When the sweetest thing on Earth turns foul

When the sweetest thing on Earth turns foul
The real deal, as made by honey bees. (Photos: Supplied. Collage: Tony Jackman)

We should ask ourselves: would we accept a fake banknote and attempt to use it as legal tender? Would we be happy if we paid for a can of pickled artichokes and opened it up to find potatoes in it? Yet ordinary people buy fake honey every day, and are prepared to pay a steep price for it, while the time-honoured art of beekeeping is under threat as a direct result of avaricious ill intent. And bad people get rich.

Is it surprising that, in a country where everything is contaminated with the cynical grime of the criminal mindset, even much of our “honey” is the work of people for whom the term “fraudster” would not seem inappropriate?

It takes 12 bees their entire lifespan to produce one teaspoon of honey, says South Africa’s only honey sommelier, Natasha Lyon. A bee will travel the equivalent of twice around the world while foraging, says bee fundi Chris Nicklin. A single honeybee (of which there are only two species in South Africa) will forage for up to 5km from the hive in a day, says beekeeper and veterinarian Dr Lynne Hepplestone. Yet even for something so pure, so utterly remarkable, and so freely given by nature, there are low human scamsters who see not beauty and largesse, but yet another opportunity to defraud us.

That jar of honey on the shelf that looks like honey, tastes like honey, pretends to be honey, most likely is not the pure work of bees. The greater part of it is more likely to be fake honey that is closer to golden syrup than the alluring wonders that bees produce. The flavourings and texture are manufactured, the colour imbued by shrewd engineering; smoke and mirrors deflect us with the avaricious design of a Machiavelli.

Honey fraud mostly comprises adulteration (dilution with cheap syrups from corn, grain, rice, cane et cetera) and mislabelling of geographical and/or botanical origin. One warning trigger for the gullible consumer is a label referencing mixed origin, such as Uruguay and South Africa.

There’s a grim irony in fake honey still costing not a very pretty penny, because the producers of fake “honey” know that we are prepared to pay a premium because we know that producing honey is costly. How deep an irony is that? And honey fraudsters are hardly any less wily than the plunderers of our municipalities and parastatals, even if their endeavours are even less likely to see them behind bars (there have been arrests). Says Nicklin: “Honey scammers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, certainly when it comes to using some sugars that cannot be detected as ‘false sugars’ in the available laboratory tests.”

And here we sit, we ordinary consumers trying to live decent lives, behaving ourselves and obeying the laws, and even honey — honey! — is fair game. We’re sitting ducks for honey fraudsters and scamsters who are quite happy to take advantage of the fact that it is almost impossible for us to know what really is in that jar.

Let’s start with the EU definition of honey, so that at least we know what it should be:

“Honey is the natural sweet substance produced by Apis Mellifera bees from the nectar of plants or from 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 (e.g., bee enzymes), deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in the honeycombs to ripen and mature.”

But we can try to wade through the mire of disinformation, and with that in mind, on the eve of the Cape Honey Festival on Saturday 4 March (and you can buy actual, real, proper honey there that’s not contaminated by human-fraudster-hand), we asked Chris Nicklin, spokesperson for the Western Cape Bee Industry Association, a very direct question: Is production of fake honey, and calling it honey, illegal? (I’d asked sommelier Lyon the same question and she’d replied in one word: “Absolutely!”)

Nicklin: “Completely illegal, as you will see in the labelling legislation. More generally, however, South African law conforms with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Codex Alimentarius which stipulates very clearly that honey (among all the other foodstuffs listed there), ‘must be the work of the bees’, to put it simply.”

Our experts have much deep and sound advice and knowledge.

A quick lowdown on things we can look for to help us know if a honey is genuine or not:

Does it taste like syrup (it shouldn’t)?

Is it very runny (it shouldn’t be)?

Does it contain pollen (hard to identify, but it should)?

Has it been irradiated (it shoudn’t be)?

What is its origin?

Is it in a nifty plastic squeezy bottle with gaudy labelling? Real honey tends to have somewhat classier packaging.

And finally, do a home taste test, and Lynne Hepplestone will explain that further on.

Natasha Lyon dug deeper:

“In the absence of a laboratory report, there is no way of telling if honey is adulterated (possible “additions” to honey includes molasses, beet sugar which is not detectable by some lab tests, can sugar, thickening agents, artificial invertase enzymes etc).”

Questions public can ask their suppliers, according to Lyon:

Was the honey heated, and if so to what temperature?

Are the honey sources from sustainable beekeeping practices?

Where is the honey from? Is it blended by the bottling company, and if so, which honeys was it blended with?

Does the honey contain raw pollen?

What filtering processes were used during bottling?

Date of harvest?

Botanical footprint or type of foraging, if known.

Is it an early summer or late summer harvest?

Ask how honey was extracted.

The widespread prevalence of fake honey on the South African market severely undercuts the mainstream beekeeping industry, says Nicklin. Asked whether the real honey industry is under threat by the proliferation of fake honey, and how big the threat is, he replied: “It is difficult to accurately quantify the precise threat, but there is no doubt that the widespread prevalence of fake honey on the South African market severely undercuts the mainstream beekeeping industry. 

“Commercial beekeeping is a very tough occupation — South African beekeepers are confronted with myriad challenges, which include dramatically declining forage sources for our bees, spiralling input costs, widespread theft and vandalism of hives, the increasing incidence of wildfires which burn apiaries, among numerous other things.

“Fake honey, bulked up with such things as corn and rice syrups, are sold at a much lower price point, meaning that beekeepers selling pure honey are not able to compete, making their businesses unviable and unsustainable.”

The term “fake honey”, he says, “is typically used to describe small amounts of real honey that have been bulked up with cheap sugars and syrups. Often these syrups are derived from corn and rice, which are much cheaper and easier to produce than real honey.

“Naturally, they also lack the beneficial enzymes that make honey a special and unique product.”

So much for fake. Real honey is defined by law as being “derived from the nectar of flowers, sugary excretions of insects, plant juices or sugary secretions of living plant parts other than flowers”, according to FactsSA. And the two honey bee species in South Africa are Apis mellifera scutellata (wild African bee, found inland) and Apis mellifera capensis (found along the Cape coastline).

But how do ordinary people know the difference between real or fake (adulterated) honey?

Nicklin: “It can be very difficult, but typically, fake honey lacks the nuances of pure honey. It’s almost like eating golden syrup. Real honey has a complex flavour with floral notes. Ideally, the sweetness of the honey should not overwhelm the flavour. Fake honey has no complexity and you are just left with the overwhelming taste of sweetness in your mouth. There’s a widely available fake honey (“Mountain Honey” sold in most corner shops and at the side of the road) that is a shockingly crude product when tasted alongside real honey. According to such regulating bodies as the World Health Organization, honey must also contain some pollen to be considered ‘real’.”

How do we confirm a honey’s authenticity?

“A lot of supermarket honey products available in South Africa are blends from abroad,” says Nicklin. “Given the often wide range of sources, it is extremely difficult to confirm the authenticity. Added to this, a lot of imported foreign honey comes from China where it is common practice to feed the bees sugar (and other syrups) to produce ‘a honey’. So yes, often consumers are paying a similar price for an inferior honey as they would for a choice-grade locally produced one.”

Which brings us to the pertinent question of what we are paying for honey, whether real or fake, and what we should be prepared to pay if the beekeeping community is to be able to survive.

“I would argue,” says Nicklin, “that pure South African honey is inexpensive. Given the money, time and effort that is put into producing it, consumers are getting a natural product second to none. These days, a bottle of average South African wine is similar in price terms to a jar of honey. 

“Bear in mind, honey bees travel the equivalent distance of twice around the world while foraging to produce 500g of honey. Beekeepers are also subjected to the high input costs and vagaries of agriculture, never mind the backbreaking work and long hours that are required to properly manage healthy honeybee colonies that are able to store surplus honey for our enjoyment.”

Natasha Lyon was prepared to stick her head out and name a fair price for a jar of real honey. “We have to be prepared to pay fair prices for the real thing. And currently these poor guys are selling their honey for R70, R80 a jar. Let me tell you, you cannot keep bees and extract honey for that. Your fuel alone… you just cannot. But they are trying to compete with cheap imports from China and elsewhere across the world. But we don’t know if it’s honey. That is a true tragedy.”

So what would Lyon expect to have to pay for a standard-size jar of the real deal?

“For me? For me? For me, I’m a supplier. This is very, very sticky but I’m going to put my head out, and look, you can tell them that Tasha says that. But for me, no jar should be under R130 a jar.”

But let’s hear another strong voice on the topic. Dr Lynne Hepplestone, veterinarian, beekeeper and “learner honey judge”, as she calls herself, draws attention to the challenge of raising awareness of “adulterated (fraudulent) honeys”.

The work of bees. (Photo: Supplied)

How would the public know an adulterated table honey?

“Acquire knowledge of how to interpret the labels: Where does this bottle of table honey come from? There are gazetted regulations of honey labels, and the country of origin of the contents has to be specified. It’s not uncommon to read ‘Product of South Africa and/or China, and/or Vietnam’.

“On the labelled average values of Typical Nutritional Information, the carbohydrate [sugar] of which total sugar % should be around 82% in pure choice grade honey, it’s not unusual to find a commercial bottle with a 63% total sugar — this does not fit with a beekeepers’ choice-grade honey.

“If the label says it’s irradiated, it’s near-impossible to be a pure local honey, and is most likely imported and mixed with local honeys in a dilution effect, typically stretched / mixed with corn syrup or an inverted sugar syrup, and by-products of the sugar industry. Tons of honey is imported into RSA, and all has to be irradiated. Radiating honey is an expensive exercise for a local beekeeper, and not readily accessible even if required. (Note: I am not discussing medical grade honey, this discussion pertains to regular table honey bought by a consumer.)

“Pure honey is a naturally inverted sugar, with a higher viscosity than corn syrup/sugar byproducts. Adulterated honeys are often very “runny honeys”, often all uniform in colour (to a marketing standard of what the consumer is expected to prefer), and available in mega-quantities all year round that close to defy the stocking capacity of beekeeping. Nature doesn’t quite work like that.

“The home taste test: buy a container of golden syrup, and a bottle of honey, a commercial bottle off the large chain supermarket shelf, and also a known bottle of local beekeepers honey. Note how rapidly the after-taste of a sugar syrup drops off the tongue, against the true honey. If your honey sample ‘tastes like syrup’, and drops off tastelessly, it may well be adulterated, hence it does indeed ‘taste like syrup’.

“‘Tasting like syrup’ isn’t an illegal exercise, it’s our imperfect legislation that allows for the loopholes and exploits the commercial market.”

On the topic of labels being misleading, Nicklin says:Labelling can be very misleading so there are not necessarily any ‘warning signs’ to suggest that it might be fake honey. But when buying local honey, a recommended safeguard is to inspect the label for the beekeeper’s name and contact details. If you are buying from a named South African beekeeper, you can almost be assured that you are purchasing genuine honey. By law, South African beekeepers are expected to register with the Department of Agriculture. Often their DALRDD number, as it’s known, appears on the label.”

Is it bad practice or fraud?

Nicklin: “Probably bad practice, because South African bulk packers of honey are unlikely to be certain of the exact provenance of the honey they are selling to local consumers.”

Natasha Lyon was at pains to emphasise that she is not prepared to say that certain words on a label mean it contains fake honey. 

“Without a laboratory, I cannot make that statement. But as for people who want raw honey, who want pure honey in the best possible form, as made by nature with the bee enzymes intact, and all the goodness of the honey intact, you want to steer away from honey on the labels that says, ‘Uruguay and/or South America and/or South Africa’, because it means they’ve taken local honey and they’ve mixed it with imported honey; they’ve blended it and more than often they’ve heated it.”

She added that she would also “steer away from irradiated honey” because it is made in a process that “can compromise some of the innate nutrients in the honey, and I would really try and seek out local beekeepers”.

There are a lot of labels now that say “raw honey” to differentiate their honey from honey that’s been heated. 

“In the production process of honey it is acceptable to heat honey to hive temperature of about 40 degrees,” says Lyon; “anything more than 40 degrees, you have risked damaging the honey.”

It would be helpful, Lyon adds, if our labels indicated that the contents have been “heated to high temperature”. Another factor that would help the consumer assess a honey from its label would be information about its basic botanical footprint.

Why should we care about beekeepers and why should we be prepared to pay a fair (or high) price for the real thing? Hepplestone answers it best:

A beekeeper cares for their apiary sites and their hives, and the process often entails travelling great distances. Seasonal maintenance is a regular time-consuming business, and when there is the much-anticipated ‘honey flow’ as per the available seasonal foraging, the hours harvesting honey are long and heavy-duty. There’s enormous cost involved getting honey to the table, and the beekeepers are severely undermined by cheap honey imports. Cheap honey on the shelf is a cheap shot. Get back to basics: support Local. Meet your local beekeepers and support them. Read the labels. Choose sustainably. Grow bee plants. Rewild your gardens and pavements. Grow your bee awareness. Join your local Beekeepers Association. Attend the Honey Festival to see the range of real honeys available. And never stop learning.”

There’s a lot of dark matter in the story of honey today, but let’s wrap up by bringing more light into the story. Natasha Lyon has sound advice for those of us who’re wondering, what can we do?

Bees doing their sweet work. (Photo: Supplied)

I always say, please don’t go out and get a bee hive. Because introducing another 60,000 little mouths in your garden perhaps is not the best thing for our native and solitary bees.”

What to do then?

“Plant for bees. Allow spaces to rewild.Challenge governments to replant verges and parks for native and solitary bee species. Introduce insect sanctuaries. Say no to harmful chemicals. (A great read is scientist Dave Goulsan’s latest book Silent Earth.) It is a must-read which educates and drives the point home that with the rapid decline of insects, human life on earth is not sustainable. It is estimated that there are around 5 million species of insects and that we have only named 1 million of them! Just imagine what we don’t yet know.” 

Lyon adds: “If you want to save the bees, then just plant food for bees. Put up a little solitary bee hotel, leave a pot in your garden to rewild, it must have bark and pieces of wood and leaves and just leave it undisturbed and you will be amazed. A bee hotel is okay. Your little solitary bee hotel, they’re so cool and they just move in. Even ground bees, your ground bees, choose it. So I put up pots of soil that I don’t water and my little ground bees nest in the area.”

Lyon was emphatic that in the absence of a laboratory report, “no honey judge or honey sommelier can authenticate honey. However, years of tasting experience can help to define the properties and flavour and aroma profile of various harvests”.

One final thought: is R130 or thereabouts really too much to pay for a jar of the work of bees, when for hardly much less you can get the equivalent amount of the work of fraudsters? DM/TGIFood

Want to find real honey? The Cape Honey Festival in Paarl is the place to be tomorrow, Saturday 4 March. Natasha Lyon will be giving an introduction of honey-sensory analysis to beekeepers and there will be talks by experts in the field. It begins at 11am and you’ll find all the details here

Also plan to get to the African Regional Apimondia Symposium at the ICC in Durban from March 21-24 which will include a Honey, Mead and Bee products competition.

Further reading:

Don’t bee fooled: Consumers and retailers warned of honey fraud

The joys and perils of a backyard beekeeper


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Marianne McKay says:

    Thank you. Excellent article. Going to put a bee hotel in my garden right now.

  • Paul Roux says:

    There is a supermarket item that calls itself ‘Little Bee Honey’. At least that’s a somewhat honest name, because by a taste and consistency, compared with the real thing it contains very little that was produced by bees.

  • Luan Sml says:

    Great article with some good tips, I am certainly going to put up a bee hotel in my garden, lots of small actions by honey bee lovers can make a huge difference for our native bees!

  • Anne Gaisford says:

    I have always presumed that “irradiated” referred to a process of heating required for import (disease control?) purposes. How does the process damage pure honey and is it likely that some of our irradiated supermarket varieties could still be pure and not necessarily mixed with other syrups?

  • Peter Holmes says:

    With a bit of effort, it not difficult to find pure (unadulterated) honey from a local producer. The honey I buy is bottled at source, with a simple label printed by the bee-keeper, stating his name and phone number and the words “pure multiflora honey”. The honey is not cheap, but it is certainly not overpriced. PS: pure honey in a jar will crystalise comparatively quickly (weeks, not months) and this is itself a “sign” of puity.

  • Jo Stielau says:

    Buy in a wide necked glass bottle ( the honey was bottled with the expectation that it would crystallise) avoid jars with multiple sources and the wording ” packaged for… ( name of supermarket) and, I can’t emphasise this enough, look for the name of the beekeeper and a local address on the label. Expiry date not necessary!

  • Wanda Hennig says:

    I appreciated the comment about good, real honey being less sweet (and more complex). Have noticed that, what seem to be the “better” honeys, are not so sweet. But even seeking out raw, non-irradiated (and local, of course), there is no consistency. Some are runnier, some thicker, some lighter, some darker. Not an exact science, the buzzings of these little bees… As a honey fan, one who likes to seek out and try different (hopefully real and unadulterated) honeys, I enjoyed this read. Thanks.

  • Elizabeth Lamb says:

    All shops, road stalls etc. should by a new/strict law, have clear signs visible in their display of fake/mixed honey products, and these must not be packed on the same shelf as 100% pure honey. Customers should report retailers if the regulations/law is not followed.
    Perhaps beekeepers should provide more details on their labels as well.
    Dairy farmers should also insist that their products, such as milk, cream, cheese, butter are not displayed together with palm oil/vegan products…..

  • Barrie Lewis says:

    Actually it’s even worse than this. German researchers testing small beekeepers’ natural honey found to their astonishment that it actually is low GI. In fact other researchers have found that taken regularly it actually lowers the fasting blood glucose test. It’s really good for us, and even good for diabetics in small quantities.

    But commercial honey? It comes as no surprise that being a mixture of glucose and fructose that they found it does indeed have a very high GI as expected. It’s very bad for us.

    To my knowledge no one is yet able to explain how and why natural honey has a low GI. But it does.

    One other test to add to those above. Take off the lid and smell the honey. Natural unheated honey gives of those “notes” – don’t you love that word?! of a million flowers. Commercial honey has no smell. It’s dead.

    “There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.” Except that commercial honey by and large is a lot worse, not just a little. Don’t touch it except perhaps for baking.

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