Honey bees entering hive

Honey: an ethical guide

Honey presents the greener shopper with some sticky dilemmas. Ethical Consumer's honey guide, which includes ratings for 22 honey brands, helps you choose honey that keeps our bees happy and healthy. You can help our bees by supporting Friends of the Earth's Bee Cause campaign.
  Published:  15 Aug 2017    |      2 minute read

Great advice for the ethical shopper

We teamed up with our partner, Ethical Consumer magazine, to produce this guide to buying honey (published 2014). It's just one of their regular editions dedicated to helping the ethical shopper support the brands which share their environmental and ethical values.

Subscribe to Ethical Consumer magazine, and they will donate £10 to Friends of the Earth.

Standing up for bees

Thanks to your support for the Bee Cause campaign, we've persuaded the government to produce a Bee Action Plan. But as well as political action to help bees and other pollinating insects, there's plenty more we can do. Choosing the right honey is a great way to help honey bees.

Organic or local honey?

Does it matter? Well, yes, if we want happy bees and healthy ecosystems, we can make a real difference by choosing the right kind of honey.

Usually we can rely on organic certification to help us select food produced in a more sustainable way. This isn't possible with honey sourced from the UK, as our beekeepers can't guarantee foraging bees only visit organically-grown flowers.

So buying certified organic usually means importing honey. This has the disadvantage of potentially high food miles. It can also be linked to poor working conditions — unless it's Fairtrade certified.

But even though UK-sourced honeys are unable to carry the organic label, many UK beekeepers still raise their hives on organically-managed land, and follow organic principles. If you’re able to buy from a known source or contact a local beekeeper directly, you can ask about their practices.

Honey jars
Credit: iStock

Is buying honey good or bad for bees?

We might not think of bees' welfare when we buy honey, in the way we might think of hens' welfare when we buy a box of eggs. But bee-keeping practices lie on a spectrum between industrial-scale bee-keeping and bee conservation.

Ethical Consumer suggests that regular removal of honey from hives can contribute to declining honey bee populations, especially if the honey comes from a business driven by profit.

And even an organic approach to honey production — which involves sustainable agricultural practice and better animal welfare — often fails to put bee welfare before human desires.

Growing movements such as ‘natural' and 'balanced bee-keeping’ promotes a bee-centred approach to hive management. This emphasises bee welfare, and encourages the natural behaviour of bees. Honey is only taken when plentiful and appropriate.

Ethical Consumer’s Honey Best Buys

If we want to encourage a more sustainable approach to bee-keeping, we need to think of honey in a different way - a special occasion treat or natural remedy.

As shoppers, we have a couple of choices. Besides the bigger brands, there are hundreds of small-scale honey producers in the UK. It hasn't been possible to include all of these in the report, but Ethical Consumer recommends we look out for:

  • Local honey
    Buy from a known source (ideally organic or uncultivated land), where the honey is produced by individual bee-keepers who practise balanced bee-keeping. Read Ethical Consumer's honey guide for tips on what questions you can ask, to be sure they take bee welfare issues seriously.
  • Ethical honey
    The guide recommends Equal Exchange organic Fairtrade honey (£5.35) as the Best Buy. Next best is Tropical Forest’s Fairtrade and organic honey (£3.19). See how all 22 honey brands score on environmental, animal, social and political criteria in the guide.

Subscribe to Ethical Consumer magazine, and they will donate £10 to Friends of the Earth.

The honey guide features in Ethical Consumer's Nov/Dec 2014 magazine.