Funny Honey

The Twelfth National Congress of Professional Apiculture was held the other week at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo near the Slow Food headquarters in Bra (Italy). During the six days of discussions, a number of experts have been examining the situation currently facing the sector and the future prospects for those dedicating themselves to producing honey.

Apiculture is a well-established activity on the Italian agricultural scene and it is worth noting that it has attracted an encouraging number of motivated young people keen to invest in the future of their profession.

Apiculture is distinguished by having large quantities of available raw materials. Floral nectar and other plant secretions used by bees to make honey can be found in significant quantities in the countryside and it is not necessary to resort to methods that stress the environment in order to increase productivity.

So beekeeping is a completely sustainable agricultural activity, providing a foodstuff known for its outstanding nutritional qualities. It should also be emphasized that honey production can indicate the health of an area in terms of biodiversity. Where an environment is endowed with a particularly large number of plants and varieties, there are also greater opportunities for producing less common types of honey.

As Francesco Panella, head of the National Union of Italian Beekeepers Associations, explained during the Congress, it is no coincidence that producers are currently focused on making more people aware of the large variety of honeys available. Some honeys have distinctive personalities and others are more delicate, but they all deserve to be promoted as well as possible. This is particularly important given that the latest market trends seem to be intent on debasing the precious gifts that apiculture can give us.

Consumption patterns appear to be fairly stable and there are no significant variations in the amounts sold but—and this is a great pity—only a small minority of consumers seem to pay attention to the quality of what they are buying. Italians may not be cutting down on their honey but they are keen to make false economies. They prefer to buy the clear and liquid industrial product found on the supermarket shelves, which is deprived of aroma and nutritional properties during the standardizing production process.

Our apiarists are protesting about a serious problem of unfair competition: in some overly permissive countries, producers have no qualms about saving costs by giving bees excessive amounts of antibiotics to combat the most widespread diseases. In a market totally focused on lowest prices, Italian and other European apiarists, squeezed by more restrictive regulations but also keen to provide a quality product, are finding it hard to compete.

In order to assist people to make more aware choices which reward responsible producers, resources are needed to communicate the differences between different sorts of honey and, in particular to set up a regulatory framework which ensures better safeguards for apiarists focusing on quality. In this context it is welcome that the EU has decreed that a honey must have been produced from bees roaming naturally among different flower varieties if it is to use the description ‘Wildflower honey’.

A simple ‘Mixture’ is the right term to use on the label if honey of various origins is mixed afterwards. Giving legal recognition to this distinction is an example of how it is possible to support beekeepers’ legitimate aspirations for better institutional safeguards.

In coming months it is planned to discuss setting up a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) to provide recognition for honey from Alpine areas. This is the right course to take and it should be extended and supported in other countries too. Only by creating protected designations of origin in various countries will it be possible to expand the role of quality products and allow the sector to reach full maturity.

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

First printed in La Stampa on January 30, 2006

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