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Honey laundering: Transcontinental scheme puts fake honey into our supermarkets

The South African honey bee faces continued risk over farming and beekeeping malpractice according to an organisation advocating for improved conditions on hive farms and an end to “honey laundering”.  

Beekeepers have warned that cheap, often fraudulent imports are putting extreme pressure on local honey makers to overprocess, undercharge, and cut corners in their honey production, just to stay afloat.

“It’s also why so many local beekeepers turn to commercial pollination, because it’s more profitable for beekeepers to be pollinators than to be honeymakers. Unfortunately, commercial pollination can put excessive stress on honey bees and often leads to high bee death tolls due to unsafe conditions while transporting and storing the bees between jobs,” according to the Stellenbosch-based organisation Honeybee Heroes

Keeping the bees buzzing is a primary focus for the beekeeping organisation, which is working to provide sustainable and organic honey to a market hard hit by fake and unethically harvested products on South African shelves. 

The organisation’s founder Chris Oosthuizen runs an adopt-a-hive programme that offers people from across the globe the opportunity to sponsor a new honeybee hive. The hives are then taken care of at farms in Overberg’s Stanford Valley. Honeybee Heroes is aiming to have 1 000 hives adopted by the end of the year having reached 300 adoptions recently. 

“We want to make beekeeping more profitable for young, small-scale beekeepers, so that they’re incentivised to keep bees sustainable,” said Oosthuizen. 

South Africans are not paying what they should for honey and beekeepers believe the issue of undervaluing this natural and tasty wonder is where the problems arise. 

“Raw honey is such a powerful wellness supplement, and how much do we all spend on our supplements? If you look at it that way, and you take into account how many honey bees it took to produce that bottle, a bottle of honey should cost R250 or R300, not R70.”

He says consumers should move away from valuing aesthetically pleasing products over authentic ones. 

“We expect [products we buy to be] 100% replicable, so retailers are putting pressure on farmers to create a consistent product, which forces them to start blending, heating, and filtering their honey and including additives,” he said, adding that the right costs will encourage the right values.

Scientists have also found a deteriorating trend in the quality of South Africa’s honey. 

According to Honeybee Heroes, most of South Africa’s imported honey is fake. Around 4 000 tons of honey is estimated to be imported from China annually, honey that is more sugar than honey. 

“China’s annual export of honey is far greater than what the country would be able to produce through its recorded number of honey bee hives. That means that much of this imported honey isn’t actually honey at all, but rather a blend including many additives such as corn and rice sweeteners, which is then filtered and heated — removing all of the amazing antioxidant, antimicrobial, and vitamin-rich benefits raw honey offers.”

Scientists in Australia studied fraudulent activities in the global honey market and found that they affect 10% of food, and cost the global food market $50-billion a year.

Promoting a more sustainable and exclusive honey and beekeeping sector is also partly the consumer’s responsibility. Honeybee Heroes said consumers can and should check the labels on honey, be critical of pricing and investigate traceability. 

Tunicia Phillips is an Adamela Trust climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa

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Tunicia Phillips
Tunicia Phillips is an investigative, award-winning journalist who has worked in broadcast for 10 years. Her beats span across crime, court politics, mining energy and social justice. She has recently returned to print at the M&G working under the Adamela Trust to specialise in climate change and environmental reporting.

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