Saturday, June 26, 2010

What's Special About our Honey

Honey is, of course, naturally a very special food, but what most readily sets our honey apart from other honey you might find are our efforts to preserve honey's natural goodness.  As in almost every other field of agriculture, there are a lot of chemicals and pharmaceuticals commonly used in bee hives and in connection with honey production: a couple different antibiotics, various synthetic pesticides including one of a particularly toxic class of pesticides called organophosphates, chemical fumigants, chemical repellants, as well as flat out illegal substances never registered for use in bee hives.  We use nothing of this sort in connection with our bees or honey.  We can’t prove that any of these things is harmful, but we believe there are always risks with these sorts of things, not just for us as honey consumers, but for the long-term health of the bees, for other species in the ecosystems where these chemicals are used, for the people that handle these chemicals, for the people that drink the water downstream from where these things are manufactured, etc.,etc.  We strongly believe that it's not prudent to directly contribute to these risks in our own beekeeping.
   Some of honeybees' recent problems brought about by global trade (introducing exotic pests and diseases) made it extremely challenging for beekeepers to keep their hives organically, especially when the mites first hit North America, but as with the rest of agriculture, many of the chemicals and pharmaceuticals used in bee hives are used mostly for convenience and marginal cost/labor savings.  Butryic anhydride, for instance, is a nasty smelling chemical repellent used to drive bees out of honey supers when taking supers off the hives.  Instead of repellents, we place escape screens below our supers a day or two before harvesting.  (An escape screen is a wooden board with a built in maze that works as a one-way exit, allowing the bees to exit the supers but not return.)  Paradichlorobenzene is a chemical used by beekeepers to fumigate stored supers to prevent wax moth larvae from ruining the combs.  It's illegal in some places due to carcinogenic concerns, but it's very widely used in North Carolina and elsewhere.  Instead of using PDB, we keep susceptible combs (combs that have had brood reared in them before) separate from our honey combs, and leave the susceptible combs on hives where the bees can keep pests out, or we'll expose combs to sunlight or cold to deter wax moths.  These are really pretty easy management practices, but chemical use is the norm, and most beekeepers are so comfortable with chemical use that they wouldn't bother to avoid it.  Antibiotic use follows a similar pattern of comfort: many beekeepers simply feel “safer” having given their bees antibiotics (and other medications) than not.  Some antibiotics, like for nosema disease, have little hard evidence to even prove their limited usefulness.  Other antibiotics, like for foulbrood, are potentially effective, but antibiotic use is leading to antibiotic resistant foulbrood, which is leading to the use of stronger and riskier antibiotics.  Foulbrood is infrequent enough that we can pretty easily deal with it through careful inspections and the occasional burning of infected combs and equipment.  Even more disturbing than the use of these and other approved products is the use of chemicals never approved or tested for safe use in bee hives.  For instance, beekeepers have found that paper towels can be soaked in chemicals used for de-lousing cattle and placed in bee hives to kill mites.  Some of these practices have been encouraged by price gouging by chemical companies or the very high regulatory cost of chemical registration.  Roach poisons are used in hives to kill small hive beetles.  Authorities sometimes destroy foreign honey imports because residues of dangerous drugs are discovered.  We're concerned enough about all these kinds of chemical residue problems that we no longer even use beeswax “foundation” in our frames -- something that's been standard practice in beekeeping for well over 100 years -- because it would indirectly increase our exposure to these chemicals.  We distrust the whole mess of chemical and pharmaceutical agriculture, and we're committed to avoiding what we see as all these foolish risks.

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