At first glance, "free-range honey" might sound like a contradiction -- after all, how can bees produce honey if you don't let them roam freely over the flowers? But the expression does actually have a relatively specific meaning.
Picture by looseends
The topic of free-range honey popped up on a journalists' mailing list recently, and a comprehensive explanation was provided by Matthew JC Powell, ludicrously well-informed man and editor of MacTheMag. Given that we're celebrating Food Week at the moment, I got his permission to share it. Here's what he wrote:
"Free range honey" refers to surplus honey the colony doesn't require for its own survival. Out in nature such surplus honey would be used as the basis for a second colony splitting off from the first, but beekeepers regard harvesting the surplus for sale as not damaging to the colony.
Surplus honey is only available in spring. Each spring the flowers bloom and the bees pollenate like mad, dragging pollen back to the hive and manufacturing honey. They make as much as they need for the high-activity months of spring and summer, plus extra to last through the winter when they can't get more pollen. When spring comes around again, whatever honey hasn't been consumed by the colony isn't needed by the colony.
Autumn is when the hives have the most honey and the bees are least active. However harvesting in autumn means two things. First, you're taking honey that the bees have manufactured for themselves, which by any definition is exploitation. Second, you're creating a requirement that you'll have to supplement the bees' food stores during the winter. This is done by adding sugar syrup to the combs. This is fine for the bees but it's not their natural diet and it's arguable whether any honey produced by bees so supplemented counts as "natural". It's analogous to feeding cows vitamin pills instead of grass and then stealing all the milk so the calves have to drink formula.
The other thing that's done in large-scale honey manufacturing is maintaining hothouses where flowers bloom all year and keeping the bees nearby so they're constantly producing more honey than required. Not exactly "free range". When you see honey that specifies the type of flower whose pollen was used in its manufacture, this is most often going to be the process.
So presuming your local honey-supplier only harvests honey in spring and they let the bees get their pollen from flowers that bloom naturally, they might actually be telling the truth.
If you're buying from a small local supplier, then asking remains the best method to find out exactly how their honey is produced and harvested, but it's all good information to keep in mind. There's also plenty of good information in MacTheMag, which is highly recommended reading for all Mac enthusiasts. Thanks Matthew!