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A national standard for honey

Research by Esalq may help in the growth of the sales of the product

The production of bee’s honey in Brazil could be ten times higher than the 40,000 tons collected annually and it could even help the country to obtain hard currency with exports.

However, in order for this to happen, the honey needs a national standard attesting to its quality and in order to spur the perfecting of the techniques of production and the professionalization of beekeeping. One important step in this direction was given by the project Physical-Chemical Analysis of Honey of Wild Flowers Produced by Apis Mellifera L., 1758 (Hymenoptera) in the State of São Paulo, coordinated by the agronomic engineer Luís Carlos Marchini, professor of the Department of Entomology, Agricultural Phytopathology and Zoology of the College of Agriculture Luiz de Queiroz (Esalq), in Piracicaba. It brings together information about the honey from wild flowers by Africanized bees (a cross of Apis mellifera of European and African origin), which would contribute to the standardization of the Brazilian production of honey and would create a national standard corresponding to the peculiarities of each region.

“We still don’t have adequate rules which regulate the production of Brazilian honey, since the parameters and specifications established by the current legislation are based on the references and norms of the United States, whose reality of flora, climate and soil are very distinct from the immense diversity which exists in Brazil”, says Marchini, with the authority of a person who has studied bees for 20 years.

The composition and the nutritive value of the honey fundamentally depends on the floral origin. As our beekeeping flora is very diversified and varies from one place to another, it is fundamental to understand the composition and the qualities of the products obtained in each region, so as to characterize them and establish standards.

Climate and soil
Marchini explains how the type of climate and soil influence the mineral properties of the honey: “In drier climates, for example, honeys are found with smaller quantities of inorganic chemical elements in relation to those produced in places with more humid climates. Samples of eucalyptus honey coming from places with soils of red loam type, such as in the region of Ribeirão Preto, show lower amounts of iron and manganese than the samples produced in regions with soils formed from acidic and alkaline rocks, existing in the São Paulo municipality of Lavrinhas, almost on the state boundary with the State of Rio de Janeiro”.

Straight from the honeycomb
It was for this reason that Marchini collected 94 samples of honey in apiaries in 75 municipalities of the São Paulo interior, representatives of the diverse regions of the state. Each sample, of at the minimum 400 grams, was collected directly from the honeycomb cells of the honeycomb of the beehive. The work took three years, including the analysis and had the collaboration of two intern students and of the agronomy engineer Augusta Carmello Moreti, of the Department of Agriculture and Supply of the State. Examinations were carried out for electrical conductivity, protein, ash and mineral contents, percentage of humidity and color. The results will permit the establishing of quality criteria and identifying possible regional peculiarities or of floral species.

“In the case of São Paulo, which has a considerable number of beekeepers and a large consumer market, the characterization and the standardization of the honey, taking into consideration the environmental conditions in which it is produced, are fundamental for the improvement of the quality and to give guarantees to the people who buy and consume the product”, says Marchini.

In the analysis, the characteristics of electrical conductivity and the presence of proteic nitrogen, ashes, humidity and mineral content, varied considerably. On average, however, the majority of the samples were within the limits permitted by the Brazilian legislation.

This, however, does not mean that the remaining samples should be rejected. “The present regulations are based on American standards, whose percentages and specifications cannot be applied mechanically to the conditions of Brazil”, says Marchini.

In the case of conductivity, which refers to the concentration of ions in solution and is related to the elements present – if the honey contains many minerals, for example, the conductivity is higher -, the analysis showed that 33% of the samples were not in accordance with the regulation.

In the ash test, which also expresses the richness of the honey in minerals and is a good indicator of quality, only 6% of the samples did not meet the present standards. In the case of humidity, which verifies the quantity of water content and allows one to know if the honey was adulterated or not, 16.2% of the samples were fell short of the standard.

The values found in the characterization of the minerals varied considerably, but confirmed a correlation. “The darker honey contains more minerals than the clearer honey”, says the researcher.

Polyfloral origin
The pollen present in the material also varied considerably and it was shown that all the samples received a contribution from diverse plants – there were from 3 to 13 types of pollen in the samples. Although the eucalyptus was always well represented, only in five samples was it found as dominant – with more than 90% of this type of pollen, which defines a honey of the eucalyptus, and only one sample was considered the honey of citrus because it had on average 66.36% of citric pollen.

Of the remaining 88 samples, 12 showed the dominance of pollen from wild flowers and the other 76 a mixture of types of pollen without any dominance, which are defined as polyflorals. In a general manner, reveals Marchini, “besides the dominant types of pollen, there were very numerous occurrences of the pollen of various types of grasses and of other plants such as mimosas, vernonias and tibouchinas.”

Certify the quality
Marchini observed that, although there is still not the provision in Brazilian legislation “the identification of minerals and of the floral origin of the honey is fundamental in attesting to the quality of the product and should be part of a future standardization, which would help to stop falsifications.” Besides deliberate adulteration such as the mixing of glucose with the honey, there frequently occurs an unconscious adulteration: because of the lack of technical information over proper handling, the beekeeper ends up offering a honey inappropriate for consumption.

Pure honey self crystallizes eventually, according to the conditions of storage, the floral origin, the physical-chemical composition, the temperature, humidity, and use. “When it is collected under the same conditions, the eucalyptus honey, for example, which is darker, crystalizes more quickly than orange honey which is clearer”, illustrates professor Marchini.

As there is a resistance by the consumers to the crystallized product, the Brazilian beekeepers usually heat the honey which has eventually crystallized, until it returns to a liquid state. If it is heated to a high temperature, however, this can damage the nutritive value of the honey and make it improper for consumption.

Efficient management
“Besides being an instrument for preventing adulteration and for attesting to the good quality of the product, the standardization of Brazilian honey is fundamental for the beekeeper to know about the composition of the material which he is producing and to receive help in the adoption of handling practices which assist in the biological cycle of the swarms of bees”, explains Marchini.

It so happens that the bee feeds itself on honey and increases or doesn’t increase the production of the beehive in function of the quantity and quality of the existing food. When there is abundant and good quality food, the queen bee increases the number of worker layings. As a result, the number of worker bees increases, increasing the collection of pollen, nectar and as well the production of honey. For this reason, the existence or lack of certain components in the diet of the bees interferes directly in the population development of the beehive.

“With the knowledge of the composition of the honey, the beekeeper can supplement the food of the bees with components which will improve the biological cycle of the swarm. In the end, the real secret of management to guarantee the steady production of honey is to have a consistent population in the hive, without oscillating above or below – a situation of instability which can even stress the queen bee”, Marchini adds.

Organic honey
The standardization is also fundamental to the opening up of the international market to the Brazilian product, now that the country has a huge potential for the production of organic honey, which is produced from plants and flowers that have not received applications of toxic chemicals.

Honey can be contaminated with the chemical products used in the control of the sicknesses of bees, or when the bee visits a plant that has received an application of toxic chemicals for diseases and brings the contamination to the hive. Since within the country there is no control of the sicknesses of bees, the possibility of contamination is restricted to the honey produced from the plants, which receive the toxin. “However, with adequate management,” assures the professor “one can carry out beekeeping in vegetation and plantations which do not use pesticides.”

Native vegetation
He reveals that in the external market there a large demand for organic honey, and for this reason many beekeepers in the North and North East – where there are large extensions of native vegetation – are interested in producing for exportation.

Marchini clarifies that this work is a continuation of the research into melliferous standards carried out in other projects, which have taken place over a period of eight years. And he warns that the results of the 94 samples are not, as yet, enough to establish the parameters for a Brazilian honey. “They were collected in São Paulo, which has different characteristics from the other regions of the country.”

To make up for this, he is also coordinating research being carried out into honey from Bahia, from Mato Grosso do Sul and from Rio Grande do Sul. Only after grouping the samples from the regions representative of the soil diversity, climate, and flora of the National territory, it will it be possible to establish the standards for Brazilian honey.

“The standardization of national honey is fundamental to the development of the beekeeping business, which has turned itself into a profitable business”, he concludes. In the past, it was merely an extractive activity, as in the times when the researcher lived with his parents on a medium-sized sugar cane property in Piracicaba: at the time, he and two other brothers removed the honey from the hives in the trees for family consumption. Now, Marchini is removing the honey from all over the country.

Honey is also food 

The Brazilian, in a general manner, considers honey only to be a natural medicine useful for the respiratory system. However, this bees’ product is in truth a food rich in nutrients. It has a large quantity of vitamins and enzymes fundamental to digestion. In addition, it contains minerals, organic acids, proteins, amino acids, and sugars that are quickly absorbed, providing heat and energy for the organism. Through the lack of knowledge of this wide-ranging food, the consumption in Brazil is low. Consumption is on average only 60 grams of honey per person per year, according to Professor Luís Carlos Marchini. Within this statistic, we need to also consider that the consumption in the Southern region of the country varies between 200 and 300 grams per person. At the same time, the consumption in Switzerland is 1.5 kilos per person per year, in Germany 960 grams per person per year and in the United States 910 grams per person per year.

The Physical-Chemical Analysis of Honey of Wild Flowers Produced by Apis mellifera L., 1758 (Hymenoptera) in the State of São Paulo
Assistance to research project
Professor Luís Carlos Marchini – College of Agriculture Luiz de Queiroz (Esalq-USP)
R$ 12,050.07 and US$ 12,600.00