Melissopalynology and true honey

With one in every three mouthfuls of food on our plates being pollinated by bees, they are critical to our Australian food security and it is the commercial beekeepers that must be kept in business.  

The threat to their livelihoods not only comes from prolonged drought – when plant growth and plant flowers are minimal – but also from price competition from many imported honeys, particularly during such droughts.  

The perennial problem with honey importation is whether indeed it is natural or adulterated honey – or indeed “not-honey” – that is hitting our supermarket shelves.

Throughout 2014, there were a string of investigations by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission into cheap fake honey imports from Turkey, Serbia, Italy and China.

Most of these “honeys” were found to contain significantly more C4 sugar (most likely corn syrup) than actual honey. One brand of Turkish honey was 100 per cent corn syrup.  

Honey as produced by the bee does contain a fingerprint of pollen grains brought home to the hive along with the nectar.

Pollen grains are unique for each plant species. Analysis of pollen in honey offers an efficient and innovative method for identifying the plants that the bees have visited and allows for the classification of various honey types: e.g. yellow box, stringy bark, clover, manuka, etc.

The pollen assemblages of 1000-year-old honey have been used by archaeologists to reconstruct past environments.

The melissopalynology group at ANU is world-renowned for its pollen-in-honey research.

In a recently published study of the pollen content of 173 unblended honey samples, sourced from most of the commercial honey producing regions in southern Australia, it concluded that pollen analysis measuring the diversity of myrtle family pollens could be a criterion for authenticating the origin of Australian honeys.  

However, not of course if the pollen has been filtered out of the honey to make it clearer and to prevent crystallisation. 

Tim Roberts is Emeritus Professor, School of Environmental & Life Sciences, University of Newcastle.