Backyard Honey: Reaping what our Neighbors Sow

Although the beekeeping season is far from over, the 2017 honey season has wrapped up nicely.

All told, we harvested five gallons of caramel-colored honey from the ladies, not bad for two hives started from package bees on bare foundation during a cold, wet spring that then turned into a hot, dry summer. Oh yeah, and managed by two inexperienced beekeepers.

Honey is one of those things that pretty much everyone is familiar with, but most people don’t actually know much about. It is both mundane and completely magical.

All honeys get their flavor from the blooms that the bees forage on. If you see varietal honeys labeled as “fireweed honey” or “apple blossom honey,” it’s because those beekeepers have kept their hives in the vicinity of those plants, so that those blooms are the primary nectar source for the bees.

We’re not so controlling.

Because our hives are in our urban garden, we couldn’t limit what the bees forage on even if we wanted to. Our bees get nectar from the flowers grown by our neighbors–and from the weeds growing in sidewalk cracks and from invasive species growing wild in parks and ditches near our house. Because the nectar might come from hundreds of different flowers rather than just a handful of sources, backyard honey has more complex flavors than single-source honey.

Our honey is also “raw,” which generally means that it hasn’t been heated above the temperature of the hive or otherwise filtered or treated.

Our extraction equipment just isn’t that sophisticated. When we harvest honey, we use an electric hot knife to cut the wax away and then put the frames in a manual centrifuge extractor. We strain the honey through a sieve to get rid of the big chunks of wax, but there are still traces of pollen and wax that commercially available honey doesn’t have. Is raw, unfiltered honey more nutritious? Depends on who you ask, but I can confirm that it is delicious.

Here in Whatcom County, many beekeeping practices are timed to the bloom of Himalayan blackberry, an invasive species that nevertheless offers much in the way of nectar for many species of pollinators–and, later, berries for human and animal consumption. Honeys with blackberry as a primary nectar source taste, to me, light, delicate, and floral.

Although it’s a delicious flavor profile, it’s definitely not our 2017 honey. This year’s honey, harvested in late August, is dark in color and assertive in flavor, with a taste reminiscent of molasses.

From conversations with fellow beekeepers, it seems that a mid-summer bloom of Japanese knotweed (an invasive species) was rumored to have been the reason for the dark color of honeys produced in our neighborhood this season. In addition to lavender, phacelia, borage, and as many other plants as I can squeeze in, our garden has a big patch of buckwheat, which also tends to produce darker honeys. (Please do consider planting buckwheat: it’s great for all kinds of pollinators, it makes a great cover crop, and it produces edible grains. My seed source here.) Beyond our fence, the neighborhood has many flower and vegetable gardens, all of which have blooms that contribute to the honey’s taste. Whatever went into this year’s honey, it’s delicious and intensely flavorful.

All this speculation about the components of our honey has made me much more conscious of our ecological–and social–interdependence.

Although we as beekeepers do our best to practice good hygiene in our hives, we can only control so much. When it comes to the honey itself, we’re at the mercy of what our neighbors do in their gardens, as well as what the city and other land managers do in our area. We are, quite literally, eating their management practices, both good and bad. If the city controls pests through chemical interventions, that’s going to show up in the nectar our bees bring back to the hive. If our neighbors plant a diversity of species, that shows up in the layers of flavor in the honey and the diversity of nutritional options available to our bees and other pollinators.

What you do affects me, and what I do affects you. Which is another way of saying that we humans are not apart from nature, nor are we entirely separate from one another.

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If you’re interested in trying our honey, we have a limited supply available for barter. We’re hobby beekeepers and aren’t set up for selling our product, but we are always interested in trading ideas, stories, and the results of whatever wild projects you’ve got going.

 

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