Organic beekeeping is not regulated in the United States – making it impossible to produce certified organic honey in the US.
However, smaller regulating agencies like the non-profit “Certified Naturally-Grown” have guidelines for local beekeepers to ensure their practices are free of synthetic chemicals and are as natural as possible.
Organic Farming and Bees
Organic farming has become a more popular option for consumers and beekeepers due to its benefits for the consumer, the environment, and the bees. Although the cultivation of honey has been around for ~9000 years, organic beekeeping is a recent adaptation to the invention of modern-day conventional farming.
Conventional farming involves the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and genetically-modified crops. These crops have been genetically-modified for various traits, including resistance to strong pesticides that kill other, non-welcome plants growing in the field.
These chemicals can cause ecological damage as they run off the farm and into the natural environment. In addition, studies have pointed to the damage they can cause to humans when exposed to a high amount.
For that reason, some beekeepers have moved to a more natural alternative. Rather than using these chemicals themselves or allowing their bees to forage on plants that have been sprayed with chemicals, they opt out of synthetic pesticides, foods, or fertilizers altogether.
Standards for organic farming began in the 1970s and were formally established in 1990 by the USDA. These standards create rules for farmers to abide by and ensure that all organic farmers are kept to the same regulations and guidelines.
Now, because bees aren’t harvested and essentially take care of themselves, organic beekeeping is a little different. Honey bees can fly up to 5 miles away from their hive to forage for food. In addition, as a close-knit colony, they are susceptible to a multitude of diseases and pests.
Because of this, the USDA has not established an organic beekeeping certificate. The only way to receive organic honey in the US is if the honey is imported from another country and certified organic there.
However, because of organic honey’s benefits, many beekeepers still follow organic, natural guidelines as much as possible.
Either beekeepers can let their customers know their practices directly or follow and participate in local certification processes from non-profits like “Certified Naturally Grown.” Although not federally recognized, they do allow the buyer to know the beekeeper’s processes.
Sometimes, when local nectar is low, beekeepers will opt to provide supplemental food for their bees. The feeding is often done in fall and winter and for new hives. Beekeepers will feed their bees sugar water, pollen patties, or other sugary concoctions to ensure their bees’ winter survival.
When done conventionally, you can use whatever you want as a sugary concoction and whenever you want. However, to do things more naturally, beekeepers must follow a specific protocol.
Under the CNG protocols, supplemental feeding must be done in the fall and winter, using only natural, unprocessed sugar and pollen.
Just like any other agricultural practice, bees are susceptible to pests and diseases. Because of the pests’ threat against hives, beekeepers will often use artificial and unnatural means to get rid of them.
However, following organic practices means coming up with unique methods to get rid of pesky pests. These methods are very dependent on the type of pest present.
First, to prevent a mite infestation, there must be adequate ventilation and sunlight in the hive. Once present, mites can cause severe damage to a hive as they are vectors of serious diseases. CNG is serious about how to exterminate the pest once present, as many beekeepers opt for pesticides. Only the use of natural acids, like formic acid, and essential oils, is permitted.
Because both American & European Foulbrood are bacterial diseases and are very contagious, they’re considered to be a severe pest problem. Like mites, the best way to naturally beat this disease is by preventing it. Using good sanitary practices and avoiding used woodenware is the best natural protocol for doing so. CNG also requires beekeepers to scorch and thoroughly clean used woodenware if used.
Once an infestation is suspected, it’s recommended that the local state bee inspector is contacted to confirm. Organic methods of extermination involve killing infected bees with soapy water and burning all unusable woodenware.
Not only do CNG protocols (and other organic protocols) regulate what chemicals go in and out of the hive, they also restrict what materials can be used to construct the hive. Organic beehives must be made up of as many natural products as possible, restricting the use of plastics and synthetic combs. The hives must be made of wood and/or metal and painted on the outside only. Chemical treatments and synthetic smokers are prohibited as well.
In addition, brood combs must be removed and serviced at least every year so that no brood comb lasts in the hive for more than five years.
What really separates organic beehives from conventional hives is the focus on what flora is around them. Since honeybees can travel 5 miles away from the hive, ensuring organic flora in the radius around your property can be difficult.
Ensuring organic nectar sources may mean contacting neighbors to confirm that their flowering plants are not being sprayed. In addition, this may mean contacting your local Bureau of Land Management to see if they treat invasive species close to your property, as they often use pesticides against noxious weeds.
If you are concerned about pesticides around your property, it may be advantageous to reach out to a large-scale organic farmer. If you are lucky, they may have a 5-mile radius farm and be open to having bees on their property to pollinate their plants.
Organic Honey vs. Raw Honey
Because organic honey isn’t certifiable in the United States, all organic honey found will be from international apiaries – predominantly India and Brazil.
Local beekeepers often warn about this certification because other country’s regulations differ from our own. In addition, the anti-allergenic property in honey is erased if the honey is not coming from your local area.
Organic honey is also often confused with raw honey, which is an entirely different product. Raw honey is an unfiltered, natural product of honey. Instead of pasteurizing the honey through a heating process, raw honey only goes through a basic filtration process before being put on the shelf.
This type of honey has medical benefits, including anti-allergenic and anti-viral. However, this honey may contain a trace amount of pesticides if not certified organic.
Due to the lack of regulation, it’s essential to talk to your local beekeeper about their practices before purchasing honey. It’s also important to note that organic honey (which practices synthetic-free production) differs from raw honey (unpasteurized honey).
To practice organic beekeeping, you will want to contact a local regulating agency or your local beekeeping association for further assistance. To ensure you are purchasing the highest quality, local honey, you will want to go to your local farmers market or their website to do some research.