The Scary Truth About Commercial Honey (And How One Portland Producer Is Looking To Sweeten The Industry)
For those who are used to buying honey-filled bears from the supermarket, stop right now. According to Damian Magista, the founder and head beekeeper of Bee Local, a Portland Oregon-based raw honey company, commercial companies are typically not contributing to healthy hives or creating the good-for-you product you think you’re purchasing.
The Problem With Commercial Non-Raw Honey
According to Magista, commercial honey companies often move the hives around, despite the detrimental affect this has on the bees. Moreover, once the honey is procured they’ll typically heat it up to high temperatures allowing it to smoothly flow through the machines — depleting any flavor and nutrients in the process. You can typically tell when a honey has been through this process as it tastes over-cooked and over-caramelized. If a honey is truly good, it doesn’t need to be cooked, blended or modified, but instead holds a natural flavor that becomes immediately apparent upon tasting. As commercial honey is also typically from forage and hives that have been exposed to chemical, herbicides and fungicides, you’ll be ingesting those, as well.
Says Karen Foster of Truth Theory, “Most golden honey you see at your local grocery is dead and far from the health promoting powerhouse of its raw unpasteurized counterpart. Processed honey is not honey at all and if you desire any kind of health benefits, you must stick to the real stuff.”
In her article, she talks about not only the lack of health benefits in commercial honey, but also the adverse health affects, for instance, an increase in LDL cholesterol levels. Moreover, as commercial honey can be so processed it removes the pollen, it can’t even technically be called honey.
Foster cites an interesting study done by Food Safety News in 2013 where 60 vessels of honey where purchased throughout Washington DC, and tested by Vaughn Bryant, director of the Palynology Research Laboratory and one of the top honey researchers in the USA. The results were shocking: 76%+ honeys tested had the pollen removed. And these aren’t honeys sold in tiny unknown stores. We’re talking Walgreens, Walmart, Costco, Stop & Shop and other large companies.
When a honey contains no pollen, this means it has been filtered — a lot. And there is really no reason to do this as it removes all the health benefits and costs extra time and money. That is, unless you want to cover your tracks as to where it came from.
Which gets us into another big issue in the honey industry: honey laundering. This refers to large honey packers purchasing illegally imported honey — often tainted with FDA-banned chemicals. According to Magista, these honeys are extremely modified, cut with additives like high fructose corn syrup, unrefined sugar and malt sweeteners to add weight. Many times, this honey will stop at several ports around the world due to the fact that much of it is from China — where honey carries an import tax — to keep costs down. This honey travels a long way before it finds its way onto the grocery store shelves and into the home of unwitting customers.
An article on the subject by Live Science states that often these illegal honeys often contain lead, heavy metals and even antibiotics like chloramphenicol.
“Honey laundering relies on the lack of transparency in the honey trade to survive,” explains Magista. “The big honey packers are, in my opinion, complicit in it. They will claim otherwise. When they are buying very large quantities of honey at rock bottom prices they know where it’s coming from and what it is. Unfortunately they don’t care. It’s all about the bottom line.”
What’s even scarier is even when these chemical-filled honeys are caught at the border, they simply get sent back to the exporter — who then just repeats the routine until it gets through customs.
Like most food and drink products, the only way to be sure of a product is to meet the producer and visit the facility. Typically, the smaller the producer the higher the quality, as lack of machinery and industrialized production practices means more individual care goes into the item. Moreover, these producers are often more transparent with their practices, especially without big budgets that allow them to hide behind marketing jargon and PR tactics.
Not Focused On Honey
The thing is, commercial beekeepers aren’t really interested in producing honey — they only get a small amount of money for that. Instead, what they’re really offering are pollination services, which help other plants like almonds, cherries and avocados grow.
“It’s a huge business in Oregon and the United States,” explains Magista. “A commercial beek will have between 5,000 – 10,000 hives. They’ll get paid about $150 per hive to pollinate depending on the crop. So multiply that by, say, 10,000 hives and you have $150,000.00 just for one crop pollination. After they have finished they pack up the hives and move them to another crop. The honey tends to be a by-product of this industry.”
Colony Collapse Disorder
These negative practices — along with the fact many commercial honey companies take all of the honey from the hive when harvesting, which the bees need to get through lean times, among other factors — can contribute to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a major issue at the moment as honey bee populations are decreasing. CCD refers to the vanishing of bees from the hives and the collapse of the hives. This wouldn’t only mean the demise of honey bees, but also the many fruits and vegetables they pollinate.
For Magista and Bee Local, it’s about treating the hives with respect and allowing them to thrive. In fact, in his eight years of urban beekeeping, he’s never had one case of colony collapse disorder.
“Our main goal at Bee Local is to produce the most flavorful honey we can while supporting healthy populations of honey bees and educating the public about the how important our pollinators are to the health of our ecosystem,” he says. “We’re combating [negative honey industry issues] by being absolutely transparent about our honey, it’s origins and by educating the public about this problem. We want to lead by example.”
For Magista, bees are a passion and, as he believes, a destiny. When he tells the story of how he got involved with beekeeping, he explains that about eight years ago he was sitting in his backyard watching bees flying out of their hives. Suddenly, a voice told him that beekeeping was his destiny.
“It was like a lightening bolt hit my skull,” says Magista. “Through an odd set of circumstances it all played out and here I am. A full time professional beekeeper.”
To get things he started he would purchase bees from a sustainable beekeeper in Oregon and harvest honey in his yard. Finally, the time came when he needed more space. After putting a hive in a friend’s yard located in another neighborhood in Portland, he sampled the result and realized it tasted and looked completely different from what he’s producing before. That’s when a light bulb went off in his head: terroir honey.
Terroir. It’s a term typically associated with wine; however, the truth is honey and wine share many similarities, the main one being they’re influenced by the land the product is produced on. For bees, the plants they pollinate will affect the aromas, flavors and textures of a honey. For example, if a hive is in an area with lots of lavender you’ll get lavender characteristics in the honey. Of course, what forage is available will depend on the local soil, climate and landscape aspects, again getting us into terroir. The mouthfeel — another faceet often associated with wine — is affected by the flowers, sugars, water and pollen content of the honey. Magista provides the example of buckwheat honey, which tends to be very thick and rich. Compare this to an acacia honey, which is lighter and more buttery, and you’ll see the difference.
And you don’t have to travel to the countryside to experience this. Magista is doing it right in the city of Portland, using neighborhoods instead of vineyards, comparing and contrasting and seeing amazing results. For example, he describes his Mt. Tabor honey as having an exotic flavor — tasting “like a Stargazer lily smells” — while a honey from Creston-Kenilworth is rich in blackberry but with an uncanny citrus finish.
Bee Local, in line with its name, keeps things local by working with other Portland-based companies. For example, along with managing rooftop hives for New Seasons Markets and Provenance Hotels — which then gets used in their property bars and restaurant, they’re training Chef Chris Starkus of The Urban Farmer on how to keep bees on his rooftop garden. They’ve also worked with Salt & Straw Ice Cream to develop honey-infused flavors and have a number of other innovative collaborations in the works (wasabi honey and honey salt, anyone?).
The company is also working to produce single-origin honeys with foreign beekeepers, such as those in Ghana and Eritrea. The project allows Bee Local to not only make exotic and delicious honeys many people have never tried, but also helps to give market access to small, noncommercial beekeepers in developing nations. While the Ghanian honey he’s sampled tastes of dark, smokey caramel from the local neem, shea and baobab trees, the Eritrea is the exact opposite, crisp, clear and slightly resinous with a “legumesque” finish.
Having a rooftop honey experience with Bee Local on top of the Hotel DeLuxe. Video taken by Jessica Festa with a Nokia Lumia Icon.
A Rooftop Honey Experience
I get to experience Bee Local for myself during a tour of the hives atop Hotel Deluxe, one of the Provenance Hotels Magista works with. The view of Mount St. Helens is beautiful from the top. Even more spectacular, however, is the globs of honey that ooze from the honeycomb as Magista pokes his finger through. It’s like liquid gold.
Actually, it’s bee puke. Yes, you read that right. According to Magista, bees produce honey by gathering nectar from flowers and storing it in a special honey stomach — foraging until it is full — to be brought to the hive. The worker bee’s stomach begins breaking down the honey with their saliva and gut bacteria until they regurgitate it up for a hive bee to further break down and put into the honeycomb. Once a honeycomb cell is full, the bees will furiously fan their wings to help evaporate the excess water until is around 17 to 12 % water. Once the honey is at this stage, it will be capped with beeswax to become honey.
Sometimes, honey can also be bee poop. “Forest dew” honey is made when aphids feed on coniferous trees, then excreting a sugary liquid. From there, the honey bees will gather the stool and use it as a honey base.
“It’s double insect processed honey,” laughs Magista. “Bug poop and puke honey — it tastes amazing”
Also interesting is that beekeepers have the ability to actually make queen bees. Queen bees come from the same eggs that workers and drones do; however, it’s all about the way you care for them. According to Magista, you can turn a bee into a queen by feeding her only royal jelly for an extended period of time.
I taste some of the rooftop honey for myself, bees landing of my legs and arms but mellow as the nectar in the hive is flowing. It tastes and smells of fresh roses, not surprising as Portland is the “City of Roses” and the International Rose Test Garden is nearby. Terroir.
It’s The “Bee’s Knees”
Down in the hotel’s intimate Driftwood Room, which has retained the same interior since 1954 with round tables, driftwood-crafted artworks and unique acoustics that keep voices soft, I sample some more honey. This time, in cocktail form. There are four honey-infused libations on the menu tonight: a “Board of Directors” made with dry vermouth, green chartreuse, honey and lemon juice; a “Local Honey” featuring local Aria gin, farigoule wild thyme liqueur, honey and lemon juice; a “Port Authority” with whiskey, Port, honey, basil simple syrup and lemon juice; and a classic “Bee’s Knees” featuring gin, lemon and honey. The Bee Local honey enhances these drinks by offering a rich texture, smooth mouth feel and slight herbal essence.
Says the Driftwood Room’s Bar Manager, Mike Robertson, “Getting inspired with honey is easy. It is a versatile sweetener and can be used in many of the same ways you would use sugar or agave nectar. With the “Local Honey” drink I tasted the honey and I wanted to enhance the herbal taste, so I added Farigoule (French wild thyme liqueur) to a classic cocktail (the Bee’s Knees) and I worked on the proportions to get the balance just right. The honeycomb garnish was from my memories of eating it as a kid. I thought it would go well with the drink and it looks great on the glass.”
Despite the glowing recommendation, I order the “Port Authority” solely based on my love of Port, which also has a honeyed characteristic. The wine gives the drink body, while the lemon lifts the acidity and the basil offers an touch of earthy Portland sweetness, as the property also grows its own herbs in a rooftop garden. Despite everything going on, the whiskey shines through, not overpowering but just enough so you know you’re drinking alcohol. It’s heavenly, especially paired with bites like tuna tartar, croque-monsieur, veggie flatbreads and shrimp-blended crab cakes. It’s clear that honey can really sweeten a meal.
Visit For Yourself
Want to visit Bee Local yourself? Magista loves welcoming visitors to his small production facility at 1810 SE 10th Avenue to teach them about beekeeping and honey as well as allow them to savor a honey tasting. Like with wine, you can even do a vertical tasting to see how the honey changes over the years. Just be sure to make a reservation before you go, which can be done by emailing Damian (at) beelocal (dot) com. After your beer experience, head across the street to The Commons Brewery and see if they have a honey saison on tap.