Sunday 2 February 2014

Should I sell my honey?

Sustainable beekeeping is all about the bees and not about the honey at all. However, a chance conversation with a farming couple who are setting up an on-farm shop to supplement their raw milk business, got me thinking about the issues I might have around passing on any surplus stocks of honey I might accumulate. They mentioned that they had a client who would jump at the chance to access raw honey as I was describing it as it would be a perfect complement to what he was already buying from them. So here’s the problem; at the moment I’m not eating honey. I gave up two years ago as part of a dietary experiment to try and avoid arteriosclerosis and heart attack events rather than be prescribed statins (long story, check out or as a starting point for more details as I’m sure I get very boring very quickly on the subject). And it works; I got the all clear inside 4 months. [Note: I’m now questioning the removal of raw honey from my diet. I have since become aware that raw honey has a glycemic index (GI) of around 30. Green grapes can have a GI of 46. What this means is that raw honey generates a 50% less insulin response than grapes and so maybe I should be eating raw honey in preference to the small amount of fruit I allow myself - more experimentation and research required on this.] So what happens to the surplus honey?

My son gets two teaspoons a day from February to September in an effort to try anything that might relieve his hay fever. Wifey puts some in yogurt most days to have with fruit. The rest I provide in recycled jam jars that I rent to my mother-in-law at £5 a time for 340 grams. This year I will probably have just enough for these uses. But a number of establishments have expressed an interest in taking on the product for sale, so what to do?

When considering selling honey to offset our meagre costs my immediate concern is appearing on the radar of government authorities. These include DEFRA for the bee inspectors and the Food Safety and Trading Standards people. I’ve nothing against the individuals concerned, they are probably all wonderful people with delightfully well-behaved offspring, it’s the unnecessary intrusion they represent that I resent. There is no requirement for me to notify any authority that I look after bees (or my small flock of egg laying chickens for that matter). Obviously, if I come across anything I don’t recognise in a colony, like small hive beetle, or suspect the bees are afflicted with something like AFB or EFB, then I would immediately contact the inspectors, as these are notifiable conditions. They will arrive in their large black unmarked vans, take samples and insist that all known colonies within 5 miles will be destroyed - don’t get me started on the pointlessness of this one. If anyone in my family suffers from a massive reaction to the honey then we will deal with it using the normal services.

Putting a product ‘out there’ increases the chances that I might slip into the purview of an Agency. No-one cares if the only person affected by my hobbies is me but, quite rightly, everyone will care if I, inadvertently or knowingly, put risk in front of someone else. A little googling shows that my product may be described as a ‘raw pressed honey’ - the gold standard for those looking for the most nutritious edible honey. It must be made from broodless and insect free comb and bottled at less than 40oC so as not to destroy the enzymes that make raw honey so beneficial, and there are well over 400 of them apparently!!

But the very thing that makes it such a sought after product by those in the know also increases its risk to susceptible folks. Raw honey is by definition unprocessed - the production method I use is called ‘crush and strain’ because, once any dead bees are removed from comb where any brood has been cut out, it is crushed, or mashed in my case, and then strained through a corse gauze - and that’s it, what you see is what you get. Everything in the hive will be represented in the honey. It is unfiltered - all of the big bits are removed by the straining but it is not passed through a fine filtering process so it retains a very high pollen content. Nothing is heated, except the jam jars and lids to sterilise them, so all the enzymatic properties of the propolis and the honey are intact. (A few people can have an anaphylactic reaction to some or all of this and as a consequence raw honey should not be given to children under the age of three.) My product is unadulterated. No heating is used to speed up the process; nothing is added or removed, other than what stays in the gauze; it is stored in glass so no out-gassing can taint or pollute the honey. It is as safe as I need it to be for my family without ruining it’s considerable benefits. So why must I pay the price of oversight for the failings of others to look after their clients in a responsible fashion?

A product needs a label to say what the client is getting. Based on my limited research so far the labels used by a producer of low volume hobbyist raw honey need to have a product name that describes the contents using officially prescribed words, as they have formal definitions and standards associated with them; a ‘use by’ date (2 years after production is acceptable for honey, as its a potentially perishable food, although egyptian honey over 3000 years old was said to be perfectly edible but a little sharp); and a note of the country of origin. Although regulations are less rigorously applied for direct hobbyist sales ‘from the door’ it helps to get it mostly right from day 1 for the benefit of everyone. There are notes on some websites that say that the producer needs to be identifiable from the label (that can easily be detached from the jar - go figure). But because I have such small volumes of honey on offer all my clients will know me personally so I don’t feel that I need to put out any more information. People will know where to find me if they have a problem with my product. So why do I need to add yet another way for appearing on a radar screen?

I can offer you no answers on this question. For me the issues are: labelling; regulatory oversight; food safety standards and regulatory oversight. I admit, I’m uncomfortable with what I see as the unnecessary oversight of what I do - if my customers don’t like my product, or the risk it might represent to them, they don’t have to choose it and it can stay in my cupboard for the next 3000 years.

Here's to the upcoming new season and the vitality of our bees.



  1. Slightly heavy on the inspectors. They do serve a purpose if you got afb off some hives just down the road you would be well pissed. At least now they only destroy for afb the rest is done via shook swarms or pest traps.

    As for the selling i personally would only sell to people i know. As without insurance you could leave yourself wide open in our current world of claim for anything.

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  3. You are right of course. Bee inspectors do have a role, but it is not personalised to meet my needs. My need for an 'inspector' is for their expertise, experience and independence - neither my bees nor I need annual inspections. My 'thing' is with oversight in general. It makes no allowance for personal responsibility and 'the system' treats both the responsible and irresponsible with the same distain. Besides, I'd much rather show people how to make their own bees and honey and spread the word of sustainability.

    The brood infections tend to appear in cases where the colony is overstressed and has a reduced ability to resist any disease. Whilst European Foul Brood (EFB) is a bacterial infection and lives mostly in infected comb and hive hardware, American Foul Brood (AFB) is spread from air carried spores. This explains the difference in the way it is treated. The current practice of burning all hives within a fixed radius of an outbreak of AFB is what would annoy me as it neglects the fact that the source of the infection could just as easily have come from a wild colony so any reestablished hives will just risk reinfection - another big reason to avoid oversight. It might also be another reason why some beeks are not too keen on letting swarms leave their apiaries. The risk is that the swarm establishes itself locally in the wild and can harbour AFB and other pests and diseases with no controls or treatment.

    I take your point about insurance, an issue I didn't mention. However, there is a very grey area between personal liability (which may cover the hobbyist and might even be included in your house insurance) and commercial liability which recognises that you are running a legitimate business. As I have no wish to tackle the legal niceties between these two, and from the little research I have done the boundaries between them can get very subjective as from what I've read so far it all depends on the perceived intent, I'm restricting the scope of my products to immediate family and a very limited number of friends who all know my bees and where I live.

  4. Your right the system does not distinguish between the responsible and irresponsible. However you can only be responsible if you know what your looking at. As a group we should probably talk more about disease. If a colony fails do people inspect it and see what went wrong and will they know what to look for and what to do?? As you know most disease is hard to spot especially in a failed colony.

    Lets hope we all have a trouble free year.

  5. That's a really good idea. How can we act on that with us all being dispersed? Could we use the monthly meetings as a diagnostic session? Photos and samples? Could we meet at people's hives for a session if requested?

  6. I'd go for meeting at hives. It could be very beneficial for those that are not sure about handling bees.

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