Pollen Not Pesticide

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March 8, 2009 at 10:28 am

Melissa Graham

It all started with a plastic bear, one almost identical to those at which honey aficionados scoff. This bear, however, did not reside on a shelf in some American grocery store, but instead in a quintessential Parisian shop, pristine and stylish.

Until this time, honey never did much for me – I had only tried the clover varietal, which was okay, certainly nothing to go all Pooh-bear about. Nevertheless, the shop was on my to-try list because my guidebook listed it as one of the Paris food institutions one had to go. And I, a dutiful foodie, did my part and purchased one small bear to try later.

When I returned to Chicago and unloaded all of my goodies, the bear was set aside. Sea salts, vinegars and mustards were far more interesting to me. But then one morning, I opened a jar of moldy jam. Having already toasted and buttered my bread, I reached for that little bear. Squeezing it onto the bread, I immediately noticed something different. The plastic had made the liquid seem darker, but in actuality it was flaxen colored, like liquid sunshine. Its aroma was floral, redolent of stone fruits, peaches in particular. How did it taste? Suffice to say, I have since become one of those honey aficionados who would scoff at plastic bears.

Not to be indelicate, but it could be said that honey is bee barf. To produce honey, honey bees travel flower to flower gathering the sweet nectar in their mouths, which is then saved in a special stomach called the “honey sac”. After the bees have filled these honey sacs, which may take visits to hundreds of flowers, they return to hive and transfer the nectar through their mouths, changing it from nectar into honey. The honey is stored in hexagonal wax cells, i.e. honey comb. Once stored, it is ready to eat for bees, for bears and yes for humans.

The first honey eaten was foraged from wild bees. The earliest recorded evidence of beekeeping is found in ancient Egyptian paintings dating from about 2500 B.C. The oldest form of beekeeping involved baiting bees by putting a bit of honey in the bottom of a pot or into a hollow log. Once captured, the bees would remain to produce honey. In 1852, Reverend L.L. Langstroth (hero to honey lovers across the globe) revolutionized beekeeping by creating movable frames with a “bee space” that discouraged the bees from gluing the comb solidly to the walls allowing multiple racks of bees working to make honey simultaneously.

The majority of beekeepers are amateurs who manage less than 25 colonies. There are an estimated 1,600 commercial beekeepers that manage more than 300 bee colonies each. Honey is harvested in late Spring to early Fall. To remove the honey, beekeepers will anaesthetize the bees often by smoke and remove the comb. They then scrape off the wax caps and often centrifugal force is used spin the comb to remove the honey. The honey may then be filtered and transferred to jars, ready for consumption.

Back to the bear, most of the honey that fills these plastic animals is commercially produced, heat processed and blended to create a consistent product year in and year out. Varietal honey, on the other hand, is a natural product with natural variations. Good varietal honey has been handled as little as possible to preserve the flavors. On the subject of flavors, these can vary depending upon the harvest date. When a honey specifies a particular flower (lavender, rosemary, chestnut, acacia), the bees have been given access to a particular nectar source. While there is no guarantee that the honey will have been produced from only a single nectar source, the bees do tend to exhaust a single source before moving on to another. The texture of varietal honey varies with the different levels of dextrose and fructose, honey’s dominant ingredients. Dextrose crystallizes more rapidly than fructose and thus honey with more dextrose will be more granular.

When honey bees collect the nectar from the flowers, pollen sticks to their legs. When landing on new flowers to get additional nectar, they transfer this pollen. Pollination fertilizes the plants enabling them to bear fruit. The USDA estimates that at least one-third of our diets are derived from insect-pollinated plants, for which bees are responsible for at least eighty percent. So we humans need bees. As anyone who has seen Bee Movie knows what would happen if the bees stopped working. While I don’t think that we need to worry about litigious bees, we should be concerned about the phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. Since 2006, hundreds of thousands of honeybee colonies in the U.S. have died out. The value of pollination is valued at $14.6 billion dollars a year, so we clearly need to be worried about the new trend in bee-world. It’s not clear what’s causing this dire circumstance, whether new pesticides, disease or predators, but it definitely merits additional investigation as bees are not just crucial to honey lovers, but to our agricultural future. Two non-profits that are working with state and federal agencies to create agricultural policies that will protect our honeybees are Xerces Society and the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign. For a more delicious way to support the honeybees, buy some Vanilla Honey Bee ice cream from Häagen-Dazs who donates a portion of the proceeds to research on how to combat colony collapse disorder.

One of the best things about honey is that it’s a locally produced sweetener.. Without much of a supply of granulated sugar – Rob Gardner has found local beet sugar from Costco of all places, but I’ve yet to track some down. In some recipes, like pancakes and cookies, you can easily substitute honey in the place of granulated sugar. You’ll simply have to reduce the amount of honey as it is a sweeter ingredient. The following are tasting notes on the locally produced honeys in my cabinet.

HONEY TASTING NOTES

Farmstead Honey, Prairie Fruits Farm, Champaign, IL: Floral, herbaceous, delicate in flavor and color, well-balanced. It crystallized within the year.

Beeline, Chicago, IL: Peach and vanilla notes. Deeply fragrant. Fairly dark in color. I really wish that Beeline would mark the date of its honey production on the jars as this honey was so different from the other that I tasted (see the mild honeys). This was less crystallized than the other Beeline honey. Beeline is such a cool company as it trains and employs people that face significant barriers to employment, often due to former incarceration.

Wildflower, Ellis Farms, Benton Harbor, MI: Soapy aroma, which carries through a bit to the flavor. Hints of lavender. Good for cooking. Slightly crystallized.

Cranberry, Some Honey, New Lisbon, WI: Tartness on the tongue, good texture, amber in color. A bit of spice that tastes like Autumn. Free flowing. I used this around the holidays to make a honey vinaigrette to dress a spinach salad tossed with dried cranberries and toasted pecans.

Black Raspberry, Bron’s Bee Company, Elburn, Il.: Unbelievably delicious. Autumn yellow in color. Not too much aroma, but a very berry like taste providing a well-rounded sweetness. Crystallized slightly. Love the bear-shaped glass jar.

Chestnut, Hillside Farms, Berrien Springs, MI: Light in color, with no distinctive flavor. Very different from Italian chestnut honey.

Buckwheat, Some Honey, New Lisbon, WI: Looks like molasses, smells like dirt. Good rich caramel flavor. Slight barnyard taste on the front that yields into warmth and herbaciousness.


Buckwheat Blend, Bron’s Bee Co., Elburn, IL:
Serious barnyard aroma, but comparatively mild in flavor. Thick spreadable texture.

I love to cook with honey and do so in two ways and here are a few recipes that highlight the beauty of varietal honeys as well as those that complement the other flavors in a recipe.

Recipe: Tartlets of Brie & Pear Drizzled with Honey


Recipe: Blueberry Buckwheat Pancakes

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5 Comments

  1. Rob Gardner says:

    Great piece. We’ve collected all these honeys over the years to do a honey tasting, but never quite pulled the trigger. Thanks for doing it for us.

    We are very lucky around here, damn lucky, that colony collapse has not happened (or not happened as much, I’m no expert on this).

    Have you tried using maple syrup, maple sugar or sorghum in your recipes, all other sources of local sweeteners.

  2. I have to get my hands on a jar of that black raspberry honey.

  3. Yes, my understanding is the CCD has not shown up in Illinois. Whew!

    I’ve used all sorts of other sweeteners, including molasses, maple syrup and agave nectar. When I teach classes for kids, I like to use alternative to white sugar. I wrote the blueberry-buckwheat pancakes for one that I did at the Lincoln Park Zoo for Whole Foods. For the same class, I made a cornmeal raspberry muffin sweetened with agave. I may have to make those again with the cornmeal I got from Three Sisters last market.

  4. kennyz says:

    Sweet article! I only recently discovered the nuance and complexity of really good honey, and have come to appreciate it in much the same way that oenephiles ponder wine. I’ve tried but three of the ones noted above, and look forward to seeking out more. Thanks to Melissa for doing all the work, though I suspect it was mostly enjoyable :)

  5. On my blog, I have more tasting notes on non-local honeys as well.

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