular, which is the best known bee species for giving us honey, pollen, propolis and other by-products, are under threat.
The deterioration of bee colonies is directly related to degenerative agricultural practices.
Industrial agriculture leads to loss of habitat due to deforestation, monocultures that threaten biodiversity, and the use of pesticides. On top of this, stressors caused by the climate crisis are also greatly affecting bee colonies’ survival. A phenomenon that is becoming more and more common is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Although we usually hear about the effect of CCD on domestic honey bees, CCD is also devastating wild bee populations.
For beekeepers, the evidence of collapse is easily visible when they open the beehive box: hives have less and less population or are even uninhabited, as if bees had fled. It is also possible to see worker bees return to the entrance of the hive lost and disoriented, walking in circles, in some cases not even recognizing their own hive.
More and more traces of pesticides are found in pollen and in the hives themselves, in particular neonicotinoids, which affect the central nervous system of the insects and cause disorientation.
Bees are directly poisoned by these pesticides and their immune systems weaken, making them more susceptible to pathogens such as mites, bacteria, fungi and viruses which, even though they have always existed, are now growing in alarming numbers.
Real or adulterated honey?
Along with coffee and olive oil, honey is one of the most adulterated food products in the world. Beekeepers in Mexico who practice natural and regenerative beekeeping, respecting the cycles of the hive organism and its vital stages, are affected by a drastic drop in honey prices as a result of the commercialization of adulterated honeys. This causes unfair competition and a collapse in the price of honey both in the domestic and export markets, and it particularly affects those who practice agroecological and regenerative beekeeping. Adulterated honey is made from corn and cane syrups.
This “honey” (we use quotation marks because it is far from being honey) lacks the nutrients and properties of real honey, which is high in minerals, vitamins and trace elements, and has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and soothing properties.
China is directly involved in adulteration of honey in Mexico and around the world. According to FAO, in the last fifteen years, China has increased honey production by 88% due to an increase in external demand. However, the number of hives in China for the same period only increased by 21%. The large increase in honey production and the comparably much more modest increase in the number of hives is striking.
Honey labelling is often not very transparent. Unless its ingredients include glucose or high fructose syrup, additives used to increase its volume, prevent it from solidifying and increase production, it is difficult to recognize the adulteration process with the naked eye and without performing a quality test.
Another way to adulterate the honey and confuse the consumer is to mix different types of honey (different in their origin, not in their flowering) and not specify its source, or directly lie about the real origin.
There are, however, some home tests that can help:
- If you put the honey on a spoon or on your finger and it runs off, then it is definitely adulterated.
- If you put the honey in a glass of water and it dilutes, it is most likely adulterated. Real honey would go to the bottom of the glass.
- With the passage of time, real honey will crystallize and will not remain liquid. This is a key indicator of whether or not it has been adulterated.
The solution: awareness and acting consciously
First of all, you have to understand that real honey is expensive. The high price tag reflects the effort and dedication that the beekeeper has to put in to produce honey in an honest and regenerative way, but in fact, it should be even more expensive if we consider all the effort the bee puts into producing honey.
On average, to produce a kilo of honey requires the work of about 2,500 bees. Each bee will have to fly up to 60 kilometers a day to find suitable flowers and will do so for around twenty-one days, sucking nectar from six hundred flowers.
When you understand all that goes into honey production, it becomes clear that buying a kilo of honey for a dollar is nonsense. The price of honey in Mexico and in other parts of the world has decreased due to the proliferation of adulterated honeys, as we mentioned before. It is crucial to buy honey directly from local producers and beekeepers, or buy certified honeys, understanding that the price you pay is directly proportional to its nutritional value and that it supports the beekeeper who practices fair and regenerative beekeeping.
Stricter regulations should also be promoted not only in terms of labelling, but also quality control and traceability of honey through its pollen.
It is also essential to be aware of the impact that the use of pesticides has on bees and to support campaigns to ban them, facilitating the conservation and restoration of ecosystems for bees and other pollinators.
We invite you to continue exploring this topic. You can find more concrete actions on the Save the Bees Campaign, an initiative of the Organic Consumers Association.
Ercilia Sahores is the Latin America Director of RI. To sign up for RI’s email newsletter, click here.