As far back as I can remember, my father has kept bees. As children we each had our own beehive and we helped him extract the honey. I have fond memories of the fragrance of melted beeswax mixed with the golden, sweet honey. He still keeps bees, and until recently, I never purchased honey from a store, and that only for this piece.
A friend bought ten pounds of Dad’s honey and remarked that he now only needs half as much honey as before, as this honey has a much richer flavor than what he bought before. Honey sold commercially is graded by the USDA on attributes like clarity, color, and flavor, but there is a wide variance in beekeeper’s field methods. USDA guidelines separate products between consumer and industrial uses. The grocery shopper is left to consider labels chosen by wholesalers and individual apiaries from a variety of geographical origins, floral sources, and treatment and feeding options.
Bees collect nectar from flowers or sugar syrups, which they partially digest and store in small wax compartments. Flowers local to the apiary and in season when the honey was made determine honey color, taste, and flavor. For me, part of the charm is that each bottle is a little different. There are certainly companies that try to give their honey a uniform flavor, but it goes against the grain of the product.
Beekeepers often feed the bees a sugar syrup in the fall to build up the hiveâ€™s store of food, if they are concerned about the hive’s survival. Some beekeepers have been accused of doing this to create saleable honey, or mixing honey and sugar syrup.
Many beekeepers treat bees for parasites such as varroa mites, which suck vital fluids from a bee’s body. Commercial miticides must be applied with care to prevent honey contamination. A growing trend among beekeepers is treatment free beekeeping, which advocates mechanical protections for bees, rather than chemical, with the idea that over-treatment leads to resistance and food contamination.
Large commercial packers flash heat honey, then filter it to remove every particle of wax and pollen. This leaves a crystal clear product with longer shelf life but volatile flavors are lost. Smaller producers warm honey just so it flows, then strain it to remove wax particles. The result may be clear or cloudy, but has much more flavor. This honey may crystalize more easily, but this is easily reversed by gently warming it in a double boiler until the sugar crystals melt.
Field methods are controversial, and not always apparent from the honey labelling. If you buy straight from a beekeeper (or find a bottle with an apiary’s number), you can ask them how their bees are treated, whether the honey is from flowers or sugar fed, and whether the honey is even from your area.