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Answers to Some Common Bee Related Questions
By: Ross Conrad
Keep bees long enough and eventually you will run into a situation where you have more honey than you know what to do with. This is point where many beekeepers will start dipping their toes into the local marketplace and seek to sell some of their harvest at the local farmer’s market or other venue. When dealing with the public there are inevitably certain questions that will repeatedly come up. Here are some of the questions (and my standard answers) that I come across the most.
How should I store my honey? Will it go bad?
Honey should be stored at room temperature in a moisture-proof container and does not need to be refrigerated. It has been documented that honey found in the tombs by the Egyptian pyramids that was thousands of years old was still edible (Crane, 1999). Honey is the only food that, in its natural state, will never spoil and nothing harmful to humans can grow in honey.
What causes the difference in color between the different jars?
The answer to this question depends: if there are honey varietals or jars harvested at different times of the year, then the color difference may be due to varying nectar sources that the bees used to make the honey.
In my case, I am not interested in cleaning and setting up my extracting equipment, using it and then washing it and putting it away more than once a year so I harvest all my honey within a single three to four week period at the end of the season. As a result, all the honey in my jars tends to be basically the same. While the honey is in the liquid state shortly after harvesting (before it crystallizes), color differences are simply differences in the way the light hits the jar. Containers of honey in the sun will look lighter in color and those sitting in the shade.
My honey is raw and I do not heat or filter the honey in any way. As a result, it has a tendency to crystallize, usually within four to six weeks of harvest. When honey crystallizes, it becomes lighter in color. Since not all jars will crystallize at the same time, this is often the reason for a difference in coloration.
What is the difference between liquid and raw honey?
This inevitably raises the question: “What is the difference between your honey and the honey in the store?” This is where I get to explain that the primary difference is taste. The liquid honey in the store has typically been heated and heat destroys much of the flavor of honey so you mostly just taste its sweetness. With unheated raw honey the subtle flavor of the flowers that the bees gathered the nectar from is more noticeable. Raw unheated and unfiltered honey will also contain the full complement of enzymes that the bees have added to the honey, as well as bits of pollen and propolis, all of which impart additional nutritional and medicinal benefits to the final product that will be missing from heated and filtered honey. This is why raw, unheated and unfiltered honey is typically what is found in health food stores.
Unfortunately for the consumer, the definition of raw honey has not been officially defined by the U.S. government and no one is policing the labeling of honey jars. This means beekeepers can make all kinds of claims about raw honey, even label heated honey as “raw”, and get away with it. In my mind an egg that has been heated a little bit and is soft boiled, is no longer raw and the same applies to honey. Heat honey a little, or for only a short period of time, and it should no longer be considered raw and unheated.
By the same token, using a pump to force honey through a screen or filtering material should disqualify it from being considered unfiltered. Allow honey to settle in a tank so much of the beeswax, pollen and propolis floats to the top before drawing the cleaner honey off the bottom, or let the honey drain via gravity through a sieve and its non-filtered designation is preserved.
Is this local honey?/ Will this honey help with my allergies?
The word has gotten out; people have heard that local honey may help with allergies. This is based on the concept of oral desensitization where a small amount of an allergen, or parts of an allergen, are absorbed into the bloodstream and the body responds by developing a tolerance. Consuming tiny bits of pollen that a person is allergic to can cause their body to build up enough resistance that their pollen allergy symptoms may lessen or completely go away. While it is best to use local pollen for this approach, some folks have gotten results with pollen that is not local but from the same type of plant that is the source of their allergic reaction. This approach is more effective when pure pollen from the plant one is allergic to is consumed, but raw honey that has not been heated and is unfiltered is more readily available than specific plant pollens, so it has traditionally been used for this purpose.
As with the term “raw”, we have the challenge that there is no official definition of what constitutes local honey. For many the honey must be from the municipality, or at least the county, where they live. For others, it needs to be from the state within which they reside. Since plants are typically established within regions with similar climates, soil types and precipitation amounts, the reality is that as long as the honey is from the same region, it is liable to contain pollen from the plants that are the source of the allergic reaction and may have a beneficial effect.
How are the bees doing? Are they still struggling?
Honey bees are not in the news as much as they were 10-15 years ago with the onset of Colony Collapse Disorder so folks can be excused if they are not aware of the current state of the bees. Yes, bees are still struggling with an average of roughly 30 to 40 percent of managed bee colonies dying out annually. Thankfully, the honey bee has an army of people out there looking out for them, feeding them when needed, providing medicine or pest control when necessary and acting as mid-wives to increase colony reproduction and make up for losses. As a result the total number of honey bee colonies appears to be remaining relatively stable year-to-year despite devastating annual colony die offs. It’s the native and solitary bees that are suffering the most with serious declines in overall population.
Is it true that honey bees harm native pollinators?
Recent media coverage of research on honey bee impacts on native pollinators has suggested that competition with managed bees may be playing a role in the dwindling of our native pollinators. This is a concern since as noted previously, many native pollinators appear to be experiencing sharp population declines.
Current studies and previous meta-analysis of available research suggests that the Western honey bee, a species not native to North America, can and does have an impact on native pollinators. Under certain conditions, honey bees may reduce available forage for native pollinators, spread diseases among them and in some studies, their presence has correlated to a reduction in native pollinator populations.
However, as famous American naturalist John Muir once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe” (Wood). Our natural world is a tightly woven, interlocking tapestry of life where everything has an impact on everything else; sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s indirect and not noticeable to us humans, but that is how nature is designed and works. Thus, it is not surprising that when honey bees are brought into a new area, they have an impact on the area’s existing pollinator community. However, this is not the entire story.
Many native pollinators will forage in weather so cold that it keeps most honey bee foragers ensconced deep within the cluster in the hive. Honey bees also tend not to forage much during rainy weather while many of our native pollinators don’t mind the rain. Our managed bees’ tongues are relatively short, preventing them from reaching nectar sources readily available to longer-tongued pollinator species. Researchers have also found that when honey bee colonies become established in a new location, native pollinators will often change their foraging behavior and start visiting flowering plants that the honey bees are mostly ignoring. What we see is that when honey bees move into a new area, sometimes the impact on native pollinators is negative, sometimes it’s positive and sometimes it appears neutral.
Additionally, Apis mellifera has been in North America for at least 400 years and the decline in native pollinators is only a few decades old. This pollinator decline appears to be coinciding with the dramatic loss of a wide variety of insect populations all across the globe. If managed honey bees were a serious cause of native pollinator decline, why has their impact on native pollinators only become noticeable in the last few decades? It is not that honey bee populations have grown dramatically in recent years. In fact, the number of honey bee colonies in the United States today is about half of what it was back in the late 1940s (Pettis & Delaplane, 2010). If honey bees were seriously harming other pollinators, we should have seen a severe decline in native pollinator numbers around 1950. Insect collections in the U.S. and around the globe however, suggest that the decline in native pollinators has risen sharply since the 1990s compared to the 1950s (Zattara & Aizen, 2020).
Life on earth has been following the laws of nature for millions of years and while those laws can be harsh, those that are able to adapt to their environment survive and those that can’t perish. This ultimately leads to a stable and incredibly biodiverse world. The ridiculousness of blaming the natural world for the problems of the natural world appears tied to our inability to grapple with the root cause of pollinator decline. The real source of the decline in native pollinators is you and I. Between our use of pesticides like neonicotinoids, and our addiction to fossil fuels (and our purchasing of the goods and services of others who also use pesticides and fossil fuels), it is human kind that is the actual cause of the decline in native pollinators, not the honey bee.
Crane, Eva (1999) The world history of beekeeping and honey hunting, Routledge, New York, pp 509-510
Paini, D.R. (2004) Impact of the introduced honey bee (Apis mellifera) (Hymenoptera: Apidae) on native bees: A review, Austral Ecology, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1442-9993.2004.01376.x
Roubik, D.W. and Wolda, H. (2018) Do competing honey bees matter? Dynamics and abundance of native bees before and after honey bee invasion, Population Ecology, 43(1):53-62 https://doi.org/10.1007/PL00012016
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Wood, Harold – John Muir Misquoted, Sierra Club John Muir Education Team https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/misquotes.aspx
Zattara, E. E. and Aizen, M. A. (2020) Global bee decline, One Earth, 4(1):114-123