The health benefits of wine in the Napa Valley and across the globe have long been documented; from containing healing antioxidants to helping boost the immune system, to increasing bone density, and to reducing the risk of stroke.
But another often overlooked crop produced in the Valley with healthy benefits is honey—the sweet nectar that bees create after they buzz around pollinating plants and flowers. Pure honey from a jar. Honey harvested for its pollen to fight allergies and to make beeswax, royal jelly, and mead.
Like health benefits attributed to wine, honey has also proven to provide benefits ranging from reducing the risk of heart disease, lowering cholesterol, to helping reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
What folks might not know about honey, said Dr. Julia Mueller at Kaiser Health, Napa, is that it is also often used in medicine for wound management and as a cough suppressant.
“It is a superlative cough suppressant that works by decreasing the need to cough,” she said. “Honey is recommended for children because it is tastes better than many cough syrups.”
But it is not recommended for children under the age of one because it can cause infant botulism spores.
Wound management studies have documented the benefits of honey. “Honey has a broad spectrum of anti-bacterial qualities in wound treatment,” said Mueller. “It is used to treat people with serious scrapes and burns.”
Doctors use manuka honey, a rare and expensive honey that comes from bees that pollenate the manuka bush, which is only found in New Zealand and a small part of Australia. But if you want to try honey on a wound at home, and cost is a factor, even plain, pure honey can be used, said Mueller.
Veterinarians also use honey on cats and dogs. Paul Hess at the Silverado Veterinary Hospital said it is used in skin scrapes, road rash, and deep cuts.
“It speeds up healing and keeps infections at bay,” he said.
Most honey produced in Napa and surrounding counties is sustainably farmed. And because it is 100 percent natural, it is also produced in far less quantity than the honey found on supermarket shelves.
“There’s a huge rift between sustainable bee keepers and those who use chemicals, like in China,” said Napa Valley Bee Company owner Rob Keller. “There’s not much to forage for in vineyards. Bees have to be moved to the deep hills to forage,” he said.
Because raising bees and making honey is so work- intensive the price of honey is high. Sustainably produced honey now costs $2 to $3 per ounce. A quart can be as high as $62.
The decimation of bee hives by mites also adds to the cost and difficulty of keeping bees and raising the cost of a jar of honey.
“This last season was not great,” said Carlos Corrales, General Manager of Marshall’s Farm Flying Bee Ranch in American Canyon.
Marshall’s is one of, if not the largest, honey producers in the area and produces 20 to 35 barrels of honey a year.
“Mites are always a threat,” he said. “We try to breed from the strongest hives; We are sustainable, organic, and use no chemicals, which makes combating mites even tougher.”
What’s in your honey? Beware of labels
Lily Brady of Pleasanton was dining at a North Bay café when the subject of honey came up. Brady recently completed a class in bee keeping and was appalled to learn about production practices by some domestic and foreign, non-sustainable honey producers in the U.S. and especially in China.
After doing more research, Brady came to the conclusion that many mass-market honey producers care more about the end product than the health of their bees. “The manipulation on wines and juices is much different than what’s done to bees,” she said. “Bees are breathing, feeling creatures.”
She is not alone. There is growing concern about the how some bee keepers produce their honey — especially in China where fraudulently produced honey is labeled as being pure.
To create low-cost honey, unscrupulous Chinese bee keepers label it as coming from a single, desirable flower while it is really a mixture of cheaper and many different and less costly flower blends. Some add sugary syrups like cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup to cut honey and increase volume, then label it as all natural to increase profit margins. Others harvest their honey ahead of time and dry it themselves to cut costs instead of letting it dry naturally over a longer period of time.
Chinese honey was banned in the European Union almost a decade ago after Chinese producers were accused of mislabeling their honey and adulterating it with animal medicine, lead, and other heavy metals. Chinese producers now dump their honey in the U.S. where the FDA has not put any restrictions into place.
“Any honey from China should be suspect,” said Keller at Napa Valley Bee Company. “Foreign and many U.S.-based honey producers use fungicides and insecticides,” he said. “Bees are under tremendous stress these days. It’s challenging worldwide to keep bee hives.”
The Chinese consulate in San Francisco did not return phone calls seeking a comment.
Misleading labels can be found on honey jars in many chain grocery stores. And “local” does not always mean local. A quick survey of honey available in North Bay grocery stores bears this out. Front labels proclaiming the honey was “local “said something altogether different on the back labels.
If not outright false, honey labels can be purposely misleading. One brand that said it was local honey on the front label said it was made in Iowa on the back label. Local bees in Iowa, perhaps, but not local bees in Napa. Another jar labeled on the front as being from California had a back label saying it was made in Kansas. Another jar labeled as being made from “Local Honey Made by Local Bees” was from Colorado.
Other jars labeled on the front as local were labeled on the back as being imported from Australia and Brazil. Only one bottle of honey labeled as being local was even remotely accurate. It was made in Oakland.
“From now on,” said Brady during her North Bay visit, “I’ll get my honey from my certified sustainable, neighborhood, farmers market.”
Yet that may be a challenge. During a recent visit to the Napa Farmers Market, only one vendor was selling locally produced honey and it was from Marin.
Another Sonoma honey producer at the Napa Farmers Market was selling only Sonoma made honey jelly.
“We’re still rebuilding from the 2017 fires,” said Austin Lely, of Bee-Well Farms in Sonoma. “It might take us until 2020 until we can start harvesting honey again at any meaningful levels,” he said.