Bee-lines :Series 2 Number 3

Organic Beekeeping

My personal motivation for offering this particular Bee-lines piece arises from my interest in food and agriculture. For some years I have been interested, read widely and studied issues related to national and International food production, nutrition and the problems encountered by the overfed and undernourished in our world. As a chemist and environmentalist I have worried about agrochemicals and loss of biodiversity for six decades. So naturally at various times my interest has been aroused by the organic food movement. I make no claims about being a convert but I try to shop and eat with a raised awareness and take my opportunities where and when I can.

So as a beekeeper who sells honey (in a good year), I always look at other peoples local offerings on the farm shop and deli shelves. I have wondered about organic honey and organic beekeeping – not with any intention of practising it myself –knowing how much effort goes into organic food production I imagined that producing ‘certified’ organic honey would be extremely challenging. Nevertheless what follows here gives an idea of what would be involved.

I have relied very heavily on two websites for the information given here. and –these sites confirmed my feeling that taking up organic beekeeping would be very very challenging. However reading about it cannot but cause one to admire those who take it on

What Is Organic Beekeeping?

If you’re an organic gardener, and if you prefer to purchase organic food, then you may be keen to ensure you engage in organic beekeeping practices too.

On the other hand, you may simply be concerned about chemical usage – such as pesticides in hives (i.e. the kinds of veterinary treatments which are essentially pesticides to treat pests on honey bees, such as Varroa mites).

What Are The Standards For Producing Organic Honey?

If you're a beekeeper, your reasons may extend beyond the wish to simply produce organic honey.

In any event, standards may vary across countries, but in general, organic beekeeping practice tends to advocate:

  • The use of natural materials in the build of beehives. Only untreated timber. Consequently polystyrene bee hives and plastic beehives –would not be permitted in organic beekeeping.

  • Managing bees in a way that promotes optimum health, whilst minimising (or possibly avoiding) use of conventional veterinary products for controlling diseases, mites, and by using natural, organic methods for dealing with problems in the bee hive and honey bee colony. An example here is the use of lemon juice to deal with Varroa mites. Some beekeepers advocate the use of icing sugar (powdered sugar) to encourage bees to groom .

  • Placing honey bee hives on certified organic land, away from potential sources of contamination – foraging radius varies by country – EU law advocates that the foraging radius on organic land must be 3km). In UK an apiary must be sited on certified organic land, allowing a foraging radius of 4 miles (UK Soil Association standards), where nectar and pollen sources must also not be subject to potential pollution from motorways, incinerators, chemical plants etc. This may sound simple in practice, but in reality such stretches of land (which also have to be rich in forage material), are not likely to be available for many beekeepers to simply plonk his or her bee hives in such places, as and when they feel like it – not in the UK, anyway!

  • Allowing honey bees to consume their own honey – that is, organic beekeepers do not remove all the honey from the bee hives – sufficient honey must be left for the bees themselves to feed upon during the winter months.

Standards can go further than this too, which may pose real obstacles to beekeepers wishing to sell organic honey, where in some countries, rules are particularly strict, and certification is expensive and difficult, as well as being tightly monitor ed. Other countries may not have such strict rules in reality. In the UK, for example, regulatory requirements put many small scale beekeepers in a very difficult situation with regard to producing certified organic honey, yet many small scale beekeepers are following organic beekeeping practice to the very best of their ability – and who knows, to a higher standard than in some other countries. No doubt beekeepers in countries with similar strict standards feel similar frustrations.

As for most individual beekeepers, they are garden owners, rather than major land owners, and even if they garden themselves, they are unlikely to be able to guarantee organic to certification standards.

This is worth taking into account if you buy honey from a local supplier, which I tend to advocate as a preference. Realise that organic beekeeping is a complex matter, and that all individual beekeepers can do, is do their best – but even this is unlikely to satisfy regulators.

  • If feeding of bees is required, only certified organic honey (which is difficult to get) or organic sugar may be given, and may take place only between the last honey harvest and 15 days before the first nectar flow.

  • If conventional veterinary products must be used, a prescription must be issued, wax must be replaced, and withdrawal from ‘organic’ is required for the period of one year.

  • If beeswax foundation and comb are being used, they must be made from organic beeswax – again, from certified organic hives, which is a complex matter in the first place.

These are only SOME of the restraints. Then of course, there is the cost of Certification of the organic honey. In practice, many beekeepers may take it upon themselves simply to follow organic beekeeping principles as far as they can, without the added complications of gaining certification, and the various hoops they would be required to jump through. They may simply focus on the bees, the health of the bees, and taking only some honey as and if appropriate/possible, for themselves.

Other beekeepers may incorporate organic beekeeping practices to various degrees into their natural beekeeping methods, a practice which also promotes the building of comb by the honey bees themselves, keeps chemicals out of hives, and uses top bar hives.

Mankind has been keeping bees for thousands of years. We first domesticated bees in Ancient Egypt. We harvested them for their honey, one of the world’s most healthy foods and the most nutritious sweetener. The practice spread all o ver the world. As time passed, we modernized the keeping of domesticated bees. We started to use chemicals, like pesticides and herbicides, and hives built of plastic. These chemicals and materials contain ingredients that threaten the health and fitnes s of the bees and the beekeeper. These methods include sugar water feeding, artificial insemination of the queen and pesticide treatments.

Thus organic beekeeping was born. It seeks to avoid the worst traits of modernity. Bees should not be treated as honey making machines. Their health should be taken care of too. The health of the bee contributes to the health of me.

In summary, organic beekeeping requires that:

  • The location of the hive must be an unpolluted area.

  • Natural methods must be used in the feed, the methods and the materials

  • Conventional veterinary medicine and pesticides must be avoided.

A beekeeper doesn’t need to follow all these to call themself a practitioner of organic beekeeping. Some of the limitations may be impossible for a recreational beekeeper. A good example is the requirement for an unpolluted location. Good luck with that if you live near any city. But if the honey is to be certified as organic then all those rules must be followed.

All these rules are intended to ensure that the bees produce the purest, the best and the most nutritious honey imaginable. Too much contamination of pollutants will cause the honey that we eat to become unhealthy as well. Organic beekeeping aims to keep both humans and bees healthy.


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