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Varietal honey: the label tells most of the story

You go to the market and stand before a row of honey jars. They are labeled with words like “clover,” “tupelo,” or “fireweed.” One question immediately comes to mind: “How can you be sure the honey came from just one source?”

The truth is that beekeepers can be reasonably sure that most of the honey in the jar came from the labeled source. Is it 100% pure blueberry or cranberry or buckwheat? No, but close.

There are several ways a beekeeper can determine his source. The easiest way is to move his bees into a large field or orchard that is just coming into bloom. He puts empty honey supers on the hives and the bees fill them with the nectar that is easiest and quickest to collect. Plop them down in a field of clover and they collect clover. Set them in the midst of a sea of gallberry, and they collect gallberry. As soon as the source starts to dry up, the supers are removed before the bees go further afield and look for something else.

Still, the honey from the clover field is not pure clover. That field will contain some weeds that yield nectar, and some bees will fly to the perimeter of the field and collect something else. This is rare, however, since honey bees have a strong tendency to visit the same type of flower over and over. From an evolutionary point of view, this species loyalty assures that plants receive adequate cross pollination.

With stationary hives, the beekeeper can add supers and remove them as different plants come into bloom. This is slightly less reliable, but it can still be done, especially if there are large numbers of plants of each species close by. For example, I can put supers on my hives to collect maple honey and, after a few weeks, take them off and put new ones on for cascara. Are these pure? No. There’s going to be some bitter cherry in the maple and some dandelion in the cascara—as well as other things I don’t even know about.

However, by tasting the honey and examining the color, I can tell if they are basically one variety or another. This takes some practice, but as you get to know your local flora you will associate the plant with the taste of the honey.

If you want to get precise, you can examine the honey for pollen grains. Some pollen always makes its way into the honey, and these grains can be used to identify the plant they came from. By calculating the proportion of various pollens in the honey, you get a pretty good idea of the nectar source. However, this isn’t normally done. Instead, if it looks and tastes like chestnut honey, we call it chestnut honey. (Lawyers, I think, call this the “duck rule”—if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is probably a duck).

Every batch of honey tastes slightly different from another even when you can recognize the primary ingredient. Part of the difference is simply the slightly different mix of extraneous nectars that made their way into your varietal honey. This minor difference is part of the reason that honey is so interesting, and so much fun. So don’t worry about a few Carolina weeds in your sourwood. Just enjoy.

Rusty

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