Honey is a sweet, magical substance. We know it comes from bees, but when people buy honey they don’t necessarily know what plants the bees were collecting nectar from, no less where the bees lived.
Part of the reason this is important is that there is apparently evidence that eating raw honey can help with allergies. The pollen in the honey might help reduce allergic reactions to pollen.
Another reason is economic. There are tariffs in place in the US when importing honey from some countries due to subsidies considered illegal. These subsidies reduce the cost of the honey and can drive out domestic production. Relabeling becomes a problem here. Subsidized honey is relabeled as coming from another country in order to evade tariffs. In Europe, provenance of honey is regulated. Honey labeled as Corsican can only come from Corsica.
From all this comes a scientific question: Where did a batch of honey come from? What plants were visited by the bees? Where did those bees live?
DNA in pollen stored in the honey can help answer these questions.
Working with True Source Honey, we worked to see if we could identify what plants were visited by the bees and where the provenance of the honey by sequencing DNA in honey. They sent us 10 honey samples from around the world, but didn’t tell us where the honey was from.
Our preliminary results were pretty encouraging. We were able to identify a number of taxa in each honey. Each honey was unique. We feel like we can verify the plants that were visited when producing the honey.
Figuring out where the honey came from just by DNA is going to take some work. The barcoding approach we use doesn’t provide enough taxonomic resolution to separate, for example, the pines of India vs. the US, or the legumes of China vs. the Ukraine.
Still, this was encouraging. Next step is to see if we can sequence plant DNA in filtered honey. Filtering can be used to mask where honey comes from. But DNA still might be left behind.
We also can apply some other techniques that will give us better taxonomic resolution to help identify locations.