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The allure of bigleaf maple honey

Early each spring I’m on the lookout for a frame of bigleaf maple honey. It blooms before the honey supers are in place, so I rifle through the brood boxes, looking for that special treat. In anticipation of this event, I often put an empty frame at the edge of a few brood boxes the previous fall–hope against hope that one might get filled with this magic nectar.

Bigleaf maple is the first honey crop of the season here and it doesn’t happen often. The huge trees bloom while we’re still in the depths of the rainy season, so many years it goes uncollected. Some local beekeepers estimate we get a salable crop of bigleaf maple about one year in eight. Sigh. So very sad.

This spring, at the apex of bloom, I spied one frame in my busiest, sunniest hive. It was in the top brood box, in the number ten position, capped with bright white wax and seething with bees. I gently pried it out, shook it, and replaced it with an empty frame, apologizing profusely to my bees the entire time.

I wrapped my prize in plastic, froze it overnight, and stuck it in a kitchen cupboard. I promptly forgot about it. Busy, busy. I thought about it once or twice, but never touched it all through spring and summer. But last weekend, as I was cleaning out my cupboards, I came across the pristine frame and knew it was time.

Since it was in a brood frame, I had to find and cut the cross wires before I could free the comb from the frame. But once I managed to find them all, the comb fell from the frame with a hearty thud. Honey ran out the sides and pooled on the wax paper. It had the color of champagne and the fragrance of spring.

I divided the comb into thirds and fit each piece into a gleaming glass container. On the way to the sink to wash stickies from my hands, I took a taste.

I stopped in my tracks. Licked my fingers. Licked the knife. Licked the wire cutters. I could not remember honey so good. I recalled the flavor immediately upon tasting it, but it was better somehow, richer, more complex. It was immorally good. Decadent beyond measure. Addictive. I had to sterilize everything after I stopped licking the kitchen.

The next morning I put it a container of it on the breakfast table with no word to my husband. We started eating breakfast when suddenly he said, “Oh my god, what is that?” He, too, remembered the flavor but thought it was better than ever. What is it about a good varietal honey in the comb? What is it about flavors we always remember?

Bigleaf maples (Acer macrophyllum) are huge trees. Large specimens can reach 100 feet tall and 48 inches in diameter. True to their name, the leaves can reach 24 inches wide. Seriously, you can lose your laptop under one leaf. The truly amazing thing, though, is the number of mosses, lichens, and ferns the trees support on their branches. Entire ecosystems exist up there among the protective foliage.

The trees produce small, fragrant, yellow-green flowers in March before the leaves begin to emerge. The flowers are attractive to many pollinators and the resultant seeds attract many small animals and birds. And the honey attracts me. Don’t pass up a chance to try it if you can find it.

Rusty

HoneyBeeSuite.com

Bigleaf maple near the hives.

Comments

Jeff
Reply

How is this honey different from red maple or mountain maple honey? The valley where
I live in is full of both these maples but like yourself our springs can be hit or miss.

Rusty
Reply

I don’t know, Jeff, maybe there’s no difference. I can only comment on things I know about. If I had any type of maple honey when I was a kid in Pennsylvania, I don’t remember it.

Gretchen
Reply

Oh boy, that sounds amazing. We are surrounded by Big Leaf Maples, and I am now plotting how to get some of that honey! I am leaving an extra honey super on this winter, to help them through our winter and in hopes of not having to feed much in the spring. I wonder…. if I am not needing to spring-feed, what about taking out a couple of frames from the super and putting in some empties if we have a window of dryness. If it is not snowing or raining…. If it is warm enough one afternoon to manipulate the hive…. If I don’t have to feed….. If, if, if. I can see why the honey is so rare.

Rusty
Reply

Sounds like a plan. You should definitely look for that window!

Jason
Reply

I don’t think you should write about something like this unless you have enough to share with everybody. Do you know if anyone sells that kind of honey? I would like to try some now that my mouth is watering with jealousy.

Rusty
Reply

When I first started reading your comment I thought I must have done something horrible . . . then it made me laugh. I probably have about one molecule of maple honey for every reader . . . but the postage would kill me.

Phillip
Reply

I’ve been feeding our bees mostly honey this year to top them up for winter instead of syrup. Today I put a decapped deep frame of honey over the inner cover of one hive. The honey from the frame, which was pulled early in the spring, had a maple syrup kind of thing going on. Maybe it’s the magic maple honey you’re talking about. And maybe not. But I liked it.

I also like it that I’m developing my honey palette, if that’s the phrase for it. I can notice the difference between various honeys. I can’t say, “That’s a spring honey,” and “That’s a late fall honey,” but I can detect the subtleties of sweetness and flavour now.

That’s kinda cool.

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

I agree. It is cool. And I like the name, “magic maple.”

Phillip
Reply

I was looking through some old photos on my computer this morning and noticed a photo taken of me next to a giant maple tree in a nearby park. I’m standing under the branches hiding my face behind some hanging flowers that look like the flowers shown in the Wikipedia entry for big leaf maple, except larger:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BigleafMaple_0304.jpg

The full entry:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acer_macrophyllum

The photo was taken in late June. (That shows you how late spring arrives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.)

I’m going to try your trick of putting an empty frame at the edge of the brood box and see if I can steal a frame of maple honey from them. Seems like it’s worth a shot.

Gretchen
Reply

Rusty, I’m daydreaming about “Magic Maple”. Our trees are about budded out. I’m hoping, hoping, hoping that the bloom corresponds with the forecasted mostly dry and sunny weather next week.

Re-reading your post, I see that you froze your frame overnight when you brought it in. Was that to kill any wax moth larvae (or other pests???) and prep it for storing before harvest? I’m hoping to pull frames throughout the season but not extract until I have several, so I am interested in what you do to “hold them over”. (I know with extracting, I’ll need to get any stored frames good and warm first. Eating it with the comb, like you do, is something I’m hoping to try this year too.)

Rusty
Reply

Gretchen,

Yes, the freezing is just so I can store it long-term in the comb without having to share it with creepy crawlies. Just remember to wrap it tightly in plastic before freezing and letting it return to room temperature before removing the plastic. This is to avoid condensation on the comb. If I’m going to store it for a long time, I just leave the plastic on so no other critters deposit eggs on it.

If I were going to extract, that’s exactly how I would do it. Harvest throughout the season, freeze and store, then extract all at once.

James Hagerman
Reply

Rusty, I enjoyed your marveling about Magic Maple Honey. I am into harvesting early to have spring honey that is always light in color a delicate taste. I was blessed this year with a light yellow very clear early spring honey that I have been thinking is early from tree blooms with a slight maple flavor. Some years it is more floral with an intense flavor but a bit more orange in color. Could you say something about color and clarity to help me get a better sense. I’m in an area of west suburban Portland with a mix of maple, wild plum and ash trees blooming early, and the weather was warm early this year and dryer for a while which I think helped. Thanks for the wonderful insights into the world of bees and their keepers.

Rusty
Reply

James,

You can try “The color of honey” but it doesn’t go into much depth. Although I like some light honeys, such as maple and sourwood, I’m really a fan of the darker ones, the darker the better. Somewhat related is “Cemetery honey.”

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