Atlantic Canadian Honey: A Premium Local Product

Thursday 11 August 2022

It is well known that honey from Atlantic Canada is special.  The wildflower honey produced in our region is recognized as a pure, premium product.  Honey adulteration and contamination is not a recognized problem in our part of the world but there are some facts around this global issue that are worth noting.  A brief discussion of some these are presented in this week’s blog.

Atlantic Canadian Honey: A Premium Local Product

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which is accepted as the international authority, honey is defined as, “the natural sweet substance produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants or secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in the honey comb to ripen and mature.”  Our own Canadian definition, as used by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), similarly follows these guidelines and confirms that honey is a natural product only produced by bees.  Anything else cannot be called honey!

In spite of these clear definitions, honey is the third most adulterated food in the world.  In an attempt to increase profits, real honey has been adulterated with plant syrups from rice, corn, or beet, and also sugar solutions have been chemically modified to mimic real honey. These cheap alternatives can negatively impact the price and reputation of authentic honey.  This intentional adulteration of honey is a serious concern to the Canadian industry and the focus of groups like the Canadian Honey Council.  A recent survey*, undertaken by the CFIA, found that of 148 samples collected during marketplace monitoring of honey product in Canada, 16 were non compliant (i.e. not 100% real honey).  All of the non-compliant samples were from outside of Canada.  This result reinforces the fact that Canadian honey is a pure product.

Aside from intentional adulteration, and in order to protect the reputation of Canadian honey, there are practices which beekeepers can undertake to prevent unintentional contamination. Beekeepers can work with local farmers and landowners to ensure they are aware when agrochemicals or other potentially harmful sprays are being applied. Some of these chemicals may accumulate in the nectar of plants, which bees will collect to make honey. Also, when applying chemical treatments in the control of any honey bee pests and disease, such as Varroa mites, it is very important to follow the directions on the label. Certain pesticides, antibiotics or other chemicals are not permitted for use when honey supers are in place.  Most will also require a pre-harvest interval (PHI).  This is the amount of time that you need to wait between treatment and placement of honey supers. Following these rules will help prevent possible contamination of honey.

Frame of Honey (ATTTA©2021)

When doing comb rotation in a hive, frames from honey supers can be used for brood chambers, but the opposite should be avoided. Brood comb may have an accumulation of chemicals from previous applications of pesticides. There is also the possibility of other contaminant such cocoons and frass from the brood, as well as other bacteria and fungus.  Best practice is to rotate out old comb every 4 – 5 years.

Another controllable, quality measure of honey is the moisture content.  According to the CFIA, grade A honey should have a moisture content of not more than 17.8%.  When harvesting honey, frames should be 80-90% capped to ensure that the honey is fully ripened and matured. Also, a refractometer can be used to check the moisture of honey to ensure it is finished.  Honey must have a low enough moisture content to prevent the honey from fermenting, so this is important consideration when producing honey.

Honey production can be one of the most rewarding tasks for a beekeeper and the time is quickly approaching for the harvesting to start. There are a few factors, from the bees perspective, to consider before harvesting that liquid gold. Honey bees require enough honey to make it through any periods when a food source is not available. Generally, it is recommended that a colony always has at least three frames of honey and eight to ten frames to successfully survive the winter. In Atlantic Canada, there is usually a drought in August where bees will use their stores for food, so if honey is harvested early, ensure there is enough honey left to sustain the colony.  In the fall, ensure the bees are fed well in preparation for overwintering!

By John MacDonald, ATTTA Summer Research Assistant,

*Report: Honey authenticity surveillance results (2019 to 2020) Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

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