A sign above the entrance to my kitchen reads "Home is where my honey is." I've always loved its comforting message, but I love the sign even more because it was a gift from my Uncle Bart, an avid beekeeper who treasured honey and the tiny creatures that work so hard to make it. Naturally, my uncle's love of honey rubbed off on me as a kid. Every year, my family looked forward to a huge gift box packed with squeezable honey bears, beeswax candles, and honey spreads and straws from Uncle Bart's company in Colorado. As I grew up, this liquid gold remained a staple in my house, to be savored in snacks, drinks, meals, and treats.
Honey is one of the sweetest foods found in nature, but it is prized as much for its medicinal properties as for its rich flavor. It has long been considered a healing agent because of its mineral content, which can include calcium, copper, zinc, and iron, says dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner of the American Dietetic Association. "Honey contains a variety of compounds, like flavonoids and phenolic acids that act like antioxidants, which can help us fight anything from heart disease to cancer," she notes.
Raw honey contains higher traces of vitamins and minerals than honey that has been processed with heat. In general, "the darker the honey, the higher the antioxidant content," Blatner says. It's also believed that consuming local bee pollen and honey, especially unfiltered varieties that carry traces of pollen, will help ease seasonal allergies, though there aren't many conclusive scientific studies to back that up. And honey has long been used to relieve congestion: In 2007 a Penn State College of Medicine research team found that a small dose of honey given before bedtime eases coughing in children better than over-the-counter medication does. (This is for children over the age of one. Honey should not be given to infants.) Because honey is antibacterial, it doesn't need additives to prolong its shelf life. In fact, most honeys go through very little processing; they are simply filtered with a centrifuge (some beekeepers facilitate the process by heating the honey) before being bottled.
Busy as a Bee
As a child visiting my uncle in Colorado, I could hear the buzzing from the hives near his house. Closer to the hives, I could feel it, too; as I walked toward the wooden boxes, the low, vibrating hum grew louder until the sound surrounded me, and I could see the bees hovering above the hives. Being so close to the stinging insects terrified me, but my uncle explained that the bees wouldn't harm me if I kept calm. That was my first appreciation for their power and delicate beauty as they go about their work.
As a honey lover, I was distressed a few years ago to read many news stories about the mysterious disappearance of honeybees. In 2008 the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that colony collapse disorder had wiped out 36 percent of the honeybee population in the United States, or more than 800,000 hives. Researchers have yet to find a specific cause or cure for the sudden death of entire honeybee colonies—disease, mites, and pesticides are under investigation as possible causes. The loss of so many honeybees is a serious problem, not just because it might lead to a shortage of honey cake or sweetener, but because the bees affect our food supply. As pollinators, they are a vital part of the life cycle of all kinds of food products, from citrus fruit to almonds and watermelons to butternut squash.
"About 35 percent of the calories we consume come from bee-pollinated foods," says journalist Rowan Jacobsen, a hobbyist beekeeper and the author of Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis (Bloomsbury, 2008). "And unfortunately, it's all high-quality calories that we need—fruits, vegetables—the ones that contain our vitamins and antioxidants." Bee pollination affects other food sources as well: The clover and alfalfa that many cattle eat rely on bee pollination in their life cycle, which means that even the supply of milk and cheese ultimately depends on bees.
Of course, from the bees' point of view, pollinating is incidental—making honey is the main event. Worker honeybees visit blooming flowers such as clover, dandelions, lavender, and fruit tree blossoms, sipping the nectar with long strawlike tongues and collecting it in their abdomens. They're also collecting protein-rich pollen to feed the hive.
Each time a bee lands on a flower, pollen sticks to its fuzzy body. At the next flower, some of this pollen falls off, while still more attaches to the bee, and that is how plants are pollinated. When the honeybees return to the hive, they treat the nectar with enzymes and spread it throughout the wax cells of the honeycomb to thicken into honey. Beekeepers collect some of this honey, leaving behind enough to feed the hive. Considering that each worker bee will produce just a single drop of honey in her entire lifetime, the honey we spread on our toast in the morning is a truly precious food.
Nurturing the Bees
While no one knows what causes colony collapse disorder, we can do a few things to help honeybees thrive, says Eric Mussen, an extension apiculturist at the University of California's Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility in Davis. First, he says, you can plant flowers that will bloom throughout the summer. "Bees love sunflowers, and they really go for rosemary, thyme, lavender, borage...they need a mix of pollen for a balanced diet," Mussen says.
Second, Mussen advises keeping the use of insecticides in the garden to a minimum, particularly the ones that are applied once and provide protection from insects for months. That kind of insecticide is particularly damaging to the nervous systems of invertebrate insects like bees, Mussen says. Absorbed by the roots of the plant, it ends up in the leaves, the flowers, and yes, the nectar.
Buying domestic honey is another important piece of the puzzle, Jacobsen says. "Three-quarters of honey in the U.S. is imported. By buying U.S. honey, you're not only supporting U.S. beekeepers, but you're supporting all U.S. farming, because beekeepers are the pollinators. It makes the whole system stronger."
In fact, the main business for commercial beekeepers, says Jacobsen, is pollination. These beekeepers truck their bees across the country, pollinating citrus and almond crops along the way. Some argue that these travels aren't in the bees' best interest, making them more susceptible to contracting and spreading disease. But it is easy to find local honey from beekeepers who maintain their hives in one place. David Gardella, a beekeeper and Anusara Yoga student in San Francisco, says that when you buy honey from local beekeepers, you know you're getting honey made from the nectar of the flowers, plants, and trees around you.
"There are more local beekeepers than people realize," Gardella says. "If you have access to local farmers' markets, look for honey there and talk to the beekeepers about their practices," he adds.
Another reason to buy local is that, like wine and cheese, honey carries the unique flavor of its place of origin, a trait called terroir. It tastes of the land where each particular honeybee lives and of the flowers that grow in that world.
While I'd grown up eating my uncle's clover and alfalfa honeys almost exclusively, I knew there was a world of regional honeys to be experienced closer to my home in Boston. There are more than 300 honey varietals in the United States, including alfalfa, basswood, buckwheat, acacia, clover, and lavender—and each has a unique flavor, color, and texture that reflect the plants from which the bees extracted the nectar. In general, the darker the honey, the bolder and more dimensional the flavor. For example, chestnut honey, which is dark reddish amber in color, has a robust, almost bitter flavor, while pale gold orange-blossom honey is mildly sweet and citrusy.
These days, whenever I travel or visit a new neighborhood farmers' market, I'm immediately drawn to displays of regional honeys. I collect different varieties the way some cooks collect flavored salts or vinegars, and use them judiciously in my cooking to add depth and sweetness to a variety of dishes.
Each amber-hued jar lined up along my shelf has its own singular flavor profile and its own uses in my kitchen. A mild straw-colored honey adds simple sweetness to a vinaigrette or a peanut sauce, while dark-amber-colored honey makes a delicious glaze for roasted vegetables.
When tasting a new honey, either by itself or side by side with another honey to compare their flavors, I eat it right off the spoon, allowing its particular character to suggest how I might use it. I like to pair the malty sweetness of a buckwheat honey with strong, robust cheeses and drizzle a slightly bittersweet chestnut honey over pancakes and fruit. I have even been known to indulge in an old habit of my uncle's: dipping pizza crusts into mild alfalfa honey. Perhaps more than any other, the taste of this sweet comfort food connects me to my past, my present, and the future of the bees.
Erin Byers Murray is a Boston freelance journalist who practices yoga and writes about food and the environment.