Entomologist Steve Sheppard has never gotten over his wonder at how people came to raise swarms of stinging insects for the honey they produce.
“To see this guy dumping out thousands of bees to collect honey from their hive. . .” He shakes his head. “It’s amazing that humans ever figured it out to do that.”
But the Washington State University associate professor, who not only keeps bees himself, but unflinchingly opens beehives with his bare hands, understands the passion for honey.
People prize it as a delicacy and demand it as a staple. They cherish some honeys for their color and admire others for their subtle flavors or distinctive tones. They even seek honey as a cold remedy and an allergy fighter.
Honey bees were introduced to the Americas by European colonists in the 1600s. But people had been consuming the amber nectar long before that. Seven-thousand-year-old cave paintings in Spain depict people keeping bees. The ancient Egyptians offered honey to the gods. It was a factor in Greek and Roman myths.
In Washington, bees and beekeepers on both sides of the Cascades produce a range of honeys from clovers, wildflowers, berries, and trees. On the east side, honey bees pollinate tree fruit, black locusts, and wild plants like fireweed, which produces a fruity, smooth honey popular among aficionados. On the west side, nature’s little foragers find blackberries, lavender, and wildflowers. The bees’ pollen sources and the seasons ensure a diversity of honeys with an array of flavors and aromas. So great is the variety that Sheppard has the students in his popular honey bee biology class try 30 to 40 different samples just to get a sense of the range.
The best honey in the world is the sort you grew up tasting, says Sheppard. He came of age in the south, where Tupelo honey is the most famous and sought after. But he had a taste for the clear, very delicate sourwood honey. He also enjoys the dark, heady Black Forest honey made from aphid honeydew.
Here in Washington, we’re used to the sweet, mild clover, or the blackberry, which offers a delicate, flowery perfume in a thick, viscous honey-that is, when we can find them.
Most of the honeys in the grocery store are the Sue Bee types. They’re sweet, but bland. That’s because they’re blended and often processed to higher temperatures to eliminate sugar crystals. It’s done to suit the tastes of the American consumer, says Sheppard, adding that the high heat drives out all the aromatic little volatiles that give the honey its distinctive flavor.
If you’re hunting for honey, Sheppard has a few words of advice: buy from a local bee keeper if you can. He or she will tell you more about how your honey was produced and processed. If you must buy at the store, look for comb honey. You’ll know it wasn’t brought to too high a heat during processing, otherwise the comb would have melted. Finally, if your honey is crystallizing, don’t throw it out. Simply set the container in a warm water bath and watch the crystals dissolve.
The best places to find local honey are farmers’ markets, natural foods stores, and county fairs. You can also look for sources online via the National Honey Board’s website and the Puget Sound Bee Keepers Association site.