Post by Heifer International Manager of Adult Education Todd Montgomery.
If you, like me, are a casual reader of the news (and yes…this very blog), you have gotten wind of a bit of a controversy surrounding the importing and selling of honey here in the U.S. The consuming public seems to be keenly interested in what constitutes honey, its place of origin, and the systems of processing the honey and preparing it for its trip to market. Why does this matter so much? As a consumer in a global market and a novice beekeeper, I have my own opinions. Deep down, we have some weird inkling that buying honey (or any other agricultural product) from half a world away just seems a little out of whack. The question isn’t why should we buy local. The question is why shouldn’t we.
Let’s compare our habits as consumers with those of the honey bees as producers. A worker bee will forage for nectar within a 2.5 mile range of her hive. Using the sun as her compass and following the directions of her sisters, she’ll locate flowering shrubs, plants, trees, and crops. She’ll gather nectar in her stomach and pollen on the tiny hairs on her legs. One she has a full load; she’ll fly back to the hive in a bee-line (yes, that is the origin of the term.) and make her deposit. The nectar is stored in thousands of hexagonal-shaped combs. The bees will fan the nectar to evaporate the water. The condensed product is honey. The pollen is used to feed the young bees. The bees collect more than enough honey to feed the hive so the excess is stored for the winter when it will be too cold to forage. The art/science of beekeeping is essentially encouraging the bees to produce enough excess honey for the beekeeper as well.
The honey bee is a strong advocate of supporting a local food system. Honeybees are remarkably resourceful. They will collect the nectar of nearly any flower, and honey bees can live in a wide range of habitats because of this resourcefulness and their instinct to prepare for hard times. Each hive is a product of its specific environment and habitat. By the way, the worker bees only live for 6 weeks to 3 months depending on the time of year. For the most part, they won’t live long enough to see the hive benefit from their hard work. They just do it because they “know” it is right and natural.
Let’s not kid ourselves. We live in a global economy. My coffee comes from Central America; my shoes are from Southeast Asia. I drove to work today in an automobile powered by fossil fuel from who knows where. I am, for the most part, no longer a product of my local habitat and resources. I think I represent the majority in these respects, and I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. But I know that supporting local agriculture is a good thing. How do I know? I’ve had local, raw honey. Don’t believe me? Try it. When you eat a spoonful of local honey, you are directly plugging yourself into a value-added food chain. Soybeans, gardenias, apple blossoms, clover, and dandelions may all be in the mix, depending on where you live; all of these plants benefit from visits from bees. They all have a place in our habitat and food system, and so do I. At a very basic level, though, it doesn’t make sense to import a product from thousands of miles away when the same product, at a higher quality, can be found nearby.
Be an active participant in your local food system. Try local honey.
Trust me, I’m a beekeeper.