BY HEATHER HARRELL
Mmm…. I can think of lots of edible things, but not many as delicious as honey—and I don’t mean the typical honey you buy at the grocery store. I mean varietal honey, honey directly from the source, honey that can range in color and flavor from almost black with a deep rich ferrous molasses flavor to nearly clear with a smooth velvet sweetness that is the embodiment of divine. Good honey is like good wine, complex, with a deep spectrum of fragrance, taste and texture.
But then, 2009 had its own surprises. Perhaps some of you have noticed a tall pink Penstemon that is seeded all around the Las Campanas area of Santa Fe. Called Palmer’s Penstemon or Giant Penstemon, it blooms profusely in the spring and yields a very light yellow honey that has a tangy citrus flavor and a smooth seamless texture that is very slow to crystallize. A much subtler varietal honey than the Globe Mallow, it could be easily mistaken for clover or a mixed wildflower honey to the untrained palate, and unless we pointed it out, most people simply looked it over. It was a favorite of mine, and I kept some jars for winter that are now long gone.
Often customers will call us long after a honey has disappeared, and tell us how much they loved it, and couldn’t they please have some more. If only nature were so reliable. Sure, some honeys come to our hives almost every year, but others are as rare as a perfect sequence of sunny days and rain. Recently a customer called and asked for 2008 Honey Locust and Silver Lace Vine honey. I remember it well. It had a fragrance that was like sticking your nose into a heady bush of honeysuckle. Some honeys have hardly any fragrance at all, but this one was downright perfumey and could easily overpower a cup of tea. Once you smelled and tasted it, it was hard not to want more.
As beekeepers, we make an effort to define our honeys so that people can develop a sense of what flavors and varieties they like. As honey flows change throughout the season, the combs fill with a variety of nectars. It takes approximately eight drops of nectar to produce one drop of honey, so the nectar has to really be flowing to make enough honey to give a name. We try to keep the different types articulated by cutting the combs into separate containers. Then we try to identify the predominant bloom in the area in order to name the honey. Often, we feel we are just putting a vague assessment on what might be the source of the nectar, as with our Mountain Wild Flower honey. Other times, we feel sure about what makes the honey special or unique, as is the case with the Globe Mallow and Penstemon honeys.
Once customers can define their own tastes, there is a wonderful connection to nature that follows. The plants that surround us on a daily basis can serve up the most fantastic palate of tastes and textures via the magical vehicle of a honeybee. With appreciation of honey comes an appreciation for the diverse flora of our unique habitat. If we are lucky, we can convince some of our most interested customers to buy seeds from native habitat organizations like Plants of the Southwest, where seed for both Scarlet Globe Mallow and Palmers Penstemon are available. Plants like these are often light-dependent germinators and can simply be scattered across the ground. They are also drought tolerant, and although they may not bloom every year, if a rain comes at just the right moment, there may even be a profusion of them. By planting Scarlet Globe Mallow, not only do you support your local beekeeper and your love of that deep red, spicy honey, you also support a unique species of bee that could easily pass into extinction without its symbiotic plant.
Recent honeybee research indicates that honeybees suffer from the monoculture environments of modern agriculture and are most healthy when they can dine on a variety of pollens and nectars. They particularly love the mint family, and with its high thymol content, herbs like peppermint, spearmint, catmint, catnip, lemon balm and holy basil can be potentially healing to the digestion of the honeybee, just as they are to human digestion. They can also be anti-parasitic, which can keep pesky mites away from the hive.
Honey is the art of the bee, and an extremely rich and complex carbohydrate food. We are very careful to preserve its natural qualities when we bottle it. We hand-crush the combs into a colander and let the honey drain out into a tank, from which it is immediately bottled without heating or additional processing. During the crushing process, the beeswax cells that are filled with pollen and coated with propolis are also crushed, blending the particles and flavors of seasonal pollen and propolis into the honey.
Pollen is collected from a wide variety of flowers and trees. It can vary in color from almost white to almost black and includes colors like green, blue, purple, red and orange. Its flavor also differs depending on the flower of origin, adding an additional flavor spectrum to the honey. Propolis is a sticky substance, often referred to as “bee glue” that is collected from the resinous sap of trees. Propolis can also vary in color, from yellow-green to bright red. It can be extremely spicy and even burn the mouth with its heat. The bees use it to seal and disinfect their hives, and it is valued for its medicinal properties.
Particles of pollen and propolis add texture as well as flavor to honey, and they can cause varying degrees of crystallization in the honey over time. Some honeys never crystallize, and are greatly prized for this quality. Most honeys, however, will crystallize over time if they are truly raw, resulting in a variety of textures from candy-hard to opaque liquid. My favorite texture is a creamy frosting that spreads evenly across toast. We do not heat our honeys, preferring to savor them as a raw food, with active enzymes and nutritional properties, and encourage our customers and students to do the same.
One of my favorite uses for crystallized honey is a tahini salad dressing:
Honeybees are a wonderful part of our lives, and they can be kept in a backyard hive for an easy supply of honey and beeswax right at home. One needs to love these bugs to take care of them, and many people find beekeeping a very rewarding hobby that brings them closer to nature and the habitat that surrounds them. If it seems hard to imagine keeping bees on your own, but you’re interested in local honey, look to your local farmers’ market and taste the honeys available there. Hopefully you’ll find a wonderful selection to savor and anticipate for years to come.
Heather Harrell is co-owner of For the Love of Bees with her husband Les Crowder. They keep 200 topbar beehives and are strong advocates of beekeeping without antibiotics, miticides or any other chemical inputs. Heather also grows organic vegetables, flowers and herbs and enjoys making salves and balms with her beeswax and the medicinal herbs from her farm. Her husband, Les, loves to teach beekeeping and feels that small backyard beekeeping operations offer hope to the honeybee. To find out more about their business and Les’ beekeeping classes, go to www.fortheloveofbees.com.