Why is our honey not organic?

“I’m Just a Bill,” a segment from the 1970’s educational cartoon series “Schoolhouse Rock,” famously features an anthropomorphic bill (named “Bill,” of course) who desperately wants to get through the legislative process and become a law, rather than languishing in committee. For the past 15 years, the proposed USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards regarding organic apiculture have sat in a similar limbo, awaiting completion and adoption.

Originally, as the NOP was being developed and finalized in the early 2000’s, an Apiculture Task Force (chartered by the National Organic Standards Board) sought to establish distinct standards to define certified organic beekeeping and the production of certified organic bee products. As other priorities competed for limited attention and resources, the discussion on organic apiculture standards was tabled. In lieu of apiculture standards, beekeepers, handlers and certifiers were left to certify operations according to the more general NOP Livestock Standards, or to import honey that was certified to foreign organic program standards. The lack of clarity and consistency in these certification standards has led to confusion in the industry and in the minds of consumers who see “organic honey” on store shelves, but aren’t quite sure what that standard signifies.

The NOP apiculture standards have been readdressed multiple times since 2001, and it appears that 2016 will yield substantial progress towards the establishment of a formal set of standards. The standards will likely closely mirror a set of recommendations proposed in 2010. These recommendations are consistent with many of the concepts in the broader NOP standards. Beekeepers must establish an organic production plan for their hives, and bees kept under an organic production system must be provided organic forage (and feed supplement), protection from contact with prohibited substances, and a transition period of continual organic management (one year) before harvested bee products may be considered organic. There are additional rules in the standards regarding hive construction, bee healthcare, and other aspects of apiculture.

The challenge for many apiculture operations will be the establishment of a 1.8 mile radius forage zone surrounding the hives. These areas include “land or bodies of water, within a 1.8 mile (3 km) radius of the edge of the apiary/bee yard which provides bees with water, nectar, honeydew, pollen and propolis.” According to the proposal, the forage zone “would need to be comprised of certified organic cropland and/or certified wild crop harvest area.” A 1.8 mile radius forage zone covers 6,515 acres, all of which must be clear of any “significant risk of contamination by prohibited materials” during the forage season.

Though the 1.8 mile forage zone is a challenging standard, it is equivalent to current EU and Canadian standards (3 km radius). The adoption of these long-awaited organic apiculture standards will help bring USDA NOP certifiers into alignment with these existing foreign standards, promoting consistency and clarity within the organic movement.

Hummingbird Wholesale has chosen to purchase from local beekeepers over importing organic honey long distances. We believe the cost of non-regional purchasing outweighs any potential risks to health from our local suppliers. We work closely with our suppliers and have confidence in their integrity.