Every year on the third Saturday in August we commemorate National Honeybee Day, a time for beekeepers and enthusiasts from across the United States to celebrate bees and their important contributions to the planet, including pollination and sweet, delicious honey. In addition to adding it to our morning tea and drizzling it on our desserts, we at the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) are also studying honey and its path to the supermarket shelves—specifically, we’ve been looking at honey DNA (yes, DNA!) and how the unique makeups of products coming to the U.S. match how they are represented on the packaging.
Honey imports have almost doubled in the last decade, from 251 million pounds in 2010 to 416 million pounds in 2019. However, adulteration and mislabeling of honey to mask its true origin have become a global issue. The labels on imported jars don’t always represent the true country of origin, sadly to evade tariffs or sanctions. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is tasked with ensuring that all honey entering the U.S. is of known origin, that importers pay their dues, and that the honey is not adulterated or counterfeit. Manuka honey, for example, is very sought-after for its health benefits, and it is also one of the most counterfeited or adulterated types of honey. Because it commands a high price on the market, other forms of honey are often purposely mislabeled as such to fetch more profit.
S&T joined forces with the Borders, Trade, and Immigration Institute Center of Excellence (BTI), led by the University of Houston, for the Honey DNA project, investing in cutting-edge forensic science that can quickly and efficiently determine the true origin of honey. BTI conducts research to help our nation enhance border security, facilitate legitimate trade and travel, and ensure immigration system integrity. In this case, BTI scientists developed methods for sequencing DNA not only from whole pollen grains in unfiltered honey but also from the small amounts of DNA leaked from broken pollen grains in filtered honey.
Through the Honey DNA project, BTI was able to establish techniques that will help mitigate fraud and provide authentic and safe food for consumers. BTI recently published a report on the findings, including assembling country-specific plant DNA sequences from 300 honey samples, and successfully isolating trace DNA and sequencing it from pollen-free, filtered honey.
The Honey DNA tracing methods could find broad applications in other types of forensic cases, including identifying the species of other natural products, and even tracing the origins of shipments, narcotics and people. Also, the DNA sequences obtained from this project will enrich the public DNA database and help link occurrences of source plants across the world for a more precise identification of honey origin.
S&T is all abuzz about this work, as the Honey DNA project reminds us that science is a driving force in resolving a ‘swarm’ of homeland security challenges. We do the science so only trustworthy honey touches your taste buds. Happy Honeybee Day!