What is the best honey? That’s an often-asked question for which there is no pat response. Answers can range from a short retort to a lengthy description. Honey quality lies in the eye of the beholder and taster. It’s subjective in so many ways. That’s why I don’t enjoy judging honey shows.
Honey quality also is a matter of tradition. If one looks at apiculturally related activity in Europe, for example, a good deal of effort goes into researching honey quality and each country has a rigorous testing procedure. In the United States, however, honey quality often takes a back seat to management and other industry issues.
A periodic publication on the Internet by Andrew Matheson, ex-director of the International Bee Research Association (IBRA), reveals some current European thinking on honey quality. In December, Mr. Matheson attended a meeting on tropical honey organized by the group NECTAR, the Netherlands Expertise Centre for Tropical Apicultural Resources. Established in 1990, this non- profit association is a focus for people in the Netherlands working in tropical beekeeping and bee science (of whom there are quite a few). Speakers from nine different countries and a varied audience pooled their knowledge and experience promoting considerable discussion on the harvest, composition, processing, storage and marketing of honey in tropical apicultural systems. Because Florida lies in the subtropics, many of the issues addressed are also of concern in the Sunshine State. They are also important for those who would like to keep abreast of developments in the export market.
One of the biggest problems facing beekeepers in tropical areas is high water content in honey. This can push the product over the legal limit in many countries, according to Mr. Matheson. It also may be responsible for fermentation. However, Mr. Matheson continues, in some cases a high-moisture product, and even a fermenting one, is desirable. If marketing is (in simple terms) producing what the consumer wants, then fermenting honey can sometimes fit the bill. In some countries fermentation is a sign of honey’s freedom from adulteration, unlike what Mr. Matheson calls that “squeaky-clean imported stuff” which has a dubious reputation for purity.
In general, however, high water content is a problem for potential honey exporters, and often creates storage problems, Mr. Matheson says. Kwame Aidoo of Ghana gave the results of a small survey of honey being sold by 40 beekeepers who use top-bar hives. The average water content was 21.4% (range 17.6-24.0%). The water content can depend on season and region. It also varies with the plant species and even the kind of bee used. As an example, the water content of Apis cerana honey in Vietnam was reported as follows: eucalyptus 27%, longan 24% and jujuba 23.5%. Apis dorsata honey came in at 28%, while Apis florea was 32.2%; the latter two were observed four months after harvest, but unfortunately the details of the storage conditions were not supplied. And at times, Mr. Matheson concludes, it is impossible for bees to dry honey adequately.
Although Mr. Matheson did not mention it, when the bees fail to take out the moisture, it may be time for the beekeeper to step in. Honey producers in Canada have been leaders in developing methods to dry honey in storage. Many even take the crop before it is capped and finish the drying job indoors.
Other Quality Measures:
The European market, according the Mr. Matheson, is especially sensitive to several quality parameters, especially diastase and hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) levels. Unfortunately, testing for these materials is somewhat expensive, particularly for developing countries. And sometimes basic analyses for sucrose content, even water content, are beyond the reach of some agencies.
This could all change, however, thanks to work reported by J. D. Kerkvliet of the Netherlands, Mr. Matheson says. A series of five analytical methods, low in cost and simple to carry out, has been developed to check for:
* Water content;
* Invert sugars and sucrose;
* Pollen and sugar cane plant cells; and
* Enzyme levels;
These methods were developed as part of a Dutch-Nepalese project. After they were implemented in Nepal, there was significant improvement in honey quality.
Mr. Matheson thinks those that analyze for pollen and enzyme levels are especially valuable tests that almost anyone can use to advantage. To test for cane sugar adulteration, for example, honey is centrifuged and examined microscopically. Even a few percent of cane sugar added will result in visible amounts of characteristic parenchyma, slereid and epidermal cells, as well as simple rings from ring vessels, originating from the sugar cane stem. The test is not ‘fooled’ by bees foraging on the cut stumps of sugar cane. This method was written up in Apidologie 26: 131-139 (1995).
For HMF, Mr. Matheson says, a relatively inexpensive ‘Merckoquant’ peroxide test strip can also be used to check for the presence of hydrogen peroxide in a honey solution. If peroxide production is at least 10 micrograms per gram per hour at 20 degrees C, then HMF is less than or equal to 40 mg/kg (with a 95% confidence level) and might even be below 20 mg/kg. Unfortunately this method has been written up only in Dutch (with an English summary): [Screening method for the determination of glucose oxidase activity in honey.] Ware(n)chemicus 24: 160-163 (1994). Dr Kerkvliet told Mr. Matheson he plans to write a paper on this in English.
Fair Trade in Tropical Honey:
Many may have seen ‘fair trade’ products, especially in Europe, according to Mr. Matheson. Coffee and chocolate are the usual products, but honey has now been added to this mix. This market segment is rapidly growing, and represents a real opportunity for beekeepers in some tropical countries. Mr. Matheson gave an overview of a presentation by Jos. Harmsen of the Max Havelaar/Trans Fair Seal organization.
Mr. Matheson says it’s important to realize that the Max Havelaar organization doesn’t sell honey itself; it is a quality assurance body, promoting the ‘fair trade’ seal to consumers. It controls the licensees who use the seal and keeps a register of producers. The ‘fair trade’ seal system goes under the Max Havelaar name in the Netherlands, Trans Fair in some other European countries and Fair Trade in the UK. The concept began a few years ago, Mr. Matheson says, but the products were sold only in aid shops or health food outlets so market share was destined to remain small. However, the Max Havelaar organization, formed in 1988 based on coffee, now appears in 90 percent of supermarkets; in 1993 chocolate was added and honey in 1994. The organization works in 12 European countries now, and will be moving into two more during 1996.
What constitutes fair trade? The Max Havelaar organization has developed a number of criteria, according to Mr. Matheson. It recommends buying directly from organizations of small beekeepers that are democratically run, thus giving producers a say in how the trade is conducted. And it emphasizes paying a fair pricewith a premium for certified organic honey. It gives access to credit facilities, with up to 60 percent of the contract price available up front if requested, and enters into long-term contracts to ensure security for the producers.
Using the best evidence available, according to Mr. Matheson, only about 17 percent of the world’s honey is produced in the tropics. There are several major problems involved:
1. World market prices are low; domestic prices are usually higher.
2. Only high volume is deemed exportable; few have the wherewithal to produce honey in quantity.
3. High water content, foreign matter such as impurities from the hive or the harvesting method, and adulteration with cane sugar are also potential problems.
4. HMF and diastase may also be elevated because of high temperatures.
In spite of the problems, Mr. Matheson says, opportunities exist to increase trade. They are: 1) activities of the ‘fair trade’ organizations mentioned above and 2) the rise in organic honey. Requirements vary between certifying bodies, but for honey they typically include these:
* Bees must forage only in organically cultivated or natural vegetation that has been free of pesticides for at least two years;
* There should be no conventionally farmed land within 6 km;
* The colony should not be destroyed at harvest;
* Only organically produced beeswax may be used in foundation;
* No instrumental insemination is permitted;
* No artificial products may be used for feeding the bees, nor any drugs administered; and
* Finally, there are rules about packaging and processing.
Accreditation for organic marketing doesn’t come cheaply, according to Mr. Matheson. But the market is growing strongly and should continue into the future.