USDA Organic Honey – What Does It Mean?

Organic Label from the United States Department of Agriculture

We have all seen the USDA certification symbol on some honeys.  But what does it really mean?  It can mean a lot, or it can mean nothing at all.  Confusing?  Yes.  And that’s the best term for honey labeled “organic”.

According to an email correspondence I had with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service “, honey can be certified organic using the organic livestock standards… However, NOSB {National Organic Standards Board} recommendations are not part of the regulations until/unless the National Organic Program adopts through rulemaking process.”

In more normal words: Your honey can be certified organic by the US government, although they have no regulations to define organic honey.  You got to love the federal government.



The federal government does not inspect for organic honey. In the US there are certifying agencies that will certify honey as organic.  They seem to use the NOSB recommendations.  But as I mentioned before the USDA has never accepted the recommendations.


If the honey is harvested outside of the US it is considered Organic if it meets that country’s organic standards as well as the US standards.  Remember, there are NO U.S. STANDARDS, so compliance on that point is quite easy.  In some countries Organic standards are rough: the UK, the European Union, Canada, Singapore…they all have tough standards.  In other places, “organic” honey is not so “organic”.


The independent certifying agencies in the US do pretty much follow the NOSB’s recommendations.  It’s not easy to make the grade, and it’s not cheap for large producers.

Small producers who make less than $5000 worth of organic honey in a year have it easier.  They can just put on the USDA Organic Label.  Someone might come round to check your records, but who knows when.  After all, there are no government regulations.

For all other organic honey producers the check list offered by most agencies is extensive.  And everything must be documented.  Just a few items covered are:

1) Forage: What the bees eat and drink

2) Where they live and what they live in and on.

3) What the beekeeper feeds them

4) How the beekeeper treats them for parasites

5) How the beekeeper processes the honey they produce

6) How the beekeeper labels that honey

7) How the beekeeper keeps records

FORAGE: What and Where The Bees Eat

Honeybees fly an average of 2 miles from their hives in their search for nectar and pollen.  A hive would have to be in the center of a minimally 16 square miles of organic plants.  Wild plants sound good but there could be an issue there if the hives are near any land where herbicides are used, which includes much of the Dept of Natural Resources lands.  The list of prohibited places goes on to include such places as non-organic farms, golf courses, residential neighborhoods, and industrial areas.  Places where water may contain chemicals is off-limits.  In a bow to our present form of agriculture, genetically modified crops are a no-go zone, one to which an even greater buffer zone is added.   Basically if the bees can reach any area that has chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, or sludge, they cannot produce organic honey.  This requirement alone will make the production of organic honey impossible for most beekeepers (If you live in a place like this: 16 square miles of no chemicals, please share where that is.)


Let’s say you have the perfect place to put your hives.  Now you have to give them an organic environment in which to live.  The hive boxes are pretty simple: wood.  But the foundation is a bit more of a challenge.  Beeswax foundation must be organic.  That’s really, really hard to find.  You can make your own, but it has to be from your organic hives, which you can’t have until you get that organic foundation – Catch 22.

Strangely, to me, plastic foundation can be used, as long as it’s coated with organic wax.  Organic wax is difficult to find.   Smaller apiaries that meet all the other organic recommendations could start with foundationless hives, and use that wax.  We are talking about a lot of time here.


Chemicals are out; no real surprise there.  So it’s screened bottom boards, physical traps, and other integrated pest management techniques.  Some of the milder miticide treatments are considered OK: The thyme based ApiLifeVar and ApiGard as well as Formic Acid.  The recommendations I’ve seen are considering including Oxalic Acid in the mix.  None of the ingredients in these are organic, but they are natural (not synthesized chemicals).


There are far more recommendations, they can be found In a PDF at:

The recommendations range from the type and temperature of equipment used during extraction (stainless steel and cold knives) to how the honey is labeled as well as how, when, and what records must be kept and where the bees come from – and how long they have lived in organically certified hives.

Before any agency will certify the apiary has to have a record of being organic for one year.  My hat’s off to any beekeeper who actually does the work to meet all the recommendations.  Sadly, after all that work, they’ll still be competing with “organic” honey from countries that have lesser organic standards and from companies that will simply put a USDA Organic label on their honey without going though a certifying agency (remember, that’s not a government agency because the US government does not have any Organic Honey Standards).


It’s a $10,000 fine. 


Hives At Brookfield Farm, Maple Falls, WA

Nope, we’re not organic and could never be.  My down-river bee yards are in agricultural areas; you can bet pesticides are in used in some of those fields.  My mountain bee yards are all within 2 miles of Washington Dept of Natural Resource lands, where herbicides are routinely used to knock down Alders and Maple Trees that grow in the clear cuts.

I don’t use antibiotics and have always used natural pest control methods.  But I do use beeswax foundation – I just don’t like plastic, even if our government recommendations say it’s OK if you cover it in organic wax.  That just doesn’t make sense to me.  So no USDA Organic Honey from us, just wonderful honey from hives where only natural treatments are used.  It rather fits my philosophy: Do as little harm as possible as we stumble though this world.  And always tell your customers how you manage your bees.

Hope you all had a wonderful holiday season and the new year brings great joys.

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