The last decade has really stung U.S. beekeepers.
There’s been the widely reported Colony Collapse Disorder, in which some keepers have reported the loss of 30 to 90 percent of their hives, the underlying cause of which remains mysterious.
Less well known but just as significant for their economic vitality, U.S. beekeepers have also had to deal with tens of thousands of tons of Chinese honey being illegally dumped onto the market.
These combined natural and economic forces have dampened honey production by large American producers from 221 million pounds in 1998 to 144 million pounds last year.
Last year’s levels were the lowest since the 1970s.
“It’s been a real struggle for many to survive,” said John Talbert, owner of the Sabine Creek Honey Farm in Josephine, and executive secretary of the Texas Beekeepers Association.
While scientists continue to study the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, there is hope that the economic issues stemming from illegal Chinese honey flowing into the United States may be addressed. Vaughn Bryant would welcome the help.
An anthropologist at Texas A&M University, Bryant has honed a unique honey sleuthing talent since 1975, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked him if he could test a sample of honey and determine its origin.
At the time Bryant studied pollen at archaeological sites in order to tease out historical details.
As it turns out, pollen in bee honey — traces of the many, variable nectar sources bees use — can be used to geographically pin down where the honey was made.
“Holy Moses, I had no idea what I was getting into,” Bryant recalled.
He knows his pollen
After decades of experience, Bryant can look at samples of honey under a microscope in his lab and identify hundreds of types of pollen on sight. That’s no small feat considering each looks like a roundish, nondescript speck of dust.
By linking pollen to plants, and knowing the geographical range of plants, he almost always can pin down the location of the bees that produced a certain sample.
To help him, along one wall of Bryant’s lab stand several large cabinets in which he houses a multimillion-dollar collection of 20,000 pollen samples. Two-thirds of the collection, he says, was donated by BP and Exxon Mobil Corp., which use pollen in oil exploration activities to determine the relative ages of rock strata.
In addition to pinpointing a honey’s country of origin by glancing in a microscope, Bryant has a second talent: storytelling.
There’s the anecdote about Greek armies that catapulted beehives into enemy cities. Or the one about “mad honey,” produced by bees that use nectar from certain plants that produce a toxin. The Persians, in 67 B.C., apparently left jars of mad honey along the roadside. Honey-loving Roman soldiers came along and ate it, got sick, and then the Persians fell upon them, Bryant said.
Today, in some Turkish nightclubs, he said, mad honey is taken as a drug.
Since becoming involved in honey in the 1970s, Bryant has closely followed the fortunes of the industry.
The U.S. honey habit
To meet its needs, the United States imports about one-third of the honey it uses.
While consumers may be most familiar with jars of honey on grocery shelves, industry uses most of the honey as a flavoring in foods such as cereals, breads and barbecue sauce.
The tobacco industry uses a lot of honey, too, as it enhances the body’s ability to absorb nicotine, Bryant said.
“If you put sugar into tobacco, you get a bigger charge out,” he said. The domestic honey market itself isn’t that large, about $200 million a year.
The real economic concern, Bryant said, is the loss of pollination. Fewer bees will mean less pollination of crops.
The Department of Agriculture estimates that pollination is worth about $15 billion in America, particularly for crops such as almonds and other nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables. About one mouthful in three in the diet directly or indirectly benefits from honeybee pollination, according to the government.
So in 2001, when it determined that lower-priced Chinese honey was flooding the market and driving beekeepers out of business, the U.S. government imposed 200 percent and higher tariffs on honey from China.
But since then, Bryant said, there’s been a dramatic rise in honey exports from countries near China, at very low prices. Bryant’s analysis of this honey reveals that it has either been transshipped from China, or even cut with high-fructose corn syrup to increase its volume.
“At the rate the Chinese are dumping this honey, it could devastate the U.S. honey industry,” he said.
The government has undertaken recent enforcement efforts.
Last month U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials arrested a Taiwanese executive, Hung Ta Fan, 41, in Los Angeles for allegedly conspiring to illegally import honey that was falsely identified to avoid U.S. tariffs.
“ICE will not tolerate products being illegally imported into the U.S. marketplace,” John Morton, Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary for ICE, said in a statement.
And in May 2009, Yong Xiang Yan, the president of a honey manufacturer in China, was arrested and later pled guilty to conspiring to illegally import Chinese honey that was falsely identified as coming from the Philippines. Yan is cooperating in the ongoing investigation while awaiting sentencing, according to the affidavit against Fan.
Big flow of cheap honey
Earlier this month, five U.S. honey producers launched the Honest Honey campaign to raise consumer awareness of this illegally imported honey. They estimate the United States loses about $100 million annually in uncollected duties because of illegal honey imports.
“We’re encouraged by the activity we’ve seen from the Department of Homeland Security on this issue,” said Jill Clark, an official with Lancaster, Pa.-based Dutch Gold Honey, one of the companies sponsoring the campaign.
Bryant, who studies about 150 samples a year to determine their origin, is more skeptical about the U.S. fight to stop Chinese dumping of honey.
Many importers, he said, are happy just to get the honey at a good price. So it will take a lot of enforcement to solve the problem.
“Essentially,” he said, “what we’ve got is a big leak in the dike with the government sticking a few fingers into it, trying to plug small holes.”
Berger, Eric. 2010. "Foreign honey oozes in". Chron. Posted: May 16, 2010. Available online: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/business/7008114.html