Bees for development’s Janet Lowore recently returned from the far north-west corner of Zambia near the borders with Angola and DRC. She spent two weeks following the honey quality training programme of Forest Fruits Ltd., a Zambian company which markets honey from forest beekeepers. Janet is studying the link between honey production and forest conservation. She could not help but conclude that the honey derived from these forests is possibly the most natural honey you can buy…
The term ‘natural’ is a tricky one, having a rather loose definition which means different things in different contexts – think natural medicine or natural yoghurt. Some people might think that all honey is natural – after all, surely there cannot be a thing such as man-made honey? Well actually there is – but that’s highly controversial and not the main gist of this article. The idea I’d like to promote is that some non-artificial honey is more natural than other non-artificial honeys – and give praise and acclaim to a honey I believe just might – possibly – be the most natural honey you can buy.
Most honey we can buy in the shops is non-artificial and probably clean and pure – and by that I mean it is all made by bees from nectar collected from flowers and processed only by bees – with nothing added by humans. So far so good.
The threats to the naturalness of the honey come from a number of different quarters. The first concerns their food source. The flowers the bees may be feeding on may have been planted (not wild), may be exotics (not native) and certainly may be industrially produced arable crops such as oilseed rape. For most of us this is probably not a great concern – but I suggest that honey from native, wild plants is more natural than honey from non-wild, non-indigenous and industrially produced plants. Taking the UK as an example – one could argue that heather honey is more natural than oilseed rape honey. The wild native heather moors grow largely as nature intended (admittedly with a bit of help) – you just can’t say the same about a field of oilseed rape.
Another threat to naturalness is contamination. Pollutants may come from industrial activity, traffic or the presence of agrochemicals in the environment. Contamination may also come from pharmaceutical remedies used by beekeepers to treat their bees. Honey is generally screened for these incidental environmental contaminants before it reaches the shops – to ensure no harm to the consumer. Yet imagine a place where honey is produced where the chance of such contamination is non-existent – because there is no pollution and beekeepers use no pharmaceutical remedies. I’d suggest that that honey produced from non-medicated bees is more natural than honey produced by medicated bees!
Now we come to the third threat to naturalness – the way the honey bees are housed, managed, manipulated, exploited and generally obliged to live by mankind’s rule rather than nature’s rule. The number of ways that a typical beekeeper contravenes the honey bee’s natural habits are many, and they vary in extent and scale. Let’s draw attention to just a few.
Beekeepers in industrial countries tend to provide their bees with foundation – this is a starter or guide beeswax sheet which encourages bees to build their combs in an orderly arrangement, and foundation sheets are often reinforced with wire to add extra strength. This extra strength is necessary – not for the benefit of the bees – but because it makes honey extraction easier and combs last longer. It is an invention of economy, but not natural. In nature bees make their own combs entirely from scratch.
Bees reproduce through swarming, i.e. they make a new colony from a mother colony. Beekeepers find it more efficient and productive to have fewer bigger colonies than many smaller colonies – so they take measures to frustrate this natural inclination and prevent swarming. The methods and means to do this fill literally thousands of beekeeping text books. Economical perhaps, natural? I’d suggest not.
Commercial bee farms tend to locate numerous bee colonies packed together in one place. In nature bees prefer to put a bit of distance between themselves and their neighbours. Close-proximity allows any disease outbreaks to spread, causes local forage scarcity and sometimes causes home-coming bees to get so confused that they enter the next door hive by mistake. Strange but true, and definitely not natural.
Male bees are pretty useful when it comes to reproduction and furthering nature’s way of achieving natural variation in a population. Natural variation is the key to survival of the fittest and ultimately useful in achieving a healthy, well-adapted and resilient species. Male bees are less good at making honey – in fact they just don’t do it. This is why some beekeepers take measures to limit their numbers – by removing young male bees from the nest (and killing them) before they hatch and by providing foundation sheets which encourage the building the cells for females and not males. Not very natural is it?
It is not unusual for beekeepers to feed sugar to their bees. This is necessary in many situations (some of the situations are human-induced) – but you’ve got it – it’s just not natural!
And that’s only the beginning – beekeepers split, unite, spread the brood, raise queens, make nucs, winterise, steal pollen, cut the queen’s wings, put paint on her, confine her, and so on. All these manipulations are rational – but just not natural.
None of the above should come as a surprise – and need not be alarming at all. After all food production systems the world over are largely unnatural – think of dairy farming, pig production and battery chickens. However, if you could buy what is possibly the most natural honey in the world wouldn’t that be wonderful!
In north-west Zambia honey bees live in abundance in the large natural forests. The bees are native, the trees are native. Beekeepers manage these bees with a very light touch. They cut bark from the trees and make hives which they hang in the forest – and then they go away. Natural, wild bee swarms occupy these hives and live uninterrupted by people, and feed on the abundant nectar and pollen. They make their own comb – no foundation needed. They are never fed sugar, they swarm if they want to, the queen’s wings are intact and male bees do their thing unheeded. If bees get sick they die, if they are invaded by pests they fight back or perish, if there is a drought then the thriftiest colonies survive – all this means that the population as a whole is fighting fit and never needs medicating. The bees live in an environment free from industry and modern agriculture – no risk of honey contamination or pesticide poisoning. There is just one brutal contravention of nature’s way – the honey harvest. Once a year the beekeepers trek into the forest, climb up the trees and remove half a bucketful of honey comb from about 60% of the colonies – those with sufficient honey. They by-pass the newly established colonies judging they cannot afford to give up any honey. Beekeepers have been harvesting honey from these forests for many decades and in doing so have proven that this natural honey harvest is sustainable.
Zambian honey – possibly the most natural honey in the world – is available to buy in UK, Zambia and South Africa.
Janet Lowore is Bees for development‘s Learning and Knowledge Development Officer and co-author of Bfd’s ‘Beekeeping and Development Guide’ series of booklets. She travels widely in Africa promoting and developing Bfd‘s projects and programmes and studying and encouraging methods of sustainable honey and beeswax production.