The more we learn about honey, the more we learn how sweet it is. This natural golden nectar of bees gives us not just a versatile sweetener but health benefits as well. Honey is rich in antioxidants and flavonoids, and is antibacterial, antifungal and even probiotic when it isn’t pasteurized.

Farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture provide increasing sources for locally grown, raw (unpasteurized) honey for many of us. But before you buy your next pot of honey (or maybe your first), consider the following information.

Of wine and honey

The concept of terroir refers to the location a product is grown. For example, the character of a wine depends on the land and qualities of the area where its grapes are grown. Beekeepers are increasingly applying terroir to their honey and producing varietals based on where it’s gathered.

Damian Magista is a Portland, Oregon, beekeeper who produces a line of locally extracted artisan honey, called Bee Local. By placing beehives in different neighborhoods and cities—25 hives so far—he has found that the honeys from each of these areas have completely different flavors. Hence, local residents can shop for honey that originated right in their own neighborhoods and know the flavors will be unique to those areas.

“People love to go to one of our local specialty stores,” Magista says. “They see the honey and say, ‘Wow! That’s honey from my neighborhood!’ They are really excited by it.”

Two honeys can have completely different flavor varieties. “Bees normally forage within roughly a two- to four-mile radius; so it follows that if the forage and the nectar they’re getting are different in another area, then of course the honey’s going to be entirely different. It’s totally at the mercy of what’s flowering,” he explains.

Varietal honey sources

Ask your local farmers selling honey if their products are regional and what flavor distinctions they may have. Here are additional online resources for varietal honey:

Bee Raw brings the concept of varietals to honey. Try one of their “honey flights” for the full experience.

Bee Local brings you raw honey infused with the flavor of distinct Portland neighborhoods.

Although this honey from New York City rooftops, gardens and balconies is not yet available online, we loved it so much we had to include it.

Fake honey

More than three-fourths of the honey sold in US grocery stores isn’t exactly what the bees produce and contains no pollen.

This statistic is difficult to believe, but true, according to a recent study published by Food Safety News. And “honey” that contains no pollen is not honey, according to USDA honey standards.

Manufacturers remove the pollen and hide its origins; the only way to determine where honey is created is by the pollen. So pollenless honey can come from anywhere, such as China. Manufacturers dilute the honey with cheap fillers, as well.

The study researchers found these alarming results when they tested honey for pollen:

  • 76 percent of samples bought at major grocery chains had all the pollen removed.
  • 100 percent of the honey sampled from drugstores like Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS Pharmacy had no pollen.
  • 77 percent of the honey sampled from big box stores like Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart, Target and H-E-B had the pollen filtered out. 
  • 100 percent of the honey packaged in the small individual service portions from Smucker’s, McDonald’s and KFC had the pollen removed.

Chances are you want your honey to contain the health benefit of pollen and to be, well, honey. To ensure you are getting real honey, purchase it at farmers’ markets, co-ops and natural products stores or Trader Joe’s, which all had 100 percent of the anticipated amount of pollen in their honey products, according to the study. Further, opt for raw honey that hasn’t been heated, which can destroy beneficial bacteria.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)

A new study sheds light on the likely culprit behind Colony Collapse Disorder, the sudden losses of between 30 percent and 90 percent of honeybee colonies since 2006.

The likely cause of CCD is imidacloprid, one of the most widely used pesticides, according to the study from Harvard School of Public Health.

Bees can be exposed in two ways to imidacloprid , which was introduced in the early 1990s: through nectar from plants or through high-fructose corn syrup beekeepers use to feed their bees. (Since most US-grown corn has been treated with imidacloprid since 2005, it’s also found in corn syrup.)

Strikingly, the researchers found that it took only low levels of imidacloprid to cause hive collapse—less than what is typically used in crops or in areas where bees forage.

Pinpointing the cause of the problem is crucial, because bees—beyond producing honey—are prime pollinators of roughly one-third of the crop species in the US, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and livestock feed such as alfalfa and clover. Massive loss of honeybees could result in billions of dollars in agricultural losses, experts estimate.

You can urge the Department of Agriculture to take action by signing this petition, or writing your own, through the National Resources Defense Council.