Since I last wrote about bees I was pointed at this article claiming “Shock finding: More than 75 per cent of all ‘honey’ sold in grocery stores contains no honey at all, by definition”.

As you may have guessed I couldn’t help but have a look. The central claim is that “the vast majority of so-called honey products sold at grocery stores, big box stores, drug stores, and restaurants do not contain any pollen, which means they are not real honey”. So, products “found to contain not a trace of pollen” are not honey?

This is Utter, Utter Bollocks (µ²B) as has been confirmed in the US Courts pollen is not a defining ingredient in honey. The lawsuit in question cited the California Food and Agricultural Code which stipulates that honey may not be processed such that “its essential composition is changed or its quality is impaired” – but that pollen may be removed provided that is part of the process of removing other stuff – and in the US only three states have prohibited the unnecessary removal of pollen.

In the UK it’s the Honey Regulations 2003 that apply which are broadly similar: filtering honey is fine to remove unwanted crud, if you are using very fine filters that will remove ‘significant’ amounts of pollen as part of the preparation process you need to call it ‘filtered honey’. So, pollen is not the sine qua non of honey. That’s nectar.

Honey 101

HoneycombFemale worker bees of the genus Apis (in common with a bunch of other hymenoptera) drink nectar and repeatedly and communally regurgitate it in the hive. Digestive acids and invertase enzymes hydrolyse the nectar into glucose and fructose and when the repeatedly regurgitated bee puke is just right they fan it with their wings to evaporate much of the water. This makes the little pots of puke osmotically inhospitable to Our Microbial Overlords and also stops the ubiquitous yeasts therein fermenting it.

Raw (i.e. unfiltered, untreated) honey will contain pollen to a greater or lesser degree depending on the source (and indeed it’s possible to tell a honey’s origin by analysing its pollen) but honey also contains bits of bees (like wings and bee shite), dust, yeast, wax, propolis, enzymes, fungal and bacterial spores (inc spores of the causative agent of botulism poisoning – C. botulinum) and all manner of other crap. Mmmmm! Let’s make no bones about it, honey is bee puke that’s been spat about the hive repeatedly. And bees carry an electrostatic charge (as do Our Microbial Overlords) so shit tends to stick to them.

From Spew to You

If you want to extract all the crap out of honey there are a number of ways to do it. You can pasteurise it, filter it in various ways or leave it raw. Apart from the risk (principally to babies) of the C. botulinum spores bee puke (sorry, honey) is a super-saturated sugar solution and will crystallise out in a heartbeat – and crystals tend to form around other stuff. This is the principal reason bee puke is processed to remove stuff before sale: in many markets consumers and supermarkets prefer honey that’s clear and free-flowing. In Europe and especially Canada people don’t seem to mind honey crystallising but in the USA the preference is very much for free-running bee puke – and if it crystallises US consumers don’t like it.

The most usual way to remove crap from bee puke to stop it crystallising is about as natural a process as you can get. You mix the raw honey with a very useful substance called Kieselguhr (aka diatomaceous earth) – this is a talc-fine powder that is ultra-porous. It’s actually the fossilised remains of diatoms – algae with a silicon shell – that has many uses; chromatography, filtration and you can mop up the very unstable nitroglycerine with it to make the more stable Dynamite. So, mix the honey with the coffin-shaped algal exoskeletons and they filter out all the crap leaving you with honey without the taste and other changes you get with harsher processes. (Under most organic standards this isn’t permitted – using dangerous pesticides is fine providing they’re ‘natural’ – but that’s for another day).

Ultrafiltration and the Yellow Peril

The article is conflating multiple issues here :

  • The ‘if it ain’t got pollen it ain’t honey’ non-question
  • A  ban on Chinese honey imports to the USA, and
  • ‘Ultra-filtered honey’.

Ultrafiltration of honey is a process where you dilute your bee puke, filter it to within an inch of its life then evaporate the water off. What’s left really isn’t honey any more; it’s just sweet and nasty. Amongst other things this process will remove all the pollen, thus making it difficult to determine the source of the bee puke.

Why would anyone want to do this? In the case of Chinese Bee Puke Producers possibly because their honey is banned in the US. The ban is not (as the article states) due to the Chinese product being adulterated, but for commercial reasons: the US International Trade Administration found the PRC was undercutting American producers. In attempts to evade this ban ultra-filtered honey has been illegally shipped in via other countries – mix it with some local stuff and you’ve got a fair chance of fooling anyone analysing the pollen to check origin. The article also claims “the lack of pollen in most conventional “honey” products is due to these products having been ultra-filtered”. This is also Utter, Utter Bollocks (µ²B) – the Kieselguhr process also removes all the pollen but is NOT ultrafiltration – they are two distinct and very different processes.

(It is the case that in the past Chinese bee puke has been found to contain banned antibiotics as well as heavy metals like lead but the EU – traditionally more fussy about bee puke quality than US consumers – still consider it safe enough to import.)

So, this article has all the right elements: lovely, natural honey being processed so it’s not real honey any more, a big dose of the Naturalistic Fallacy, a dangerous foreign plot to poison large swathes of ‘merkuh with Yellow Peril Bee Puke – that’s a pretty heady mix in just 18 sentences. It must take a real talent to get such a quantity of real quality Utter, Utter Bollocks (µ²B) into such a short piece.