Friday, August 5, 2011

Is Your Local Honey Really Local?

When we travel, we like to meet local beekeepers and try local honey. What we've found is that just because honey is sold locally doesn't mean the bees are gathering nectar and pollen locally. For some people, it doesn't matter, as long as the honey doesn't come from China or hasn't been super-heated to the point all of the beneficial enzymes are dead. As long as it tastes good, that's all they need to know.  

This post is not for these people.

Image from

 For people hoping to use honey as a natural remedy for allergies, where the bees forage is extremely important. The idea is that local pollen, found in local honey -- especially comb honey -- will help the immune system build up a resistance to the pollen in question.

Pollen the bees are storing for their protein needs.

For those of you interested in honey for this purpose, here are some questions to ask the next time you see a road-side stand or farmer's market booth advertising local honey:

1. Are you a beekeeper?
2. If yes: Where do you keep your bees?
3. If no: Where does the beekeeper keep the hives? Or, where does the honey come from?
3. If the honey is gathered from multiple sites, is it bottled separately or combined?
4. Is there a primary nectar source for the bees?
5. Is your honey heated? (Once honey is heated -- some say above body temperature -- you lose some of its enzymes and health benefits.)

Now, the label may tell you some of this information.  Some honey is labeled "buckwheat," "clover," "sage," or "wildflower." That tells you the primary nectar source or dominant flavor of the honey. The label may say "single estate" which generally means the honey comes from one place. Most people don't bother to have their honey tested, and in general it would be hard to say that the bees foraged only on one particular plant type.

Here is a story to illustrate the importance of these questions.  While in California earlier in the summer, a friend mentioned she'd seen a guy set up on a corner, selling local honey. She wanted to try some for her allergies.  Mark and I saw him and stopped.  Here is our conversation:

Keri: "Hey, are you a beekeeper?"
Sales Guy: "I used to be, but now the Mexicans do all the beekeeping for us."
Keri: "Oh. Where are your hives?" (Tries to keep her surprise and disappointment to herself. Looks down, sees several varieties of honey based on plants she knows don't grow in the area.)
SG: "This honey comes from hives down around Ojai. This comes from a couple different places south of Santa Barbara."
Keri: "Oh."  (Thinks to herself, honey from over 100 miles away is NOT local honey. It won't help her friend's allergies at all.)

Now, to be fair, the honey was delicious, pretty in the jar, fairly priced, and tasty -- he let us sample and we bought some. We didn't care about the local factor, but we made sure to tell our friend that it wasn't really local honey.

I'm not trying to undermine anyone, and I want all beekeepers to be able to sell their products. But, I also want consumers to be informed. It is a common practice for beekeepers to sell their honey to someone who is more interested in the marketing side of honey, and that person resells it. Sometimes the  middle man is a beekeeper. The honey in question may or may not come from the same county or region of the state, but it's all bottled under the same label. Therefore, most people assume when they buy this honey, it's local, because they bought it from a local beekeeper. It may be local, and then again . . .

Another possibility is that someone buys honey in the 55 gallon drum from a commercial beekeeper, then bottles it and sells it. This person isn't a beekeeper, but a honey purveyor. The product is still better than what you'd buy off the shelf at a super store, but it may not be local honey. 

This is not an argument about quality. I've eaten honey purchased in all of these situations. It's a matter of knowing where your food comes from and getting truly local honey if that is what you're after.

So be an informed consumer. Just because a local individual is selling honey doesn't mean it's local honey. Investigate. After all, you might meet some beekeepers, and they're crazy nice people.

Local bees hard at work in Steens, MS

Monday, August 1, 2011

Honey Assessments: How Much Will There Be to Harvest?

On Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon, we checked our bee yards.  Here is the temperature on Saturday:

Mr. Barham came over and gave us 8 cantaloupes to take home.  We'd finished 10 Mark had picked up Tuesday. They're that delicious.

Everything thrives at the Barhams' house, including the bees.  We counted at least 6 honey supers ready to harvest.  Mark moved them up and moved less full supers down so that the full ones would be easier to harvest and the bees would work more in the open supers. You can see how the bees reacted to the heat: bearding on the front of the hives.

At Harley's, we have 3 colonies and they're doing okay, but there won't be any surplus honey to harvest. The nearby fields were planted in corn, which is not a plant loaded with nectar for bees.

At Mayhew, we sweated through our clothes it was so hot (TMI, right? No shade like we had in Steens) and have six supers to harvest, we think. We shifted some supers around, added some queen excluders in hopes of trying to get some comb honey developed, and found more brace comb than we'd like, which is wasted effort for the bees. Those Back Saver Hive Stands sure came in handy since there was sticky honey comb on the bottoms of the supers and frames and we were moving three around at once.

Mark is hoping for a break in the weather. He talked to a bunch of cotton farmers this afternoon at a wedding reception and they say the humidity should be down Tuesday or Wednesday.

He's anxious to harvest . . . but look at the honey streaming out of the bottom of the broken brace comb. With this heat, it's really going to flow! 

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thanks & a Honey Harvest Update

Hi friends!

Thanks for sharing your comments about our honey, and welcome to the new blog followers!  When Mark went to the dentist, he said, "It's the best honey I've ever had. My dad stole my jar when he came to visit!" Mark was so pleased!

The good news is, while we were gone on our epic adventure to Alaska, the cotton blooms kept the bees very busy and the grass grew like crazy. Mark and Andrew spent 3 days clearing the bee yards -- mowing, weed eating -- and today Mark is building special frames to see if the bees will make us some "comb honey" -- we can cut it into squares so you can have your honey and the comb it rode in on!

The challenging news is that we can't yet harvest because of the rain.  Honey is hygroscopic, which is great when it comes to healing wounds and moisturizing your skin. However, if you harvest honey while there's a lot of moisture in the air, you end up with honey that could ferment. (Some great tips for beginners on harvesting honey are here.)  We want our honey to be top quality, so we have to wait for sunnier weather. We may get a break next week, but it's hard to tell. Here's a photo of what we're going to get when we can:

Honey at Mayhew, Sunday, July 31st.
For more on our assessments at each yard Saturday and Sunday afternoons, check the separate blog entry.

Celeste and Missy, I can ship to you -- we'll talk after the harvest, but I'll put you on the list.  Margaret and Jacky, I'll put you on the list too!