Shades of Honey

Shades of the 2015 harvest
Shades of the 2015 harvest

Have you ever wondered what determines the color of honey? or its texture? why are some honey darker or lighter? why are some honey extremely liquid, other much thicker, or some even “solid”? why do they have different textures?

In essence, it boils down to which flowers the bees visit. Nectar from different flowers yield honey with different color, texture, viscosity… and taste. Honey absolutely reflects the terroir where the bees live, since they forage within 2 or 3 miles from their hive. When large fields of the same plant bloom at the same time (whether it’s a field of clover, an orange grove, or acres of wild blackberries or autumn olives), bees are able to collect their nectar in mass over a short period of time.  Since a foraging bee collects nectar from only one flowering species on any one trip (50 to 100 flowers are visited on one trip), the hive gives priority to plants that are blooming in mass at the same time: it’s much more productive for them! The beekeeper monitor blooms, nectar flow, and bee in-take to time the placement and removal of the honey supers. Honey supers are boxes of frames dedicated to collect harvestable honey (as opposed to brood frames, or honey that will serve as food for the bees)

Even with our small apiaries the color differences are startling, and the taste sometime very different. Look at the picture: all eight jars represent honey from 2015, harvested at different times and from different small apiaries, yet all located within 8 miles from our house, in Rappahannock county in the Northern Virginia Piedmont at the foothill of the BlueRidge Mountains.

Keith (who is the beekeeper) tries to set aside a jar from each harvest batch and here are his notes for the jars in the pictures:

– The 2 left-most jars (#1 & #2)  are from last year’s most productive colony, but harvested at two different times: one has honey from nectar collected in late May the other late June. And although they weren’t labeled, Keith opines that the lighter (#1) was from May. It’s also very free-flowing and delicately floral.

– Jar #3 was from 2 other colonies in the same bee yard at our homestead, from nectar collected up to June. What was blooming for us in May & June? Tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera), brambles, locust (Robinia pseudo-acacia), basswood (aka American linden, Tilia americana). They were of course a lot of other plants blooming at the same time, but those were the only ones with “mass” flowering. Our county is rural, but we do not have any extensive fields crops, mostly forests, pasture and a few surviving small orchards.  Therefore, most of our honey come from flowering trees in the forests surrounding us.

– The 4th jar was from the village of Washington, where the land is more open, and there are more garden plants, ornamental flowers, and hedgerow plants, as well as some fruit trees.

– The 5th jar is from hives we have at Goat Hill Farm. In addition to the trees and brambles, the bees likely pollinated the various blooming crops at Goat Hill, something they do as they collect nectar: fruiting vegetables, fruit trees, berries, ornamental flowers & shrubs. We have also noticed meadows in the area, with a variety of wild flowers.

– The 6th jar was harvested from hives in Bear Wallow in the Huntly/Flint Hill area, north of us, on the other side of The Peak mountain.  What’s obvious about this jar is that crystallization is well advanced. The Huntly area has some plants and trees I’ve not seen much elsewhere in the county, including European Linden (Tilia europaea) a tree reputed for the quantity and quality of its nectar, Japanese Knotweed, and flowering sumac. The landscape also include fields in various stages of cover crops (corn, soy, alfalfa).  Honey crystallization is not something to fear, to the contrary! It’s a completely natural process. In fact, all raw honey eventually crystallizes (heated honey does not) – albeit at different rates based on the honey composition and its storage temperature. So… naturally occuring crystallization (instead of induced crystallization) is a pretty good sign that the honey is truly raw and unfiltered. Some people like crystallized honey (creamed honey is controlled crystallization), but if you prefer liquid honey, just set the jar in warm water bath (120⁰F/ 50C) until the crystals dissolve and the honey liquefies again.

– The 7th jar is from the capping tank. When preparing frames for extraction in a hand cranked centrifuge, the wax caps of cured honey are cut off with a hot knife. The cappings fall into a tank along with a fair amount of honey. Over a couple days the honey settles to the bottom and then bottled. The capping tank honey contains a little bit of honey from all the different hives processed during harvest: in effect, it’s a blend.

– Finally the far right jar (#8) is buckwheat and goldenrod collected in September. Of course, there is honey from other flowers mixed in, but the predominant flowers are buckwheat and goldenrod. It’s viscous and more “grassy” tasting than the earlier honey, with a molasses after-taste. It is still unmistakenly honey. In fact it’s very similar to the difference in taste and texture between 2 different apple cultivars: a Winesap is very different from a Gala, yet they are both – unmistakenly – apples. The goldenrod honey was a nice surprise thanks to good weather during the year: a real winter, cool spring, plenty of precipitations through the end of July – they all added up to lush plants and lots of flowers filled with nectar. The buckwheat component was thanks to a cover crop from a nearby (about a mile) organic farm. Had July and August been in hard drought (as we have seen in so many recent summers), we would not harvested this goldenrod/buckwheat honey.

Many honeys on the market are a blend (either natural as made by the bees) or mixed by the processor or packer (particularly those that want to offer a consistent mild honey throughout the year). Don’t settle for pale liquid honey. Even in your local food shed, there is a world of honey to taste – whether it’s varietal, location, or weather conditions, local honey reflect where the bees live and what they feed on.

I encourage you to seek true local honey, that is honey made from locally collected nectar. Don’t assume that a local address on a jar of honey means local honey. Bulk buying and repackaging for resale is a common practice, so be sure to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Your reward might well be honey like you have never tasted before.

2 thoughts on “Shades of Honey”

  • Hi Sylvie, I have a customer searching for Black Locust honey, and I thought you might be able to advise. Thanks,

  • Black locust, a native Easter US tree (Robinia pseudo-acacia) is said oo produce a very pale honey. In fact, it’s teh honey found in Europe as “acacia” because the tree was planted (and then spread extensively) in Europe. But here, it does not always produce a crop of honey. Nectar flow (from which honey s made) is very dependent on local weather conditions. Too wet or too dry and the flowers yield little or no nectar at all – or the bees can’t collect. Some areas of the country report good crops once in every five years, but it’s very location specific. We haven’t be able to identify that it has made a big difference for us, certainly not enough to point out that this frame is from locust. And besides, the flowering period is very short: 7 -10 days, and some years it rains ruining the flowers for the bees (and the bees don’t forage in the rain). So, no I don’t know of a source. Producer farmers’ market are the best bet – and continuing to explore the small shops like yours which carry true local honey.

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