Kim Flottum

Fruit and Honey

By: Kim Flottum

Every third bite. How many times have you heard that in the last 10 years? Millions, I’ll bet. And, generally, there’s more truth than not in that statement about the role honey bees play in our daily diet. But let’s dig down a little bit and ask the next question. Every third bite we eat may be from honey bee pollinated food, but, and here’s the real question, where does that food actually come from?

Well, 55% of all the fruit we eat on a daily basis comes from someplace other than the farmer down the road. And 35% of the vegetables we eat come from someplace else too. If you look at just those crops that depend on bees, it goes like this. Fully 85% of all the Guacamole at Chipotle’s comes here on a boat or plane, 82% of the Kiwis we eat come from New Zealand, 78% of the blackberries come on a plane from somewhere else, 74% of the cukes and 65% of all the squash we dine on are not from here, while 60% of all the green peppers (and red, white, yellow and most of the hot peppers) come from other places, and 57% of the blueberries, not the wild blueberries from Maine, but the domestic kind are not locally produced either. And all of these need honey bees for pollination so the growers get fruit set.

We worry a lot about having enough bees to pollinate crops like almonds and all the rest, but over half of the fruit we eat has to be pollinated by bees in another country. What country? Glad you asked. We get 46% of what we import from Mexico (that’s about a quarter of the fruit we eat daily), 15% from Chili, 9% from Guatemala, and the remaining 30% from all over the rest of world. Lots of beekeepers in all of these places have lots of bees doing all of that work. Not bee required, but the crops that would cause me the most distress if they quit coming here would be garlic – 75%, and tomatoes – 57%, and of course limes at 99.9%. Imagine a pizza and gin and tonic without those three ingredients.

Why do we import so much of what we eat rather than grow it here? Well, some things we would be hard pressed to grow here. Over 95% of the bananas, mangoes, pineapples, papayas, and asparagus, are imported, though asparagus wouldn’t be all that hard to grow almost anywhere here, but the labor to grow and harvest is really expensive. And labor is a big reason lots of fruit and veggies aren’t grown here. It’s cheaper somewhere else. But the rules and regulations in those countries regarding pesticides that can be used are less stringent, too. We’re a lot tighter on some of those than other countries and growers can take advantage of that, too. Studies have shown, not surprisingly, that foreign fruit has more pesticide residue than home-grown, but not much. Only 9.4% of fruit has over the limit poisons on them, while 2.2% of the US crops were guilty. For vegetables, it was 9.7% compared to 3.8% US grown. Not much from either, but a number worth remembering. In fact, the number of US producers who have moved some part of their operations to countries with cheaper labor and less strict pesticide regs grows every season. That makes sense, kind of.

Another reason is that simply, we can afford to eat imported food so there is a demand, aided by the diets of immigrants who have brought their foods with them creating more demand. Freshness is a factor – consider New Zealand apples are picked during our spring, while what we have left over from last year’s harvest has been in storage for months. With this it would seem that perhaps travel time would lead to nutritional or freshness degradation, but improved shipping, including lots of next day air travel, has negated most of those issues. But the other side of that is a bigger carbon footprint, especially for air travel, thus higher costs. But then, we can afford those costs, can’t we.

All in all, USDA predicts that by the next decade, fresh produce imports will rise 45%, meaning three quarters of fruit and half of our vegetables will come from off shore. Already, 80% of the fish we eat swim here from someplace else.

Sounds a lot like honey, doesn’t it. 

Last month I briefly hinted at the gold rush mentality going on in New Zealand because of Manuka honey. So I’ve done some research into why it is what people claim it to be – that is, extremely anti-bacterial, and overall generally healthy for you.

But let’s start at the beginning.

The manuka tree, it is actually a small tree, growing 15’ to 20’ tall, is a pioneer plant that moves into an area after an existing forest has been removed. Think Fireweed in Alaska. This happened in New Zealand when the first European settlers moved in and essentially denuded much of islands by burning and tree removal. After only a short time manuka moved in and colonized the areas that were harvested. But because the settlers brought in sheep, cattle and crops, the forests didn’t return in earnest and manuka continued to thrive in the now open fields. New Zealand still relies on timber as an export crop, being third behind dairy and meat exports. Forests, mostly pine and fir, cover only about 31 percent of the land. And, although much replanting has been done to boost export crops, manuka is still a predominant tree in clearings.

Manuka bloom begins in the north of the North Island in early November, and continues until March as the season moves south (here, seasons move north, there they move south). Beekeeping has become more migratory as hives are moved to follow this bloom. Like all varietal honey production, beekeepers generally wait until the bloom has started before adding or replacing honey supers, and remove them just before bloom ends, ensuring the purest product possible. They are fortunate in that in most places there are few competing crops during bloom so what they harvest is often nearly pure.

Because of new regulations, manuka honey is traceable from super to bottle. Samples from each beeyard are sent to one of the two main independent laboratories in New Zealand, and they will test the honey for dietary Methylglyoxal. Dietary Methylglyoxal, abbreviated as MG or MGO, is a naturally occurring organic compound found in high concentrations in Manuka honey. Test results are given as mg/kg, and the concentration of MG directly correlates to the health and wellness benefits of Manuka honey. Typical tests come back anywhere from 100–250 mg/kg at the time of harvest, and then, and this was amazing to me, this concentration changes during the one to two year storage, or “maturation” as the honey “grows” in activity. For a detailed explanation of these tests, and the history of how they developed, read “DHA, MG, and manuka honey activity” by Megan Grainger, Ph.D.

Because of the value of this honey on the world market, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) (think of it as our USDA) got involved and brought some order to the chaos that was happening. From their web page:

In December 2017, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) finalised a robust and sophisticated scientific definition that can be used to authenticate whether or not a particular honey is New Zealand mānuka honey. We’ve also introduced requirements to improve how bee products are traced through the supply chain to make sure New Zealand bee products comply with importing country requirements.

Why the rules are needed

The science definition for mānuka honey is essential to maintain New Zealand’s premium position in overseas markets. It will also help the continued growth of our export honey industry. It’s important that overseas regulators have confidence in the assurances we give them about New Zealand mānuka honey and that consumers in export countries are confident they’re getting genuine mānuka honey. If not, our access to markets could be put at risk or we may lose the premium prices our bee products command overseas.

Tests to authenticate mānuka honey for export must be tested by an MPI-recognised laboratory to make sure it meets the new mānuka honey definition. That mānuka honey definition is made up of a combination of 5 attributes (4 chemicals from nectar and 1 DNA marker from mānuka pollen). This allows industry to separate mānuka honey from other honey types and identify it as either monofloral or multifloral mānuka honey.

In response to industry’s feedback we’ve increased the required level of one of the chemicals (2’- methoxyacetophenone) that has only been found in mānuka plants to date. This makes it harder for anyone to attempt blending different types of honey with mānuka honey to meet the definition.

Only certain MPI-recognised laboratories are allowed to test mānuka honey and not all laboratories can do both types of test. When honey is tested to the mānuka honey definition, the laboratory will provide the results of the test. However, it is up to the operator to interpret these results to determine if the specified levels of the chemicals and DNA are present to allow them to label the honey as monofloral or multifloral mānuka.

There are extremely strict requirements for exporting honey labeled manuka, and even for selling it at home. And continuous testing is ongoing to prevent fraud or contaminated products from reaching the market.

Recordkeeping requirements for bee products

To improve traceability of bee products through the supply chain, we’ve introduced new recordkeeping requirements. If the only thing you do is beekeeping, you must be listed with MPI, keep information about your apiary sites including the location, the number of supers (hive boxes) from that location, the volumes of bee products harvested, provide an identification number for every honey box and provide documentation (harvest declarations) for every delivery of bee products presented for extraction.

If you are an operator (extractor, processor, or packer), you must provide documentation every time you transfer a consignment of bee products to another operator or an exporter.

MPI’s work to create a science definition

MPI’s definition is the result of a significant three-year scientific programme, which developed the criteria to identify mānuka honey from New Zealand. The programme involved:

working with local and international experts

collecting and testing over 800 honey samples, representing over 20 different New Zealand honey types from 7 production years

collecting and testing over 700 plants from 2 flowering seasons

analysing the data using a range of advanced statistical models. We had our analysis independently reviewed by 3 international experts

identifying markers in the mānuka plant and honey that help distinguish mānuka honey from other honey types

using test methods that can consistently and accurately test for markers

determining reliable identification criteria for monofloral or multifloral mānuka honey.

Of course Australia is in on the game now, so it will be interesting to see if they follow similar methods to determine the purity of their manuka honey.

Time will tell.

A cold, wet Spring almost everywhere means a couple of things. Honey crops will be bunched instead of spread out so get supers on yesterday, so there’s room for all your bees can collect. The other issue is crops needing pollination will bloom closer to each other so you’ll be scrambling if that’s what you do. And, like me, your garden probably went in late. Early tomatoes will do okay, but late squash will have to hurry. And those late tomatoes, they’ll only get to be three pounds, instead of that better four.

Summer time. Keep your smoker lit, your hive tool handy and your veil tight. There’s bees out there.