Beekeeping, it ain’t easy.
Between Karl and I, we’ve been stung over 30 times in the past 2 years keeping bees (haha, most of those are Karl). Now, that includes taking on some bold projects for a couple of newbies, like catching swarms and removing a huge colony from the neighbor’s house. I’m not sure that “bold” is a term that I want to describe my beekeeping practices anymore…
I always thought beekeeping was straight-forward, black and white. Turns out it’s not, at all.
The first thing we did when we got bees was join the local beekeeping club: a very active and phenomenally helpful club, full of veteran beekeepers eager to share their knowledge and help new beekeepers succeed. We were even paired with a local beekeeping mentor to help us through our first seasons. We’ve met so many great people- hundreds of local beekeepers!
What really struck me, after talking to countless people- hearing the questions they asked during meetings, and seeing many of their beekeeping setups in real life, was how many different ways you can keep bees.
What does this have to do with finding high quality, really real, raw honey full of life and with as few chemicals as possible?
Because I realized one day when I was trying to recommend a local source of raw honey to a friend, that there were very few people who I would personally trust to provide 100% raw honey, from healthy bees that were well-cared for, who aren’t fed a boatload of corn syrup and chemicals.
It’s surprisingly hard to find, even at the small scale and local level.
In the same way that it’s best to know the farm that your eggs and meat come from, it’s also wise to know where your honey comes from. And unless you yourself are a beekeeper, it’s difficult to understand what to look for and what questions to ask when looking for high-quality honey. Keeping bees is complex, and there’s lots of ways to go about it…
I hope this guide helps you to know what to look for and what questions to ask to find the best quality honey that you can- from bees that are well-cared for.
If you won’t be looking for local honey, or can’t find a credible source in your area, here are a couple brands available online, which I trust and believe are the top quality, real-deal.
Really Raw Honey is a unique honey product in that there is visible pollen, wax and pieces of propolis (highly nutritious bee “glue”) in it. This is as close as you can get to keeping your own bees! I also love that they don’t ship their bees to pollinate crops around the country (which is much healthier for the bees!). Find it —> HERE.
How to Find High Quality, Local, Unprocessed, Raw Honey
Honey straight from a hive is full of life- it has vitamins, minerals, good bacteria, and enzymes that all contribute to your health when eaten. So why would a beekeeper want to heat honey and destroy all these good things? For two reasons: 1) It is much easier to process. Cold honey (even room temp honey) is thick like molasses and slow to run through tubing and machinery, which wastes time. Heated honey flows like liquid gold and is much easier to process and package. 2) Heated honey will crystalize slower. Market research shows that people prefer golden-colored flowing honey, not the crystalized, spreadable kind- even though there is no difference in quality.
How to Find Raw: What to Ask Your Beekeeper
“Do you heat your honey when processing or bottling it?”
—> If yes: “what temperature do you heat it to?”
—> If no: “you don’t have to warm it at all to bottle it?”
If they don’t know what temperature it gets heated to, move along. Any beekeeper who cares about keeping their honey raw will be able to tell you the exact temperature they heat it to. The temperature inside of a hive is around 95 degrees F, which is also the highest you want to see your honey heated to.
At the time you are buying your raw honey, you may find it in either crystalized form or liquid form if it has been warmed to de-crystalize or is fresh from the hive!
They might tell you that they use a “hot knife” to uncap the wax before extracting it. Although this does heat some of the honey a little bit, it really doesn’t affect the “rawness.”
When extracting the honey from the comb, a lot of stuff comes with it- things like wax pieces, bee body parts, pollen granules, propolis and any other debris that might be hanging around on the frames.
Macrofiltration or “straining” is the process of using something like cheesecloth, a metal sieve, or a nylon mesh to remove particles that are visible to the naked eye. This is what most backyard beekeepers will do. Eighty-six the bee legs, but keep the pollen please. If you are buying from someone local, or a small producer, this is probably how it is “processed.”
Commercial operation honey (most of the honey found in your regular grocery store) is ultra-filtered, which removes much smaller particles that we can’t see, including pollen granules. Side-note: the honey is almost always heated in order to go through this process.
How to be Sure Your Honey is Unfiltered: What to Ask Your Beekeeper
“After you extract the honey, what do you use to filter it?”
A red flag would be if they start talking about big equipment, or having it sent somewhere for filtering.
The words: strainer, cheesecloth, or even nylon filter or filter bag are words you want to hear for the highest quality honey.
For anyone suffering with seasonal allergies, local raw honey can make all the difference in the world. In fact, our mentor got into beekeeping because of the miraculous improvement he experienced after eating local honey.
Your individual results may vary- there are a lot of factors at work, so you may want to try different local honeys until you find one that works best. When the honey was harvested, what the bees were foraging, and how far from your house the hives were can all determine the success of local honey for improving seasonal allergies.
Also note that for treating allergies, the honey should be raw and unfiltered.
Even if you don’t have allergies, buying local honey is a great way to support local beekeepers and help keep valuable pollinators in your area!
How to Find Local Honey: What to Ask Your Beekeeper
“Where are the hives located that this honey came from?”
Their preciseness when telling the location of their hives will vary depending on the beekeeper. Telling you the city or county, or even what quarter of the city or county the hives are in should be no problem for anyone. Don’t expect anyone to tell you the location down to the cross-streets… that’s getting a little personal, especially with the increase in theft of honeybees.
However, if the beekeeper knows the reason you are asking, they might be more than happy to tell you exactly where their hives are, or even help you find another beekeeper who may be closer to you.
Some beekeepers have hives in many different counties and even in different states, so it pays to ask.
A Bee’s Diet: GMO Sugar and Corn Syrup
It’s very common practice to feed bees sugar. I didn’t realize this when we first started beekeeping! And it may vary based on locale, but in our cold northern climate, almost everyone feeds their bees. Some feed them back their honey (the minority) and some feed them corn syrup or granulated sugar dissolved in water. And it’s not about taking all their honey and giving them back crap-food. Even when the bees are left plenty of honey to make it through the winter, they are still often fed.
This is usually for a couple reasons: 1) “Just to be safe.” At the end of winter it is hard to tell how much honey the bees have left, and if they will make it until the first flowers appear. 2) Feeding them stimulates activity and encourages the queen to start laying eggs, which helps jumpstart things in the hive.
Lucky for us, feeding takes place very early in the spring and also late in the fall, which is not when beekeepers are collecting honey. It is safe to assume that almost all of the sugar that bees are fed is stored and then used before it is time to harvest honey for human consumption. However, I definitely think it is reasonable to believe that some of that sugar or corn syrup could be left in the honey that is harvested. This is only speculation, as I haven’t seen any research on this topic. However, I have seen first hand how this could happen in real-life beekeeping.
It’s up to you whether this is a big deal or not. If it is, you have two options: 1) Only use certified organic honey- at least you know then that the bees were not fed GMO-sugar. 2) Interrogate your beekeeper.
How to Find Honey from Bees NOT Fed Processed Sugar: What to Ask Your Beekeeper
“What kind of sugar do you feed the bees?”
—> If the answer is “honey,” perhaps follow up with: “oh, you don’t have to feed them any sugar-water in the spring or fall?”
Treatment with Antibiotics and Chemicals
You’ve likely heard that honeybees are dying at a rapid pace, and one of the contributing factors to this is that bees are being parasitized by Varroa mites. There are a hundred different ways to control the mite population in bees- everything from completely organic methods using no substances whatsoever, to using powerful chemicals to kill the mites.
This is too large a topic to get into right now, for our purposes.
If the beekeeper in question is selling raw, unfiltered honey and is friendly and willing to talk to you about their bees, and who seems like they have an interest in keeping things as natural as possible- this is a good sign. Even better if the beekeeper has long flowing hair, is wearing a headband made out of daisies, or has an unusually calm and peaceful demeanor. Joking. But not really.
If there’s one thing to remember about beekeepers- it’s that they love to share information about bees. Don’t be afraid to talk to us. Ask your questions politely and not in an accusatory manor, but rather an inquisitive one. If you hear something that makes you un-interested in their honey, simply say: “Wow, beekeeping is so fascinating, thanks for the information!” and move along.
A good beekeeper, who practices methods that are good for the bees, and provides high-quality, raw honey to your community is a valuable find- so make sure and support them when you can!
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