The honey bees are dying. UK bee numbers have dropped by more than half over the last few decades, and in the US it’s worse. Asia and South America are also seeing some evidence of a real problem. With bees responsible for pollinating around a third of all the food humans eat, this is a worrying trend that we’ve yet to definitively fathom.
At the same time, there’s a honey boom in the luxury toiletries market. Honey, rightly valued for centuries for its delicious fragrance and colour and reputed healing potential, is now added to everything from beauty soaps to face creams. As a naturally beautifying alternative to synthetic active ingredients it’s difficult to fault, but are we really supporting bees by buying a honey-based product – or exploiting them?
The vegan line is simple. Honey is a farmed animal by-product, intended by nature for bees, not humans. Welfare standards may vary but farming is always an unnatural imposition on a living creature, so if you’re vegan, you’re unlikely to consider either consuming honey or using honey products.
On the other hand, apiculture is a long established cottage industry, and by supporting what are often ethically run small businesses, particularly in Australasia, we may hope to help farmers nurture the healthy honey bees which have been helping to rejuvenate ailing bee populations across the globe.
Yet, while many genuinely concerned businesses are promoting traditional apiculture as a way of supporting and nurturing the bee population, some, like the UK’s Natural Beekeeping Trust, have suggested the frightening Colony Collapse Disorder that’s blighting American and European hives is caused by our own production-oriented beekeeping practices, and only by caring for bees as part of an organic and biodynamic system can we hope to reverse their decline.
There does seem to be some genuine hope in organic farming. The UK’s Soil Association, which leads the worldwide debate, cites recent research suggesting applying rigorous organic principles does have a positive impact on pollination levels. A 2013 global review of 39 research studies showed an average of 74% more wild bees on organic farms, and UK strawberry crops, already measurably hit by the current crisis, have been demonstrated to have higher pollination success on organic, compared to conventional farms.
It is the farms that make the difference. Sceptics argue there’s little about beekeeping that can be labelled organic. The crop is never sprayed and most bees are seldom, if ever, fed. Honey is made from nectar collected by bees, who find it where they please. Hence news stories about bees producing blue honey near confectionery factories. A beekeeper, however well they treat their bees, can’t hope to achieve Soil Association accreditation if their hive is in a dense urban area near a motorway.
Supporting organic beekeeping may, then, be less about encouraging best practice on a case by case basis, and more about supporting one aspect of an organic approach to agriculture generally. If you buy certified organic honey, you’re supporting a farmer who’s helping to improve the environment in which all bees forage.
The current labelling regulations don’t help the conscious consumer. In the US and Europe there’s technically no law against labelling anything ‘organic’ so long as it’s not food! You can even use ‘organic’ in the company or product name. With honey there’s the added complication of what exactly you mean by ‘organic’. The trick is not to be misled by thoughtless claims. Look out for the Soil Association logo for reassurance not only about the honey but the other ingredients too.
Therapi Honey Skincare is currently blazing a trail in the luxury skincare market. Focusing entirely on organic honey-based cleansers, toners and moisturisers, its impeccable organic credentials led to its being shortlisted for this year’s Soil Association Organic Beauty Awards, and one product won Best Night Moisturiser 2014 from Green Parent Magazine.
Making the best possible therapeutic use of honey, propolis and beeswax, the finished products are between 90 and 99% organic (using non-organic ingredients only where there is no organic alternative available, and clearly labelled in each case), and formulated using pure raw plant oils and butters to be exceptionally gentle. At no stage are they tested on animals.
Because all the products are created by hand in-house, they have a short, transparent supply chain. The company donates a minimum of 5% of profits to conservation projects, and founder Tanya Hawkes even runs beginners’ beekeeping day courses.
Therapi products are available internationally from Naturisimo.com, and if you’re in the UK you can even order some from Ocado. Unfortunately, due to their refusal to test ingredients or products on animals, they can’t currently be sold in China.