I have been getting a lot of questions about honey. One of my South Carolina friends commented about fresh honey. Since honey doesn't spoil, freshness is not an issue with honey. Honey has been found in Egyptian tombs. And yes, it was still good!
Some more important considerations than freshness are:
Know the beekeeper
You don't need to personally know the beekeeper, but it doesn't hurt. If you know who is keeping the bees you can ask about her beekeeping philosophy. There is a wide range of acceptable practices when it comes to beekeeping, but I prefer the ones that are free of chemicals. Integrated Pest Management enables the beekeeper to use natural products like confectioners sugar and essential oils as well as mechanical traps to control common hive pests and fungi. Some chemicals can't be used when there is honey to be harvested in the hive. There are certainly reputable beekeepers who correctly use chemicals to manage their hives, but unless you know your beekeeper, you won't know if these chemicals were properly handled.
Buy local honey. It is thought that because bees pick up pollen and bring it to the hive that people with seasonal allergies benefit from eating local honey. There are traces of those allergens in the honey. Some beekeepers collect pollen from the pollen baskets of foragers returning to the hive. This pollen can be purchased and ingested and is also considered therapeutic to allergy sufferers. Bees travel up to five miles for water, pollen and nectar. That's local. Even if you don't have allergies, do your local beekeepers a favor by buying their honey.
Whether you buy at a local farmers' market or especially if you buy at the grocery store, read the label to find out where the honey comes from. What you absolutely, positively DO NOT want is honey from Asia. I have seen a documentary about how some Asian "honey" producers feed cheap corn syrup to their bees. The bees eat it and make "honey" but we call it adulterated. It looks like honey, but real honey is made from nectar. Some beekeepers, including me, feed their bees sugar water from time to time in order to sustain a new hive or to help the colony store enough food for the winter, but bees are fed after honey is harvested, not before, so what is extracted is real honey.
Eat it raw!
When honey is spun out of the frames at harvest time, it drips into a barrel shaped container with a gate at the bottom to allow honey to drain into another bucket with a double sieve at the top. This strainer catches bits of wax and anything else not honey. This is all it needs before it is bottled. Some beekeepers heat the honey before bottling. This is not necessary and if the honey gets over a certain temperature it changes the essential properties and destroys beneficial enzymes. It's still honey but it has lost something in the processing. How do you know? Ask the beekeeper if he heats the honey. Those who do think it's fine to do so, so they'll tell you. Because you have no way to know if the temperature was controlled, buy someone else's honey.
Some honey is sold with chunks of honeycomb. If you have ever had it that way, you know how wonderful it is to bite down on comb and to feel the honey squish out of the cells. When I was a kid we used to chew the wax like gum and then spit it out, but I now know that the wax is perfectly edible. Go ahead and swallow it.
I have tried a product that contains honey, propolis, pollen and beeswax all mushed up in the jar. Propolis is a very sticky gluelike substance that bees make from pine sap. Any cracks or crevices in the hive are sealed with this stuff which is why we need to use a small pry bar to pull out the frames and unstick the stacked hive boxes. It is also edible and has therapeutic qualities when eaten. I can't remember what the stuff is called but Whole Foods carries it. Very raw. Very unprocessed. Expensive stuff. It does taste good.
When bees draw out honeycomb on a new foundation, it is creamy white. As generations of brood are raised it darkens the comb. The frames get moved around the hives as needed, so sometimes honey is stored in new, white comb and sometimes it is stored in comb that is brown because brood has been raised there or because honey has been stored there. One of my fellow beekeepers told me tonight that when she has frames of honey with snow white cappings, she slices off the cappings to harvest the honey, saves those honey-laden cappings in a jar and shares it with her family. It is the equivalent of comb honey without the hassle of trying to make comb honey. I might try that instead of draining the cappings for days or putting them out for the bees to go bonkers over.
|Pale, pale yellow spring honey|
|My jar of Humboldt Fog honey--spring above, fall below|
|Golden, late summer honey|
Van Morrison sang, "She's as sweet as tupelo honey." What is that, anyway? Honey is named for the kind of flower from which the bees have collected nectar. If you watch bees you'll note that when they are visiting blossoms they stay on one kind of flower. When the clover is blooming and its nectar is flowing, they collect from clover to clover to clover. When the black locust and honey locust trees are blooming in the spring, the bees love it and collect just that nectar. Same for dandelions, honeysuckle, blueberries, lavender, goldenrod, etc., plants that grow around here in Ohio. If the beekeeper takes honey right after the lavender nectar flow then she will have lavender honey. Back to tupelo...the tupelo is a gum tree that grows in northwest Florida, the only place where tupelo honey is produced commercially. There are bee hives all along the river swamps in this area and when the nectar flows in April and May, the bees produce this very delicate, light amber honey. Each variety of honey has its own distinctive taste and color. Honey that is light in color is light and delicate in flavor. The darker the honey, the stronger the flavor. Clover honey is light (but not as light as my spring honey) and buckwheat is very dark. Other varieties you will find at grocery are sage (one of my favorites) and orange blossom. When honey is harvested once a year it is a combination of all the nectars the bees have collected from many different flowers. We call that honey wildflower. When you travel look for honey that's local to wherever you are. It won't do a thing for your allergies but it will make your tongue happy. It's all good.
A few last things to know about honey
- While honey does not spoil, eventually it will crystallize and become sugary. Re-liquify it by putting the bottle into a bowl of hot water.
- Cream honey is honey with air whipped into it, delicious as a spread for bread. Carmen Conrad, of Conrad Hive and Honey in Canal Winchester makes fabulous cream honey, including flavors. My favorite is jalapeño. Look for Carmen and Barry at the Clintonville Farmer's Market on Saturdays.
- Honey is good to put in you and to put on you. It has loads of antioxidants and is antibacterial. It is soothing for coughs and sore throats. Google honey home remedies and learn more ways to use this great gift from the bees.