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Honey Bee Health and Honey Purity

07 December 2013

Honey is an important industry for Alberta. Canada produces 75 million pounds of honey annually, and approximately one third of the crop is from Alberta. Half of all honey produced in the province is exported, with 80 to 90 per cent exported to the United States. Japan is also a major consumer.

“While honey exports are a substantial income for Alberta producers, bee health is also extremely important for the pollination of fruit, vegetables and canola,” says Dr Tom Thompson, a scientist with Agri-Food Laboratories Branch, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. “Well-pollinated crops produce more. The value of honey bees to pollination of crops is estimated at over $2 billion annually in Canada – so a healthy bee population is vital to Albertans.”

Dr Thompson is part of a team that identifies unsafe chemical residues in honey. Using extremely sophisticated and expensive pieces of analytical instrumentation to detect residues in honey and other foods, the Agri-Food Laboratories Branch (AFLB) is on the frontline of ensuring safe practices.

“Bees are no different than people and animals,” says Dr Thompson, “and that means they get sick – they get bacterial and fungal infections, or viruses – and occasionally these problems are not treated properly. For instance, folk remedies or substances that shouldn’t be used for treating honey bees are sometimes employed.

“The beauty of the scientific methods and equipment used at the AFLB is that they are highly sensitive and specific. Honey is checked to see if bees are being treated with the proper amount of the permitted medication. There is a list of products approved for use in honey bees, either because they are safe for people or because they don’t produce chemical residues in the honey. And then there are products that aren’t safe or permitted for use in treating honey bees.”

Canada has guidelines that clearly state the maximum acceptable levels of veterinary drugs and pesticides in honey. Some of the countries to which Alberta sells honey also have guidelines that must be met to safeguard those international export markets.

Using instruments such as the liquid chromatograph-tandem mass spectrometer takes skill and patience, but permits highly sensitive detection of any antibiotic or pesticide residues or illegal substances.

“To give you an idea of how sensitive these method are,” says Dr Thompson, “the recommended guidelines stipulate fractions of parts per million, but our mass spectrometer detects parts per billion. To put that into an easily understandable comparison…a million seconds is 12 days while a billion seconds is 31 years.

“With current analytical techniques, yes, we really do know what is in that honey, and what is not.”

December 2013

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