My heart goes out to the small-scale beekeepers in the US. Much more work is involved in conscientious beekeeping than most people realize. In addition to the mysterious decline of the bee population and the usual difficulties facing anyone who raises livestock (yes, I place bees into this category), these beekeepers are faced with the massive wall of Ignorance. Most Americans know surprisingly little about honey, except that bees produce it and it comes from the supermarket.
Yes, bees do produce honey, and yes, you can buy it at the supermarket—sort of. Supermarket honey is usually highly filtered, often after heating to high temperatures (hot honey is very thin, and that makes it easy to filter and to pump into bottles if you have mechanized bottling equipment). While filtering results in crystal-clear honey that is very slow to crystallize, the kind most Americans prefer, it also means that most, if not all, of the pollen, enzymes, and yeasts that give individual honeys their different characteristics are removed. There are several hundred different types of honey produced in the US alone, but grocery store honey is almost invariably bland and just sweet. Perhaps even more importantly, hives in the US (and other countries; much of the honey in supermarkets is imported) are often heavily treated. Treated with what? Pesticides, fungicides, and organic acids, for starters. Bees are vexed by a variety of diseases and pests, many of which were unknown in the US before fast shipping containers and the large-scale arrival of global goods in the 1980s.
But not everyone agrees that treatments such as these are the right course of action for bee hives. There are a small number of dedicated beekeepers who eschew the pesticides, fungicides, miticides, etc. and somehow still manage to keep their hives healthy and their bees producing honey. Golden Rule Honey in Leominister, Massachusetts makes delicious treatment-free honey. In addition to breeding and keeping bees, proprietors Laurie and Dean also run the annual Northeast Treatment-Free Beekeeping Conference and travel the country speaking about treatment free beekeeping.
This honey differs from the stuff you find in the market the way a real rose differs from an artificial one. For starters, it’s opaque, not clear. The honey has been heated just enough to be scooped from barrel to jar, meaning that the various pollens, enzymes, etc. will still be present. It’s not liquid, either; this honey has crystallized. This is a natural process for honey; all honey crystallizes eventually, and it does not mean that the honey has spoiled. Crystallization means a more spreadable consistency, and, depending on the honey, might result in a slightly granular texture, something I particularly enjoy. But above all else, there’s the flavor. Forget about bland sweetness; these honeys are complex, nuanced, and just plain delicious. Use them in your favorite tea, spread them on toast, or do what I do and eat spoonfuls straight from the jar.
At this writing, Golden Rule Honey offers two brands: Kirk Webster’s Vermont Honey, and Dee Lusby’s Arizona Rangeland Honey. Both are excellent, but if I had to make a choice, I’d give the nod to the honey from Arizona. Laurie and Dean also offer Queen of Chocolate, a blend of cocoa and honey that can be used for beverages, fudge sauce, and more. You can buy these products locally (if you live in portions of Massachusetts) or through the online shop.
Top photo via Eat With Me