Climate. China. And the Stinging State of American Honey

David Montalvo
Aug 19, 2020 · 6 min read
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Credit: Wolfgang Hansemann / Unsplash

It’s been one of the wettest years so far in Tennessee. And if you were a humble honeybee there, you were probably staying dry in the hive rather than buzzing around outdoors, pollinating flowers and crops and collecting nectar to start that long process of making honey. You’re not being the most productive, but you’re also not going hungry, because your beekeeper has likely been giving you room service in order to keep you “from starving.” But your human is worried, not just about your survival, but also about the honey you ultimately produce, that it is valued fairly and not undercut by some of what experts call “fraudulent” and “cheap” honey from China. And to make matters worse, both of these problems that are worrying beekeepers, scholars recently argued, could have wide-ranging negative repercussions on America’s ecosystem and food security.

In other words, “the threat to pollination and subsequently to the ecosystem” and “the threat to the livelihood of honey producers via fraud” are intertwined, and they require more holistic solutions that address both problems, argued Michael Roberts, the founding executive director of the Resnick Center for Food Law and Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, in a recent white paper on honey.

Today, there are about 2.8 million honeybee colonies in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and they are among the pollinators on which more than 100 crops grown in this country rely and whose work is valued at a whopping $18 billion in added revenue to crop production. “Pollinators,” said Robert Nowierski, a national program leader at the department’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, in a recent post, “also support healthy ecosystems needed for clean air, stable soils, and a diverse wildlife.”

So, it’s fair to say that a collapse in the population of pollinators would not be a good thing. In fact, it sounds downright apocalyptic. And, in 2006, that is exactly what many feared was happening, when experts began to see fewer and fewer numbers of honeybee colonies, as they succumbed to an abnormal condition called Colony Collapse Disorder. Fortunately, Nowierski noted in his June post that “no incidents of CCD have been reported in several years,” but did confirm, with awkward phrasing, that years of research determined the decline did have something to do with, among other things, “effects of climate variability” — or more commonly referred as, climate change.

“Weather has a very real effect on colony welfare,” according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology that found that “extended periods of cold, rainy, and hot weather have been blamed on severe, oft unexplained, colony mortality in the past.” The study, called “A historical review of managed honey bee populations in Europe and the United States and the factors that may affect them,” however, also found that “weather can have a direct effect on colony productivity.”

This takes us back to wet Tennessee, where, although beekeepers there were euphemistically describing the historically unusual wet year as “interesting,” beekeepers were having to help their colonies survive the spring. Beekeepers in other states also reported that “spring was late arriving.” In Georgia, for example, some beekeepers even observed that they simply “are not getting much honey due to rain and cold weather.”

Indeed, the productivity of hives have been having a rocking time since 2007, the year after colonies were observed collapsing, despite the fact the number of hives have continued to recover, according to research compiled by the University of California, Davis, last year. In fact, the two data points have generally been drifting apart since then. By 2017, there were more than 225,000 additional hives in the United States than a decade earlier, but each hive was now yielding almost 5 ½ pounds less of honey than in 2007. Over the same period, U.S. honey production has also been having a rough time, experiencing several not-so-sweet years in which it produced less honey than it did in 2007, the study further found.

The stinging threat to honeybee productivity, in the field and in the hive, is not just coming from climate change. American beekeepers also see it coming from China.

Prior to the early-2000s, the U.S. was producing more honey than it was importing, the UC Davis study showed. But today, a majority of honey consumed by Americans comes from abroad. Chris Hiatt, the vice president of American Honey Producers Association, which lobbies on behalf of beekeepers in the United States, said earlier this year that retail shelves could be stocked by honey that is 75 percent Vietnamese or Indian honey and 25 percent American. This blend of American and imported honey reduces the price of honey for consumers because honey from abroad is generally cheaper — but it also “has hurt” American beekeepers, Hiatt added.

Indeed, imported honey can be very, very cheap, as illustrated by the most recent monthly honey report released by the U.S. Agriculture Department. For example, in California, the largest honey producer in America, beekeepers were being paid $1.80 by packers and handlers for each pound of wildflower honey — that is, honey that is made from nectar primarily sourced from wildflowers. Vietnam and India, meanwhile, were being paid less than half that for their version of wildflower honey.

While it may seem like simply global markets forces at play here, history shows that more nefarious forces have been stinging the honey market.

“China can produce honey at a cost below than we can produce it, so that is ‘dumping’… when they’re dumping onto our market that’s below the cost of production,” explained Hiatt, in a corporate video posted on YouTube, noting that the anti-dumping tariffs in the early-2000s helped “stop the flow of cheap Chinese honey” then.

But now he is worried that history could be repeating itself. He said that China has figured out ways to work around tariffs other anti-dumping checks by “sending honey into Vietnam, into India” — two top honey exporters to the U.S. — and into other countries, which then makes its way into honey on American retail shelves. It’s not the first time China has been accused of this tactic. In 2013, NPR reported that China was using smaller countries as “middlemen,” who imported Chinese honey and “then re-labeled it as local product and sent it on to the U.S.” Among those countries named by the article were Vietnam and Indonesia. And this year, in addition to Vietnam and India, Hiatt added Myanmar and Taiwan, claiming sudden booms in their exports. “You know that’s Chinese honey,” he said, because “the testing shows that.”

Chinese exporters are said to have also deployed more brazen tactics, like falsely labeling containers of honey as something else in order to reach the American shores.

But perhaps the worst offense to American beekeepers relates to food purity. Experts say that the Chinese honey finding its way into the American market is not always “authentic” — or as Ron Phipps, a former member of the National Honey Board, called it, “water honey.” He is referring to the moisture level of honey when it has sufficiently matured for extraction and consumption. Beekeepers say that “bees protect the mature product by sealing off cells filled with honey with a lid of wax.” The moisture of that sealed-honey normally has about 18 percent moisture. But Phipps, reporting on the international honey market last December, said that China typically extracts its honey containing “over 40 percent moisture,” then sends it to factories to artificially achieve “moisture reduction” using various technologies. Intervening in this process through “premature extraction of immature honey,” wrote Phipps, have been the “modes of adulteration prevalent in China” that have been “widely exported to several other Asian nations exporting pseudo honey as ‘honey.’”

“The entering into U.S. Customs of adulterated honey as honey is another case of fraud, and as American beekeepers have pointed out, it is a case which endangers American food security and ecological sustainability,” argued Phipps, alluding to the inextricable link between pollination and beekeeper livelihood.

This year, the America Honey Producers Association sent its fourth proposal to the Food Chemicals Codex to establish honey standards — such as, its identity, purity and quality — in which it described the importance of allowing honey to naturally mature and suggested various testing methods.

Meanwhile, the study by UC Davis offered the White House, Congress, the Food and Drug Administration, as well as retailers, recommendations for ways they can address these intertwined threats, but not before the dire reminder that, “without the honey bee producers, the unique challenges in modern society to pollinate will suffer terribly. Without addressing the problem of honey fraud, the plight of the honey bee producer will be irreversible: they simply will go out of business, depriving consumers of high-quality domestic honey, but also endangering the ecosystem.”

“It’s weird,” added Hiatt, “that one livestock or one commodity, can affect so many other groups.”

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