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The taste of honey

Mar 4th, 2016 | Category: Food

by Bruce Vilders

As a beekeeper I get to closely watch bees at work. I mean real close.

I often sit next to the hive opening and put my face inches from where the food-gathering bees fly in and out. Some of what they are collecting you can easily see, such as the different colored pollen captured on their hind legs; bright purples, golds, yellows, or blues depending on the flowers they are working in. Things you can’t see is the water and nectars they’ve harvested, as it is carried within their gut, to be regurgitated and passed on to the bees within the hive. The foraging bees carry food and water so as to feed the growing colony and put something away for its winter survival. That “some thing” is Honey.

Photo by Gary Brown

Photo by Gary Brown

But all honey is not the same. In fact, it’s all different. The nectar (carbohydrates) and pollen (protein) is what determines those differences. Ultimately, it is the overall environment that the bee work within that creates honey’s unique characteristics of taste, scent and color.

As there are over 235,000 different angiosperms (flowering plants) it follows that the honey created from their nectars can have wide variations in properties. Put simply, if bees are working in a cherry orchard, the honey may have a slight cherry flavor. Blackberries? Maybe a subtle blackberry flavor. But since bees can travel up to 5 miles in search of food, honey is often a wild mix of flavors.

We also need to understand that all honey is not necessarily created with found natural ingredients, as some commercially sold honey is labeled. Because many plants and crops are now treated with pesticides, herbicides and other synthetic toxins, natural honey bee honey has become harder to find and thus, more expensive. Adversely, with money to be made, we now have more illegally imported (and unregulated) honey being dumped into our country’s food chain with substances such as sugar and corn syrup being added. This adulterated honey is becoming all too pervasive and unless you are diligent about where you purchase your honey from you could be buying something really quite different from how it is marketed.

Here is my best advice. Buy local.

Purchase your honey directly from a beekeeper, your local farmer’s market or from some other store or food cooperative that keeps a close eye on its sources.

In the bee-keeping world, beekeepers are divided into categories such as commercial, sideliner or hobbyist, often based on the number of hives kept (1 to 20,000+- hives).  Another division is whether they use synthetic chemicals versus chemical-free methods to fight the various pathogens and insect pests that harm bee colonies.

Another important aspect of honey is in how it is processed. Most large grocery stores choose to sell pasteurized honey. In other words, it has been heated. Depending on the level of heat, it has the potential to kill the probiotics and antibodies that are naturally found in honey. Listen/look for the word “raw” as it is often used by beekeepers to tell you that it has not been heated. There are other words that should clue you in to what has or has not been done to the honey. However, very few of these words are government-regulated or monitored and, unless you purchase from a solid source, you may not know what it is you’re actually buying. “Natural”, “Pure” and even “Organic” are all suspect if your standing in the aisle at the mega-foods store.

Thus, honey itself is a complicated thing. The taste, texture, color and its other attributes (such as medicinal) are all affected by where and from which plants were visited by the bees, the season (hot, cold, wet, dry), the terroir (soil, climate, sunlight) and how the honey was processed before and after extraction from the hive.

But is it complicated to buy? Not really. Get to know your local beekeeper. Find him or her at your local farmer’s market. Ask about where their bees worked, if they use natural beekeeping methods and if its been heated. Taste test the honey. When you find something you like, buy it. Consider buying more than just what you need for the short term as honey stores very well.

Finally, here is my advice for you to find the perfect honey. Take a class in beekeeping. We actually don’t need another beekeeper with 20,000 hives. What we really need are 20,000 more beekeepers with just one hive! You can help save the bees AND eat the best honey in the world. Yours.

Bruce Vilders is WSU certified beekeeper and the Executive Director of the Federal 501-C3 non-profit honey bee education APIS Project (apisproject.org)

Published in the March 2016 issue of Grow Northwest

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