Written by Ricky Zhu
An incessant fascination with honeybees and honey is deeply rooted in our collective consciousness, culture, and history. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors developed a sweet tooth for honey, as demonstrated by cave paintings throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. They embarked on dangerous honey hunts, arming themselves with tools to safely break into bee nests and swiftly collect honey from them without getting stung.1 For centuries, honeybees have remained at peace with its natural environment, until now.
Beekeepers today have disturbed the harmony of bees and nature by capitalizing the massive profits made from pollination services and honeybee products. While this disturbance is inevitable, I am not opposing the movement of honey from hive to home. Rather, I write to address the misunderstanding that beekeepers possess about honey nutrition in order to develop them into informed citizens of America and citizens of nature. As a beekeeper and researcher at the George Washington University Bee Laboratory (GWUBL), I want to share firsthand knowledge of the true identity of modern honey. Before I remind beekeepers—and by extension, their processors, distributors, and marketers—of the wonderful nutritional benefits and risks of honey, I want to introduce how modern agriculture has shaped the way honey is produced today.
Since its emergence in 2006, the significant losses of colonies of honeybees (Apis mellifera) encountered by beekeepers around the world shook the $190-billion apiculture industry.2 Beekeepers and researchers coined the term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a chilling phenomenon attributed to the mysterious disappearance of honeybees from their hives. Over the years, further scientific evidence has supported the belief that CCD is the synergistic culmination of multiple factors, including poor nutritional diet, pathogenic spores like Nosema ceranae, viral transmission by parasitic varroa mites, and especially pesticides.
Pesticides are neurotoxic substances that interrupt transmission of signals in the nervous system of honeybees. In the United States, farmers take extensive measures to spray pesticides on their crops in order to prevent loss in crop yield due to pests. But when farmers employ large-scale beekeepers for pollination services, those beekeepers fail to realize that they are doing more harm than good. Travelling across the country and unloaded from hundreds of boxes of bees onto the farmland, honeybees travel to available plants within a 5-km radius from their hive. But if honeybees forage nectar from pesticide-sprayed flowering plants and store that nectar in a honey-storage organ called the crop, the nectar that is brought back to the hive is contaminated. That’s because pesticides are systemic, meaning that once they are sprayed on plants, they enter through the roots to various tissues during plant development. While scientific evidence has not yet shown that pesticide is the major contributor to CCD, honeybee research overwhelmingly supports the notion that pesticide induces changes in normal honeybee behavior.3 So why isn’t the purchase of honey prohibited? Surely, it’s regulated for large-scale U.S.-certified beekeepers. But what about small-scale local beekeepers? According to Professor Hartmut Doebel, principal investigator of GWUBL, both local small-scale beekeepers in the U.S. and large-scale beekeepers that he observed in Nepal do not follow enforced regulations. The beekeepers in Nepal do not export honey to the European Union because their honey contains excessive pesticides. This was proved after subsequent experimental testing of the honey. Moreover, without strict experimental testing, container labeling, and regulation, I strongly believe that honey bought at a local grocery store or the farmer’s market is likely contaminated with trace levels of pesticide. This may impact one’s nutritional health and wellness despite the numerous benefits honey offers.
-In recent years, honey has been shown to have therapeutic properties and apitherapy medical centers (i.e. Georgetown University) treat various conditions using bee products.
-Honey has numerous antibacterial and anti-angiogenic properties because honeybees add an enzyme to honey that makes hydrogen peroxide. Honey has been shown to possess antimicrobial, antiviral, antiparasitory, anti- inflammatory, antioxidant, antimutagenic and antitumor effects.4
-Honey contains flavanoids and antioxidants that reduce free radical formation and help reduce the risk of certain types of cancer and heart diseases.
-Raw honey is also used as a dressing for wounds, burns and ulcers. We put it on our bee stings after being stung. It is a natural antiseptic.
-Honey is also used in many household remedies. For example – to cure a sore throat or nocturnal cough honey is mixed with ginger juice and consumed. The only exception is not to feed infants honey due to the risk of a paralytic disorder known as botulism. The spores of the botulism bacteria can mix into honey and infants do not have a strong immune system like adults to rid their body of any infections or developing infections.
–Honey contains small amounts of proteins, enzymes, amino acids, phytonutrients, trace elements, aroma compounds, polyphenols, and minerals and vitamins like niacin, riboflavin, calcium, copper, potassium, iron, magnesium and zinc.5
–Honey has been found to contain significant antioxidant activity including glucose oxidase, catalase, ascorbic acid, flavonoids, phenolic acids, carotenoid derivatives, organic acids, Maillard reaction products, amino acids and proteins.6,7
-Due to its high carbohydrate content and functional properties honey is an excellent source of energy for athletes/beekeepers/high-energy output performance.
-Honey is anti-microbial because the low water activity of honey and high acidity inhibit bacterial growth. Honey glucose oxidase produces the antibacterial agent hydrogen peroxide.8
-It was shown that Manuka honey, a very potent antimicrobial honey, has a positive effect against development of dental plaque and gingivitis and can be used instead of refined sugar in making candy. Thus, honey can be used as an alternative to many foods, besides sweeteners.9,10
–Honey has an anti-metastatic effect and was proved by it’s inhibition of Trp-p-1, a heterocyclic amine formed during the roasting and frying of food.11
-Honey also contains several physiologically important amino acids, including all nine essential amino acids and all nonessential amino acids except for glutamine and asparagine.12
-Taking 1 or 2 spoons of honey either in the morning, half an hour before breakfast, or just before going to bed may improve memory. When honey is consumed on an empty stomach before breakfast, it concentrates in the stomach and relives many abdominal ailments. Taking it before going to bed stimulates metabolism, which causes good sleep and may help boost memory and even weight loss.
–Adding honey as a substitute for sugar is the best way to avoid extra calories and chemicals additives in processed sugar.
-Honey treats hangover. It limits intoxication by reducing alcohol blood levels.
Primary Risk: Pesticides
–Like any other food, honey can be contaminated by the environment, such as heavy metals, pesticides, and radioactivity material antibiotics.4
-Along with honey, pollen and wax can also be contaminated by pesticides, the latter of which is placed with honey in jars for sale in the form of honeycomb.13
–Pesticide residues cause genetic mutations and cellular degradation and presence of antibiotics might increase resistant human or animal’s pathogens.14
-Over 150 different pesticides have been found in colony samples. The highest residues of pesticides are from varroacides that accumulate in beeswax, pollen, and bee-bread and their residue levels increase from honey to pollen to beeswax. If you’re working with high numbers of varroa mites…it may be more beneficial to put down the hives.15
-Farm workers and their families have the greatest exposure to agricultural pesticides. Children are most susceptible and sensitive to pesticides due to their small size and underdevelopment. The effects of pesticides on human health are harmful based on the toxicity of the chemical and the length and magnitude of exposure. In some urine tests of farmers in Argentina, herbicide levels were high compared to non-farmers.
-Effect of exposure to pesticides ranges from mild skin irritation to birth defects, tumors, genetic changes, blood and nerve disorders, endocrine disruption, and even coma or death.
-A flowering plant called Kalmia latifolia contains a poison andromedotoxin, the nectar from which if ingested by honeybees presents itself in the honey. If people consume this honey, they are prone to acute illness, where they feel numb and lose consciousness.16
Secondary Risk: Obesity
–A surplus consumption of fructose in today’s American diet, mainly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, is suspected to be one of the main causes for overweight problems.17
– Honey is largely comprised of fructose, which stimulates insulin to be absorbed by adipocytes more slowly. However, overloading of fructose. Fructose is more slowly absorbed than sucrose, preventing sugar highs and lows/ rollercoaster.
-However, when fructose is in excess of 20% of the total calories in our diets, it also might raise blood triglyceride, cholesterol, and LDL-cholesterol levels, thus increasing the risk for heart disease.
-Antibiotics, used to prevent bee brood diseases, contaminate honey. This problem is absent in the European Union because they strictly prohibit antibiotic use in disease treatment.4
-Some plants that bees pollinate are of the Ericaceae family belonging to the sub-family Rhododendron, which contain diterpenoids and alkaloids. In other countries where plants with poisonous nectar grow, tourists are advised to buy honey from shops, not on roads and from individual beekeepers.18
Know Your Neighbors
-Because honeybees travel a maximum of 5-km from the hive, draw a circle of 5-km radius on a map and take a walk around the neighborhood
-Beekeepers should ask their neighbors about what flowering plants they are growing in the community. Beekeepers should also educate neighbors about the presence of an apiary and the needs of the beekeeper’s honeybees in order to promote honeybee health
-Large-scale beekeepers should be aware of the impact that constant yearlong cross-country pollination services have on the healthy of their honeybees. Transportation over multiple days in a truck causes stress on honeybees, disrupts their circadian rhythms, and restricts their freedom to forage and remove waste. More importantly, the high concentration of pesticides that they are exposed to on farmland causes genetic mutations likely related to nutritional defects and leaves trace amounts of pesticides in honey
Sale of Honey Products
-There should be a reliable supply of the honey product
-The quality of the product should be tested by a certified professional organization
-Glass jars that hold honey for sale must be clean (i.e. no bacterial growth allowed)
-The honey should be centrifuged and filtered multiple times to remove debris
Labeling of Honey Products
-Honey should be labeled to indicate its origin, ownership, address, composition, net amount/volume, and type of honey, etc
-Nutritional labels are required for honey if the beekeeper claims a nutrient content or health-related statement.19
-The container must have clear statement that it’s free from contaminants
-Consumer-friendly words like “pure,” “natural,” or “raw” should be used for natural hive products. Raw honey should be labeled for honey that is normally filtered or heated
-Label “organic” only if the honey complies with the USDA organic food standards
-Any additives, or value added, must be indicated. For example, addition of fruits, nuts, and flavorings are food products and should be noted on the jar to meet state/federal regulations. To bypass this, beekeepers can give away those mixed products as gifts.
-Beekeepers should be aware that if the honey is not sent to an inspector or lab for analysis and sterilization, the honey should not be given and consumed by infants.
-Record keeping should be done by the beekeeper to ensure that all hives and products extracted from the hive are recorded appropriately for insurance in case of any unexpected outcomes, such as complaints by and illness of customers
-Beekeepers should realize that to increase the demand of their products, the quality of the product must be increased. To do so, beekeepers must monitor the honey and follow strict guidelines in order to protect the health of their consumers.
More information about the types of pesticides found in honey, the effects on human health, and its toxicity considerations as part of the USDA Pesticide Data Program can be found here:
To get the latest research on honeybees and the future of honey bee health, read the Background and Issues for Congress, created by the Congressional Research Service in November 2014 and found here:
More information about how to become a part of the conversation about honey and the community of beekeeping organizations—including clubs, businesses, government labs and university researchers—throughout the MidAtlantic. The DC Bee Alliance is a wonderful, educational resource for local beekeepers and “wanna-bees.” Beekeeping courses are offered and special keynote speakers from the USDA and NASA present their latest findings regarding pesticide remains in honey throughout the season in between monthly meetings. Details can be found here:
At the George Washington University, we as the Bee Laboratory welcome all community members to join us in learning about honeybees and honey. We offer tours to visitors and accommodate for those who wish to suit up and inspect a hive. Students who are interested in becoming a beekeeper should seek Professor Hartmut Doebel. Our apiary can be accessed online via the Bee Camera, found here:
- Buchman, S. Letters from the hive: an intimate history of bees, honey, and humankind. Bantam; 2005.
- Johnson, R. and Corn, M. Bee health: background and issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service Report. 2014.
- Medrzycki, Piotr, et al. Effects of imidacloprid administered in sub-lethal doses on honey bee behaviour: Laboratory tests. Bulletin of Insectology. 2003; 56 (1): 59-62.
- Bogdanov, S., Jurendic, T., Sieber, R., Gallmann, P. Honey for nutrition and health: a review. American Journal of the College of Nutrition. 2008; 27: 677-689
- Bogdanov S: Contaminants of bee products. Apidologie. 2006; 38:1-18.
- Al-Mamary M, Al-Meeri A, Al-Habori M. Antioxidant activities and total phenolics of different types of honey. Nutrition Research. 2002; 22:1041-1047.
- Beretta G, Granata P, Ferrero M, Orioli M, Facino RM. Standardization of antioxidant properties of honey by a combination of spectrophotometric/fluorimetric assays and chemometrics. Analytica Chimica Acta. 2005; 533:185-191.
- White JW, Subers MH, Schepartz AJ. The identification of inhibine, the antibacterial factor in honey, as hydrogen peroxide and its origin in a honey glucose-oxidase system. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta. 1963; 73:57-70.
- English HK, Pack AR, Molan PC. The effects of manuka honey on plaque and gingivitis: a pilot study. Journal of the International Academy Periodontology. 2004; 6:63-67.
- Moniruzzaman, M., Chowdhury, M., Rahman, M.,Sulaiman, S., Gan, S. Determination of mineral, trace element, and pesticide levels in honey samples originating from different regions of Malaysia compared to manuka honey. Biomedical Research International. 2014; 2014.
- Wang XH, Andrae L, Engeseth NJ. Antimutagenic effect of various honeys and sugars against Trp-p-1. Journal of Agricutural Food Chemistry. 2002; 50:6923-6928.
- Rahman,M.,Gan, S., Khalil, I. Neurological effects of honey: current and future prospects. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2014; 2014.
- Bargańska, Z., Ślebioda, M., Namieśnik, J. Determination of pesticide residues in honeybees using modified QUEChERS sample work-up and liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry . Molcules. 2014; 19(3): 2911-24.
- Al-Waili, N., Salom, K. Al-Ghamdi, A., Ansari, M. Antibiotic, pesticide, and microbial contaminants of honey: human health hazards. The Scientific World. 2012.
- Mullin, C.A., Frazier, M., Frazier J.L. High levels of miticides and agrochemicals in North American apiaries: implications for honey bee health. PloS ONE. 2010; 5(3).
- Lovell, H.B. Honey plant manual. The A.I. Root Co., Medina, Ohio; 1956.
- Elliott S.S., Keim N.L., Stern J.S., Teff K., Havel P.J.. Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2002. 76:911-922.
- Edgar J.A., Roeder E.L., Molyneux R.J.. Honey from plants containing pyrrolizidine alkaloids: A potential threat to health. Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry. 2002. 50:2719-2730.
- Sammataro, Diana. The beekeeper’s handbook. Comstock Publishing Associates. 2011.