There is often confusion over how a natural product like honey can be considered organic. Honeybees are not often regarded as livestock, but they are domesticated farm insects that can be managed using either organic or conventional practices. The difference between these two techniques is the same in principle as is applied to agriculture: organic takes a natural and preventative approach with an emphasis on long-term health and sustainability while conventional apiculture relies on synthetic substances to manage problems in the hive.
In practice, these differences affect every aspect of apiary management from the materials from which the hives are constructed to how the honey is processed. For instance, only natural materials or organic wax-coated plastic are permitted in the construction of organic hives (i.e., no pressure-treated wood) and no toxic or harmful substances can be used for cleaning of extraction and processing equipment.
In addition, organic bees are treated similarly to other organic livestock: they are provided an organic diet (more on this later) and are not treated with antibiotics. Natural remedies are relied on to treat illnesses (of which there are many bees invariably suffer from). Antibiotics can be used if a hive’s life is threatened, but it will have to be placed in isolation and undergo a transition year wherein the honey could not be sold as organic.
Now for more on organic bees’ diet. At times when there is either no forage available or the climate is not agreeable to foraging, conventional beekeepers typically provide sugar water or pollen cake as a feed source for bees. The organic standards mandate a priority on reserving honey and pollen sources in the bee’s own hive to ensure the bee has a more natural food source, or to provide organic honey or sugar as a secondary food source option.
The majority of the time, however, the bees are foraging. A common question that comes up in regards to organic honey is how it can be considered organic if the bees can so easily pollinate nearby crops that are genetically modified and/or sprayed with synthetic chemicals. As an effort to reduce the likelihood of this contact occurring, the Canada Organic Standards require a buffer zone of 3000 metres (3 kilometres) around the hives. While bees are known to have a far-reaching foraging range (up to 6.5 kilometres), it is typical that so long as there are adequate food sources nearby, a bee will stick to more of a 1-2 kilometre range of the hive.
Of course, not all circumstances can be controlled for when operating in natural systems. The organic standards even make a point of stating that it would be unrealistic to expect that an organic honeybee would not come in contact with these non-organic substances with the unfortunate prevalence of toxic substances in our environment. As always, organic is not striving for perfection, but is making a solid effort for positive change.
That said, it’s important to note that we recognize that it is an oversimplification to suggest that there is only either conventional or organic honey. Considering there is actually no certified organic honey currently being produced in Atlantic Canada, it is critical that we recognize this fact! (There are certified organic apiaries in Quebec, Ontario and Western Canada).
There are apiarists that are taking a more “natural” approach by opting out of antibiotic use, but unless they have certified their operation, they cannot make an organic claim. Just like other food products, use of the term “organic” in reference to honey is protected to mean only those food products that are produced in accordance with and certified to the Canada Organic Standards.
In the absence of any local certified organic honey, we wanted to provide some questions that you can ask local honey producers to better understand how they manage their hives and therefore select one whose approach you feel most comfortable with. You could ask:
-What crops surround your hives?
-What is your bees’ main food supply when there are no natural food sources?
-How do you manage pests like the varroa mite?
-Do you use antibiotics to treat your bees?
In summary, it’s helpful to remember that while honey is a natural product, the kind we get in a jar from a local honey producer is produced in a human-managed system, and therefore organic management practices, as illustrated above, can apply to the treatment of the bees, just as they do to other farm livestock.