Buying organic food can be confusing and for those who want to buy honey it’s possibly more confusing than buying organic vegetables.
Finding local organic honey in the UK can be difficult. Most people don’t have organic honey farms near them. Organic honey farming requires the surrounding land to be free from normal farming methods and other sources, herbicides and pesticides. Planning and placing of bee hives becomes a complex process. Around 64% of the United Kingdom is farmland and only around 3% is farmed organically making finding suitable land for organic honey farming difficult.
What does it all mean?
Beekeepers can’t talk to their bees and tell them where to get the ingredients for honey. So it is not as straight forward as buying an buying an organic carrot, but….
not so complicated when explained. In the United Kingdom its the soil association who gives guidance to organic farms and provides certification for produce.
This page will explain
- What organic honey actually is?
- Who sets the rules and ensures compliance with organic honey farming rules?
Before we briefly dig in to what the Soil Association have to say about organic honey let’s check out the organic honey circle. Look right..
The Soil Association (UKs largest organic certification body) Standard for organic farming and growing, updated April 2020, gives the following (in the authors own words).
Nectar and pollen sources within 3 km of the bee hive must be from organic crops and areas of natural vegetation that have not been farmed.
An organic bee hive can be located where the surrounding land is subject to low environmental impact methods that don’t contravene the organic bee farming standards (that are part of recognised schemes).
Land surround organic bee farms would have low or no pesticide use; farmers may plant different types of crops rather than just growing one variety on mass scale; crop rotation methods may be used as standard.
Some of the regulations get a bit complex; bees should be “kept far enough from sources that may lead to the contamination of beekeeping products or to the poor health of bees”. What does this mean and what level of contamination is acceptable? Organic bee farms and expected to take reasonable steps to ensure contamination that could be harmful to consumers is avoided.
Studies show bees prefer to travel up to 1.4 km from the bee hive esspecially if they have all the ingredients required for making honey close by. Bees can travel up 7 or 8 km from the hive if required. A number of factors affect how far bees go to make honey. Readers make want to check the ScrummyHoney guide (link required) for more information.
Organic bee farmers must research what’s happening on the land around their bee hives and show that that there are no sources of contaminants. Consumers can do some common sense checks at their convenience. To help, potential sources of contamination and poor health include urban centres, motorways, industrial areas, waste dumps, waste incinerators and areas of cropping where pesticides are used. For example, insecticides such as neonicotinoids can be a source of contamination and can also affect bee health.
The complicated part comes from deciding if a hive is far enough from sources that may lead to contamination. A wide variety of factors undoubtedly go into this decision making process. How do bee farmers know what the land surrounding their hives will be used for in the future, or, how changes in weather may change the situation.
Annual inspections are carried out to ensure organic standards are being maintained and no doubt the soil association has detailed maps of land usage across the United Kingdom and could identify potential sources of contamination.
Cleaning hives and hive material must also adhere to strict organic standards.
In the UK the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is the government department responsible for shaping and directing the process for creating legislation about organic farming. The UK Soil Association is who certifies organic farming and lobbies government to make changes to harmful policies. Set up as a not for profit and a charity the Soil Association is the only UK Charity set up to work across a spectrum of human health, the environment and animal welfare. Organic honey farms have to pay a fee each year to maintain organic certification. By buying organic honey consumers are indirectly helping to support the Soil Association and the work they do.
- it supports local communities and farming
- indirectly supports the Soil Association and the work they do
- provides impetus for other farms to get organic certification
- increases biodiversity which is important for maintaining balance food chains
- reduces the use of pesticides and herbicides, some of which are known to be detrimental to bees and insects in general. Generally decreases the amount of chemicals in the food chain.
- help bird populations by increasing biodiversity and insect populations.
How to tell if honey is organic?
Just look for the Soil Association logo on labelling or one the producer’s website. The Soil Association regulate how the word ‘organic’ can be used.
Organic honey not sold in the United Kingdom may be watched by an accredited organic certification body like the Soil Association and regulated by the relevant government departments or agency.