Bees please: the state of honey in these bee-loving times

Bees making honey on a honeycomb.
Honey bees on their honeycomb. Photo credit: Gold Coast Amateur Beekeepers Society

I remember my three-year-old self lying awake in bed, imagining honey on toast for breakfast. A bit like how Goldilocks gave me porridge cravings. I must have watched Winnie the Pooh the day before, because the cartoon’s thick, brown honey had me thinking I should give the stuff another go.

I was bitterly disappointed the next morning when my bemused mum gave me real honey on toast (or so she thought). It was thin, syrupy, and not magical.  But since my imaginary friend Christopher Robin wasn’t telling how to get to the Hundred Acre Wood, I crossed honey off my breakfast list.

As it turns out, the honey we buy in the supermarket isn’t what we adults have in mind, either, according to recent investigations into Australia’s commercial honey industry.

Last Monday, The 7:30 Report delivered the results of a joint investigation with the ABC and The Sydney Morning Herald, which found that major honey brands ALDI, IGA, and Capilano have (possibly unknowingly) been selling “fake honey”. NMR testing has found the honey labels which mix cheaper imported honey with Australian honey are adulterated with cheap sweeteners.

As well as being partly syrup, imported honeys drive honey prices down. This threatens true Australian honey brands, who are already struggling and whose bees pollinate much of our agriculture industry. According to The 7:30 Report, 35 per cent of commercial beekeepers and their hives have left the industry due to disease and drought, yet honey prices are lower than ever. 

ALDI has said they are investigating the claims, but Capilano and IGA say it’s none of our beeswax.

Well, that’s a rough translation. Their actual statements were a bit more nuanced and can be read here:

Capilano: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4818841-Statement-From-Capilano.html

ALDI: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4818842-Statement-From-ALDI.html

Coles, Woolworths, and IGA: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4818844-Statements-From-Coles-Woolworths-and-IGA.html

I thought I’d find out about these bees which support 65 per cent of Australian agriculture, and which are so undervalued by certain big buzzinesses.

Sorry, businesses.

I found out that honey is a marvellous concoction that humans have cultivated since Ancient Egypt. Bees manage to put together the second sweetest substance found in nature, renowned for its healing properties – and it gets more interesting. Hobby beekeeper Didier told me honey tastes different depending on where the bees get their nectar. Eucalyptus and tea trees are his Italian honey bees’ main fare, and when nearby maple trees and lilly pillies are in flower “the honey tastes completely different”.

I tried it out – and my childhood honey dreams came true. I have two jars of honey from a friend’s beehives, one collected in winter and the other a few weeks ago in spring. My friend’s neighbour has an award-winning flower garden, and the honey in the spring jar is much lighter in taste and colour and has a more fragrant flavour to the first lot. Definitely magical.

So all because of location, the honey for sale at my local Park Run is a different potion from the golden jarfuls my dad’s colleague brings to work, and the litres a friend is selling on Facebook. I should note that suburban beekeeping is popular in Australia as a way to boost honey bee populations.

“Three years ago, I wanted to do something for the bees because I realised that there were not that many bees around anymore, on my property,”  Didier tells me, “And I thought, well you know, since I have a little bit of space, why don’t I get something started to support the bees… so we can sustain the bee population on the Gold Coast.”

Master beekeepers at the Gold Coast Amateur Beekeepers Society – and YouTube – taught Didier that of all the honey bee varieties kept in Australia, the Italian Apis mellifera ligustica is the gentlest and very good at producing honey. Both important qualities, as Winnie the Pooh would agree.

Image result for winne the pooh chased by bees
“You can never tell with bees.” – A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

Perhaps by creating local bee keeping networks where people come together and share honey, ideas and stories, we can experience the same community, thriving social life and abundance that bees embody.

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