Genuine Unidentifiable Bee Keepers inspect their Bee Hives and t

Often “local” honey is a by-product from bees used in commercial agriculture.

Health Impact News Editor Comments

John Thomas does an excellent job of addressing the common belief that healthy honey has to be “local” honey produced nearby where you live.

Considering the fact that most honey bees in the United States today are transported all over the country to pollinate commercial agricultural crops dependent on the use of toxic herbicides and pesticides, it is obvious that simply being “local” is not a guarantee of a higher quality product.

John investigates the current science on this topic of “local honey,” and discusses what issues are far more important in selecting a high quality honey.

Is Your Local Honey Really Local?

by John P. Thomas
Health Impact News

Is your local honey really local? There is considerable conversation on the Internet these days about the benefits of eating local honey. Much of the discussion revolves around using local honey to help with pollen related allergies.

Some say that local honey contains a blend of local pollen, which can strengthen a person’s immune system, and reduce pollen allergy symptoms.

Is this true? Let’s take a look.

The first fact is that there has been very little scientific research on whether local honey is helpful for the reduction of pollen related allergy symptoms. [1, 2]

There are a few studies to consider, and a huge amount of personal opinion on the topic. I will show you two of the most significant studies.

But before I do, I will summarize the honey making process and the theory behind why some people believe that local honey is useful for providing pollen related allergy relief.

Bees Use Nectar and Pollen to Prepare Food for the Hive

Honey is made from plant nectar and not from pollen. Bees have two stomachs. One is used for digesting food and the other is used for collecting nectar.

Bees suck up nectar from flowers and collect it in their nectar stomach where enzymes are added to the nectar. The result is that nectar is broken down into simple glucose and fructose. The transformed nectar is then regurgitated into the bodies of worker bees in the hive for further processing before it is put into cells of the honeycomb for storage.

The partially digested watery nectar is vigorously fanned by the worker bees to evaporate excess moisture.

Finally, once the honey has thickened into a sticky sugary substance, the bees place a wax cap over the cell of honey to preserve it for long term storage.

A single worker bee produces only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. [3]

Bees also gather pollen to make bee bread, which is the honey bee’s main source of protein. Bee bread also provides fats/lipids, minerals, and vitamins. [4]

The bee bread is mostly used to feed young bees. The worker bees in the hive process the pollen into bee bread and store it in separate honeycomb cells in the hive to preserve it.

The bees do not intentionally mix honey and pollen in the same cells. The honey is the food that bees will live on during the winter when they cannot forage for nectar and pollen.

There can be large amounts of loose pollen in a beehive. It commonly clings to the hairs on the legs of bees.

The activity of bee movement in the hive causes pollen to become airborne and it can fall into the open cells of unripe honey that are in the drying process. [5]

Bees Selectively Gather Pollen to Satisfy their Nutritional Requirements

All pollen is not equal for bee vitality.

Thus, there may be some types of pollen in the local environment which never make it into the hive or into honey, because the bees choose to not collect it or because bees automatically filter out and excrete most of the pollen that they accidentally drink when they collect nectar.

Their nectar collection stomach has the ability to gather and excrete pollen into their feces without digesting it. [6]

Does Honey Contain Pollen from the Area where the Bees Forage?

If you place a beehive in your backyard, then the bees will search out nectar and pollen from your local neighborhood. No one can control where the bees go during their travels, or which types of plants they visit.

Even though there will be many sources of pollen in a local neighborhood, not all forms of pollen will necessarily be brought back to the hive. When a bee sucks nectar from a flower, it usually takes up some pollen.

However, up to 90% of the pollen is filtered from the nectar in its nectar stomach before it returns to the hive. Large pollen types will usually be filtered out completely, while some small pollen types will remain.

The result is that the percentage distribution of pollen types that remains in the nectar will have no relationship to the distribution of pollen types that were in the local environment where the bees traveled.

Sometimes, a certain pollen type may be completely absent from honey even though that plant may dominate the environment. [7, 8]

Processing of Honey

When honey is removed from the hive, it needs to be filtered to remove parts of bee bodies and pieces of wax.  If a coarse filter is used with minimal heating, then the honey will contain all of the pollen that was present in the original honey.

The majority of commercial honey, however, does not use this processing method. Instead, very fine filters are used along with heat to create a totally clear honey with long shelf life.

This ultra-filtered honey does not contain any pollen. Sometimes ultra-filtering is used to hide the country of origin for the honey (China) and sometimes it is just done to produce a product that resists crystallization and that has more visual appeal.

A 2011 test of grocery store honey found that 76% had all the pollen removed, and 100% of drug store honey was completely devoid of pollen. [9]

Theory behind Using Honey to Treat Pollen Allergies

The theory starts with the assumption that the pollen that causes a person’s allergies is found in the local geographical area where a person spends time. The pollen comes from the reproductive activity of flowers, grasses, trees, shrubs, and vines.

The second assumption is that local honeybees are collecting all the pollen types in the local environment and bringing them into the beehive.

The third assumption is that small amounts of all local pollen types will end up being incorporated into the honey that is made in the beehive.

The fourth assumption is that a positive immuno-therapeutic response will occur when a person eats a daily dose of honey over a number of months.

The agent that is believed to bring about the reduction in allergy symptoms is the small amount of local pollen that is found in local honey. This response is said to parallel a vaccine response. If a tiny amount of an allergen is introduced into the body through consuming honey, then the person’s immune system will be stimulated to respond appropriately to the problematic pollen type.

Over time, it is believed that the immune system will become strong enough to handle the same pollen when a person encounters larger amounts of the pollen in the environment. When this happens successfully, a person will not have a severe allergic reaction, but will be able to expel the pollen from his or her body without a noticeable allergic reaction.

The key to the entire theory is that honey must be produced by bees from your own neighborhood or as close to where you live as possible. [10, 11]

Has Honey been Proven to Help People with Pollen Allergies?

Based on individual reports, it is clear that some people experience a reduction in pollen allergy symptoms by eating small amounts of honey on a daily basis during the months leading up to allergy season.

On the other hand, this strategy does not seem to benefit everyone with pollen allergies. Some people receive a benefit from eating honey that is locally produced and others receive the same benefit from honey that is produced in other locations. Some people do not experience any positive change regardless of the honey type or source they use.

Let’s take a look at two studies – one shows that honey is not effective for allergy relief and the other shows a significant benefit. We will start with the older study.

2002 Study at the University of Connecticut Health Center

Thirty-six participants who complained of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis were recruited. Rhinoconjunctivitis commonly consists of nasal congestion, runny nose, post-nasal drip, sneezing, red eyes, and itching of the nose or eyes.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first received locally collected, unpasteurized, and unfiltered honey. The second received nationally collected, filtered, and pasteurized honey.

The control group received corn syrup with synthetic honey flavoring. They were asked to consume one tablespoon of the honey or honey substitute per day, and to follow their usual plan for managing their allergy symptoms.

All participants were instructed to maintain a diary of their allergy symptoms, and to indicate when they took their allergy medications.

The researchers reported that neither honey group experienced relief from their symptoms in excess of that seen in the placebo group. They concluded that honey did not relieve the symptoms of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis. [12]

It is not clear whether the participants in this study used the honey for several months leading up to allergy season.

In 2011, the New York Times reported on this 2002 study. They attempted to validate the original findings of the study by reconfirming that honey was an ineffective tool for gaining allergy relief.

They quoted the president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, Dr. Stanley Fineman, who stated that seasonal allergies are usually triggered by windborne pollen, not by pollen spread by insects.

He thought that it was unlikely that honey collected from plants that do not cause allergy symptoms would provide any therapeutic benefit.

The position of the New York Times was confirmed by some readers and challenged by others who posted comments about their positive experiences with local honey. [13, 14]

2011 Finnish Study of Birch Pollen Allergies

Researchers noted that only a few randomized controlled trials have been carried out to evaluate various complementary treatments for allergic disorders. This study assessed the effects of the pre-seasonal use of birch pollen honey to treat allergy symptoms.

These were patients who normally used seasonal medication to handle the discomfort of their birch pollen allergy. The birch pollen honey was formulated by adding birch pollen to regular honey.

Patients consumed a measured amount of either birch pollen honey or regular honey on a daily basis from November through March. A control group did not receive honey, and received their usual allergy medication.

From April to May, patients made daily observations of their allergy symptoms and use of medication. Fifty patients completed the study.

During birch pollen season birch pollen honey patients reported a 60% lower total symptom score. They had twice as many asymptomatic days and 70% fewer days with severe symptoms, and they used 50% less antihistamines compared to the control group.

The differences between the birch pollen honey and regular honey groups were not significant. However, the birch pollen patients used less antihistamines than did the regular honey patients.

They concluded that patients who pre-seasonally used birch pollen honey had significantly better control of their symptoms than did the control group that only used conventional medication. They noted that birch pollen honey had marginally better control compared to those on regular honey. [15]

I want to make a few observations about this experiment.

First, the honey did not naturally contain birch pollen, but the pollen was added, and it had not spent time in a bee’s stomach.

Second, both groups of honey users had very similar results. Birch pollen honey users only had a slightly better benefit from consuming the exact allergen, which caused their allergy.

Key Questions for Sorting Out the Controversy

Does Local Honey Always Contain the Pollen that a Person Needs for Allergy Relief?

Is it only the Presence of Local Pollen in Honey that Helps People with Pollen Allergies?

How Long Does it Take to Develop a Positive Immune System Reaction when Using Honey?

Is Local Honey Really Local?

Is Honey Really Honey?

I will examine these questions one by one as I attempt to get down to the truth about using local honey for pollen allergy relief.

Does Local Honey Always Contain the Pollen that a Person Needs for Allergy Relief?

Based on the information presented about the habits of bees, their transformation of nectar into honey, and their selective collection of pollen for making bee bread, it is clear that the complete set of pollen types that are in the local environment are not brought into the beehive and the complete set of local pollen types do not end up in the honey.

Research on the pollen types found in honey shows that certain pollen types are eliminated during the process of nectar filtering, and other pollen types are never collected.

Thus, it is incorrect to assume that specific pollen that is in your local environment will be present in local honey. [16]

Also, bees make honey throughout the growing season. They use different nectars and will use different pollen types to make bee bread depending on the currently available sources.

Spring honey, summer honey, and fall honey will contain different pollen types.

Is it only the Presence of Local Pollen in Honey that Helps People with Pollen Allergies?

The 2014 study of people with birch pollen allergies found that there was not a significant difference between the allergy symptom relief between those who received the birch honey formula and those who received the same honey without the added birch pollen.

I interpret these findings to mean that it was the general properties of honey that produced the greatest level of symptom relief. The added birch pollen produced a marginal additional benefit.

Thus, it may be the use of honey during a several month period leading up to allergy season, which was more important than the presence of birch pollen in the honey.

If we were to apply this research method to the greater group of people who suffer from seasonal pollen allergies, then it would be necessary to know the exact pollen that is causing a person’s problem and then formulate special honey to match a person’s allergy profile.

However, is such personal formulation really needed if it is the general property of honey that is the most important aspect of allergy symptom control?

How Long Does it Take to Develop a Positive Immune System Reaction when Using Honey?

The opinions on this question vary, since there is not a lot of scientific research.

A few people report that they obtained relief from their allergy symptoms after a couple weeks of honey use. Other people say that it takes a number of months of honey use before a positive effect will be obtained. Some people even say that there will be little immediate improvement in the first year.

However it is in the second year of honey use when the real benefit will be revealed. I cannot provide a scientific answer to this question, but I can speak to the mindset that characterizes modern thinking when it comes to health and healing.

We have been conditioned to believe that if we don’t experience an immediate response to a therapy, then it must be useless.

This mental conditioning comes from the pharmaceutical industry and the chemical manufacturing industry. The drug manufacturers want us to believe that the only useful treatment for any disease is the medicine that they produce.

Thus, they disparage and condemn any treatment that they cannot patent and that might require a longer period of time to produce a benefit. The use of natural dietary therapies that are intended to support and encourage the immune system may take time to produce results.

Using food to encourage the immune system is about health transformation. This is a gentle approach that works with our own body’s ability to cure long standing disease conditions.

Natural healing is a process that sometimes requires patient persistence. This is in direct opposition to the principles that drug companies follow.

They don’t treat to cure disease; rather they treat to remove symptoms. Pharmaceutical drugs are designed for those who have been conditioned to expect instant relief from any unwanted symptom.

Is Local Honey Really Local?

Earlier in 2014, Health Impact News published an article about the nationwide transporting of 1.5 million local beehives to California to pollinate the almond trees.

Are California Almonds Destroying the U.S. Bee Supply?

This practice causes me to wonder whether all honey that is promoted as being local is in fact made from local floral sources.

There are estimated 115,000 – 125,000 beekeepers in the United States. The vast majority are hobbyists with less than 25 hives.  Commercial beekeepers are those with 300 or more hives.

The number of U.S. honey bee colonies producing honey in 2013 was 2.64 million. Many commercial beekeepers move their colonies many times during the year to provide pollination services to farmers and to reach the most abundant sources of nectar. [17]

However, there are many small scale farmers who would be classified as hobbyist who keep less than 25 beehives and sell their honey in the local market. Their hives never leave their farms.

At the same time, there are other larger scale farming businesses that may market their honey as local, but who may periodically sell the pollinating services of their bees to other farmers in other locations. Such traveling beehives may be exposed to various pesticides and fungicides even though those chemicals may not be used on the beekeeper’s farm.

Thus, it is necessary to ask the farmer about his or her practices. For example, “Is your honey really local? — Do your hives always stay on your farm?”

Is Your Honey Really Honey?

American consumers buy about 400 million pounds of honey per year, but US producers only supply 150 million pounds. So foreign businesses, especially manufacturers in China, are selling honey cut with cheap sweeteners, sugar water or high-fructose corn syrup. Some of the honey also contains unauthorized antibiotics and pesticides.

The result is that the vast majority of honey sold in the US may not be real honey. [18]

Thus, if a person uses fake or adulterated honey with the hope of reducing allergy symptoms, they will likely be disappointed.

What is the Best Honey to Use for Pollen Related Allergies?

If the theory behind honey’s ability to help a person reduce or eliminate pollen allergies is correct, then honey must contain pollen. As mentioned earlier, the majority of honey sold in the United States has been heated and ultra-filtered. Most honey sold in grocery stores has absolutely no pollen content, so it is reasonable to assume that it would not be helpful as an aid to immune system strengthening.

Thus, it is important to find honey that has been minimally filtered. Minimal filtering is needed to remove parts of insect bodies and lumps of wax, but the filtering should not remove any of the pollen.

The honey should not be heated beyond normal beehive temperatures. The goal is to preserve all the pollen, enzymes, live yeast, and other nutrients that are found in raw honey.

Thus, it is important to ask about the use of heat and filtration when purchasing honey. Typically, heated and ultra-filtered honey will have a clear golden color.

You should not assume that just because you purchase honey from a local source that it is unheated or minimally filtered. Sometimes people who have retail honey businesses simply buy bulk ultra-filtered honey on the wholesale market and repackage it under the name of a local farm, which may or may not have any beehives.

It is a good practice to ask questions when purchasing local honey. Don’t hesitate to ask questions.

If a person wants to use honey to support the functioning of his or her immune system, then it is important to avoid honey that contains agricultural chemicals that have been brought into the beehive.

This means that the best honey will be certified organic. Honey that contains pesticide, herbicide, and/or fungicide residue is toxic to the body and will stress a person’s immune system.

Thus, it is important to ask whether the honey that you wish to purchase is organic and is from an area dominated by organic farming and wild uncultivated land.

There are a small number of people who have honey allergies. If you have allergies, and have never eaten honey before, then try a tiny amount of honey and watch for any signs of negative reactions.

Anaphylactic shock is a rare, but possible reaction. [19, 20]

Also, it is recommended that children under 12 months in age should not be given honey, because of a concern about the development of a very rare condition called infant botulism. [21]

Summary

If you want to use honey to build up your immune system, then the honey needs to contain pollen. It should be raw, meaning that it has not been heated above normal beehive temperatures and should not be finely filtered.

The honey should be organic to avoid chemicals that could challenge the immune system. The honey should contain a diverse selection of pollen types.

As mentioned earlier, we cannot control the flight path of the bees and require that they use all pollen types from their environment, but if the environment is diverse and wild, then the honey has a greater possibility of having multiple pollen types.

This is in contrast to honey that comes from monocropping situations where the bees are placed in the middle of several hundred acres of a single crop, such as almonds.

Research on the pollen content of local honey showed that the pollen content in local honey is unlikely to have a direct correspondence to the pollen that is in the environment, because bees do not gather all pollen types and they exclude certain pollen types from the nectar that they collect. Sometimes a prevalent pollen type in the environment may be minimally present in the honey, or may be completely absent.

Based on the 2011 study with people who had birch pollen allergies, it is clear that the presence of the exact pollen type to which they were allergic only had a minimal advantage over the use of honey that did not contain birch pollen.

I interpret this to mean that it is the quality of honey that is much more important than the exact pollen types that are in the honey.

Based on my research, I believe it is best to use honey that is organic, raw, produced from multiple floral sources, and which is sold by a reputable supplier whom you trust.

If your honey meets all of these conditions, then it will be a high quality product, and it will be more likely to help you with your efforts to reduce pollen allergy symptoms.

It doesn’t matter whether the honey is local or non-local. Honey quality is the most important factor if you are trying to heal a pollen allergy.

References

[1] “Can Eating Local Honey Cure Allergies?” mercola.com, Retrieved 6/30/14. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/05/27/can-eating-local-honey-cure-allergies.aspx

[2] “ Can you fight allergies with local honey?” Josh Clark. HowStuffWorks, Retrieved 6/30/14. http://health.howstuffworks.com/diseases-conditions/allergies/allergy-treatments/local-honey-for-allergies2.htm

[3] “How Do Bees Make Honey From Nectar?” Retrieved 6/26/14. http://insects.about.com/od/antsbeeswasps/f/beesmakehoney.htm

[4] “The Benefits of Pollen to Honey Bees,” Amanda Ellis, Jamie Ellis, Michael O’Malley, and Catherine Zettel Nalen, Retrieved 6/30/14. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in868

[5] “Pollen Contents of Honey,” Vaughn M. Bryant, Jr, Palynology Laboratory, Texas A&M University, Retrieved 6/26/14. http://www.scirpus.ca/cap/articles/paper017.htm

[6] IBID.

[7] IBID.

[8] “Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey,” Andrew Schneider, Food Safety News, 11/7/2011. http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/11/tests-show-most-store-honey-isnt-honey/#.U7G_2Z3D_LR

[9] IBID.

[10] “Local Honey and Allergies, Revisited,” Tom Ogren, Retrieved 6/30/14. http://pioneerthinking.com/health/local-honey-and-allergies-revisited

[11] “Can Eating Local Honey Cure Allergies?” mercola.com, Retrieved 6/30/14. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/05/27/can-eating-local-honey-cure-allergies.aspx

[12] Rajan TV1, Tennen H, Lindquist RL, Cohen L, Clive J.; “Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis,” Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol., 2002 Febuary, PMID: 11868925.

[13] “Fact or Fiction? Eating Local Honey Cures Allergies” New York Times. http://www.thekitchn.com/fact-or-fiction-eating-local-h-146636

[14] “Can Eating Local Honey Cure Allergies?” Anahad O’Connor, New York Times, May 9, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/10/health/10really.html

[15] Saarinen K1, Jantunen J, Haahtela T.; “Birch pollen honey for birch pollen allergy–a randomized controlled pilot study,” Int Arch Allergy Immunol., 2011, PMID: 21196761.

[16] “Pollen Contents of Honey,” Vaughn M. Bryant, Jr, Palynology Laboratory, Texas A&M University, Retrieved 6/26/14. http://www.scirpus.ca/cap/articles/paper017.htm

[17] National Honey Board. http://www.honey.com/newsroom/press-kits/honey-industry-facts

[18] “Honey laundering means fake honey coming in from China, experts warn,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 9, 2013. http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/news/206463151.html

[19] Bauer L1, Kohlich A, Hirschwehr R, Siemann U, Ebner H, Scheiner O, Kraft D, Ebner C.; “Food allergy to honey: pollen or bee products? Characterization of allergenic proteins in honey by means of immunoblotting,” J Allergy Clin Immunol. 1996 January, PMID: 8568139

[20] “Can Eating Local Honey Cure Allergies?” mercola.com, Retrieved 6/30/14. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/05/27/can-eating-local-honey-cure-allergies.aspx

[21] “Honey, I poisoned the kids,” Bee Wilson, Science – The Guardian, 8/24/2005. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2005/aug/25/health.society