The only guarantee of honey quality is to know your beekeeper and where your honey comes from. Picture: NATTHAPRAPHANIN JUNTRAKUL/123RF
The only guarantee of honey quality is to know your beekeeper and where your honey comes from. Picture: NATTHAPRAPHANIN JUNTRAKUL/123RF

It’s almost spring, so our thoughts will soon turn to … allergies.

A simple remedy punted by those in favour of alternative treatments is to consume raw honey made locally because the traces of pollen from the flowers on which bees forage could help some of us counter seasonal allergies by desensitising us to local pollens. But, like most remedies classified as “alternative”, the remedy is merely anecdotal, according to the Mayo Clinic website. However, honey does have anti-inflammatory properties, which is probably why it is so often punted as an antidote to a number of ills.

As more people around the world adopt better eating habits and seek out “natural” cosmetics and remedies, demand for honey and other products from bee hives are at a high. Bee colonies are decreasing and the decline has been blamed on excessive pesticide use on crops, among other things. This has led to a threat of fake or adulterated honey.

Even though about 1,500 beekeepers have registered with the department of agriculture over the years, South African Bee Industry Organisation (Sabio) chair Mike Miles says it is almost impossible to keep tabs on each one. Nor has it been easy to get exact figures on the volumes of honey being produced locally as beekeepers are not required to disclose their production figures and there are many hobbyist and small-scale beekeepers in addition to large commercial beekeepers. 

In South Africa we have incredible botanical biodiversity, but we haven’t done the necessary research and development needed to support marketing claims for premium South African honeys
Karen Dunn

And because adulterated honey and dodgy imports are not easy to trace, honey producers say that the only guarantee of quality is to “know your beekeeper”. There are currently no laboratories recognised under the SA National Accreditation System able to do what’s commonly referred to as C4 sugar level tests to work out the adulteration (added sugar) of honey.

In 2017, of a sample of eight honeys that were sent abroad for C4 tests, six were found to have C4 sugar levels in excess of the international limit of 7%. The lack of a national body to enforce standards means consumers are at risk of being duped by adulterated products.

Miles says Sabio has lobbied the government to form an Apicultural Advisory Council that would include representatives of all aspects of the beekeeping industry, and although the department has shown support for the idea, implementation is slow.

Given that domestic honey production is estimated at about 2,000 tons but consumption is as high as 5,000 tons, it means that most honey sold in SA is imported, says Wandile Sihlobo of the Agricultural Business Chamber.

And it’s a global issue. The EU in 2014 included honey on its list of top 10 foods most at risk of food fraud, a practice famously documented in the Netflix documentary series Rotten which exposed the global dimension of how sugar, maize and rice syrups are used to “cut” honey, much like drug dealers do with their wares.

Even though SA honey sellers are obliged to identify the country of origin on the packaging, no tests are done locally to verify the authenticity of the contents. In this context, the provenance of honeys makes a huge difference, argue artisanal beekeepers.

The answer is to be your own honey quality controller, argue beekeepers. Now an increasing number of artisanal beekeepers in SA are aiming to change consumer tastes and entrench higher quality standards.

Karen Dunn is a co-founder at The Urban Apiary. Picture: SUPPLIED
Karen Dunn is a co-founder at The Urban Apiary. Picture: SUPPLIED

But beekeeping requires patience and can be precarious. A hive (which costs a minimum of R1,300) may take up to two years to produce honey and droughts, pesticides, bee predators and theft by humans are added hurdles. One hive is a hobby – to be commercially viable would require up to 600 hives, with each hosting a colony of up to 25,000 bees that in a good year would produce 10kg of honey.

The Urban Apiary team of Ata Mkhwanazi, Karen Dunn and Rob Brine has a network of hives in Johannesburg gardens stretching from Melville to Houghton and offers advisory services relating to hives and honey. Bees tend to forage in a 3km radius, so Johannesburg gardens offer diverse and fertile grounds.

Dunn says that one of the biggest gaps in the local industry is the lack of marketing support.

Perhaps the best example of marketing genius is that of the Manuka honey, made by bees that pollinate the Manuka trees of New Zealand and Australia.  

The healing properties of Manuka honey are well documented because, compared to other honeys, it has high concentrations of an antibacterial component called methylglyoxal (MG), in addition to hydrogen peroxide.

Dunn, who studied zoology and psychology and has a background in marketing, says the existence of a rating system called the Unique Manuka Factor, puts Manuka honey in a league of its own and gives consumers a guide as to what to expect in terms of MG concentrations, and therefore the potential to heal.

“In SA we have incredible botanical biodiversity, but we haven’t done the necessary research and development needed to support marketing claims for premium South African honeys.”

Mulalo Tshikalange and Thembalezwe Mntambo, partners in Nyoc, keep bees and produce artisinal honey and honey products. Picture: SUPPLIED
Mulalo Tshikalange and Thembalezwe Mntambo, partners in Nyoc, keep bees and produce artisinal honey and honey products. Picture: SUPPLIED

Mulalo Tshikalange’s foray into beekeeping and making honey-based cosmetics was fortuitous — she was using honey as a daily cleanser when she started researching food-based skincare. Her research led her to Thembalezwe Mntambo, an urban garden enthusiast who helped her set up her first hives. They are now business partners and have close to 100 hives located in areas stretching from The Wilds in Houghton, to the Magaliesberg, East Rand and all the way to Limpopo and are now proud purveyors of artisanal honey, body butters, soaps and lip balms under the label Nyoc — an anglicised play on the word “nyosi” which means bee.

Tshikalange, a former HR practitioner, had used raw honey to treat her eczema, a condition that tends to be aggravated by parabens and other synthetic ingredients in soaps and cosmetics. Honey’s antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties proved to be an effective treatment and soon she was mixing balms for friends and family, using only wax from their hives, essential oils and other natural ingredients. The immediate relief she got from honey was in sharp contrast to the expensive, yet ineffective synthetic products she had tried before turning to this ancient remedy.

Urban gardens are attractive spots for hives, says Tshikalange, as they tend to have a wide variety of flowers and plants but lower concentrations of pesticides compared with commercial farming areas.

Most compelling of all, is that these urban hives provide another dimension to the locavore movement growing around the world — for consumers who are keen on reducing their ecological footprint, honey produced close to home, or better yet in the back garden, is a no-brainer.

Interesting honey facts

  • Honey is created when bees ingest nectar and pollen from plants and flowers and secrete enzymes to process the liquid. The same bit of liquid is passed between up to eight bees, with each adding enzymes.
  • Bees seal the cells of the honeycomb with wax only when the honey is “ripe,” first removing excess moisture by fanning the air with their wings.
  • The enzymes (proteins) denature when heated. Hive temperatures range from 36°C-38°C, so to retain the medicinal benefits of honey, it should be kept at that temperature or below. When honey crystallises, “bath” the bottle in water at a temperature comfortable for you to take a bath in.
  • “Natural” honey is collected from the comb and strained to remove the wax and propolis, whereas the honey sold by retailers are usually filtered multiple times and may be pasteurised to ensure a longer shelf life.
  • Honey bees are nature’s most efficient pollinators and hives enable more abundant fruit and flower yields, even in suburban gardens.

The medicinal properties of honey

  • The medicinal properties of honey have been recorded on Egyptian papyrus as far back as 3,500 years ago.
  • Natural honey has been found to inhibit the growth of microorganisms, and promote the healing of wounds and burns. It also has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Propolis, which is made by bees from plant sap, is used in cosmetics, tinctures and homeopathic treatments to treat a range of disorders, including but not limited to allergies, dermatological, oral, gastrointestinal and gynaecological problems.
  • While royal jelly produced by worker bees has been touted as a superfood, be wary of any product claiming to contain it. A beekeeper estimates that harvesting even a teaspoon will destroy at least 500 undeveloped bees who, as newly-hatched larvae, consume it for a limited time, while the queen bee consumes it exclusively.

Source: Mike Allsop from the honeybee research section of the Agricultural Research Council