The Benefits of Local Bees and Their Honey
Sep 04, 2014 12:59AM
Any warm weekend, shoppers can be found in long lines at farmers markets, waiting to buy local honey. This is even true in cities like Baltimore, D.C. and Philadelphia, where honey often sells for $10 to $25 a bottle. In New York, one urban farming company made foodie headlines when it offered its Brooklyn-made honey for $40 a pound—and quickly sold out of its seasonal stock.
Why are consumers so willing to pay high prices for local honey when there's ample stock of the cheaper stuff waiting on the shelf at the grocery store? And why are people so anxious to get honey from hives placed atop high-rises, in parks or along city streets?
Some hope for relief from seasonal allergies. The belief is that because bees gather nectar and eat pollen from local flowers, humans who eat the honey of local bees will somehow be given instant immune system recharges. The honey, some argue, provides immunotherapy, whereby the body is exposed to the pollen in small, harmless amounts in order to correct the allergic reaction. Certainly the anecdotal evidence for this is ample; many beekeepers themselves report that eating their own honey has helped bring down their hay fever.
This remains, however, an idea without any scientific backing as of yet. In fact, the only study conducted thus far on the topic, by researchers from the University of Connecticut in 2002, found that honey did not provide people suffering from seasonal allergies with any relief.
There are also those who think that buying local honey may help manage type 2 diabetes—an idea that medical professionals caution against. Both contain glucose and fructose, but a teaspoon of sugar contains 16 calories while a teaspoon of honey contains 22. Both sweeteners, doctors often point out, rank very close on the glycemic index. There seems to be no evidence that honey will help in the management of disease.
Honey does contain more vitamins and minerals than processed sugar but the amount and variety can vary based on where and how the honey is processed and what flowers the bees visited while making it.
Given the available science, it may be that the best reason to buy local urban honey isn't related to human health, but instead to the health and well-being of the honey bees. Beekeeping has become an increasingly expensive and challenging venture. Anywhere between 25-30 percent of the nation's bees die each year, forcing beekeepers to invest repeatedly in establishing new colonies.
While scientists continue to seek information on what's causing massive bee die-offs and the problems associated with Colony Collapse Disorder, buying local honey may help to keep beekeepers in business, allowing urban farmers to readily pollinate their needed crops in otherwise concrete-laden neighborhoods. Some growers say that without a hive or two installed near their rows of city-grown vegetable and fruit crops, they simply wouldn't be able to harvest enough food to make planting worthwhile. Bees, therefore, form an important part of the effort to end urban food deserts.
Local honey also tastes entirely different from what you often find in the grocery store. Each neighborhood has its own complex conglomeration of flowers and trees, making each harvest of honey slightly different from what might be pulled from hives just a few blocks away. Honey that has been gathered carefully by a local beekeeper and sold without any kind of heating or filtration has a fresh, strong flavor that cannot be matched by corporations who gather honey for processing from across vast areas of farmland.
Alison Gillespie writes from her home in Silver Spring. Her book about urban beekeepers trying to keep honey bees alive in America's Mid-Atlantic cities, titled Hives in the City, was published in March. For more information visit AlisonGillespie.com.