From “The Economist” - Sept. 1st - 2018




The Bee's Needs

NEWYORK


A taste for honey is nectar for con men



ACCORDING to the National Honey Board, per person consumption of the regurgitated nectar has doubled in America since the 1990s. As demand has increased, prices have followed. Domestic production has not. In 2016 American bees produced 73,000 tonnes of honey, or 35% less than they did 20 years ago. This has given honey-sellers an incentive to dilute it with cheaper things like corn, rice and beet syrup. According to the US Pharmacopeia's Food Fraud Database, honey is now the third-favourite food target for adulteration, behind milk and olive oil.


The mismatch between domestic production and demand means America imports a lot of honey (203,000 tonnes of it in 2017). Most once came from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico and Uruguay, but now nearly half comes from Asia. High tariffs are imposed on Chinese honey, disguised versions of which drizzle into America via China's neighbours.


Although there are tests to screen honey for things that do not belong in it, Elemental Analysis Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry, the most common method, is over 25 years old. As honey fraudsters have become more sophisticated, the technology to catch them has too. A newer test that uses nuclear magnetic resonance is more effective, according to Norberto Garcia, chairman of the United States Pharmacopeia Expert Panel on Honey Quality and Authenticity. In addition to screening for over 40 unnatural substances, it can spot the geographical origin and botanical source (clover, heather, hawthorn, etc). "Honey fraud", cautions Mr Garcia, "is a threat to national food security."


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is alert to the scourge of honey fraud, and has published guidelines which require any additives to honey to be listed as ingredients. But they are not legally enforceable. One problem is that the FDA’s definition of honey is rudimentary. It describes honey as "a thick, sweet, syrupy substance that bees make as food from the nectar of plants or secretions of living parts of plants and store in honeycombs." This somewhat insults bees, who take great care to deposit, dehydrate and allow their honey to ripen in the honeycomb, a process which is important to its taste. Fraudsters often harvest prematurely, leaving the liquid with a high water content. Nor does this definition take a clear position on whether something sold as honey should be free of additives.


In addition to producing honey, bees have found more lucrative work, pollinating one-third of the crops grown in America. "Most of the fruits and vegetables we eat wouldn't be here if it weren't for them," said Gene Brandi, a beekeeper in northern California. A 40-year veteran of the bee business, Mr Brandi now makes more money from renting his bees out as pollinators than he does from selling the honey they produce. In February and March, when California's almond trees are blooming, his bees, along with about 30bn others, are drafted to pollinate California's 1.3m acres of almond trees.


This apian fiesta involves up to 90% of the commercial bee population in America, leaving few bees to pollinate everything else that requires their attention, a source of controversy in agricultural circles. Still, Mr Brandi can earn $180-200 per bee colony, or quadruple what he did just over a decade ago. Other crops like raspberries, blackberries, cherries, cantaloupes and apples aren't as lucrative to pollinate, but they beat the $2 per lb he gets for honey. Longer winters, drier summers and diseases like varroosis have made it harder for bees to survive. But man can only imitate what these most industrious creatures do; they can't bee bettered. ■


FOR  A  WHILE  SOME  YEARS  BACK,  THERE  WAS  CONCERN  OVER  A  SIGNIFICANT  BEE  POPULATION  DYING,  AND  THEY  DID  NOT  KNOW  WHY.  THE  WHY  HAS  NOW  BEEN  SOLVED—— MAN  AGAIN  WITH  NEW  PESTICIDES  TO  BLAME.  THEY  HAVE  FIGURED  WHICH  ONES  AND  ARE  SUPPOSED  TO  BE  BANNED  VERY  SOON—- WE  SHALL  HOPE  THAT  IS  SO - Keith Hunt