Honeydew just another of the many surprises about beekeeping
The wonderful thing about keeping bees is there are always surprises. Just when you think you’ve learned what there is to know in one area of beekeeping or another the bees do something entirely unexpected and delightful.
I was reminded of this a few days back when we pulled off the spring honey for processing. We were later than usual with this task — the bees are now well into making the summer’s sourwood honey — but other duties had intervened until suddenly and inexplicably it was July.
The spring honey made here in the mountains is generally a bouquet of nectar: poplar dominates, but there are notes of locust, blackberry, apple and other May-into-June blooms. I am an avid fan of the spring honey, preferring it vastly to the sweeter and lighter sourwood, and I was eagerly anticipating the first taste of this year’s variety. Each year, like fine wines, the spring honey is a little bit different. Sometimes the locust bloom is heavy and that tree’s nectar lightens and sweetens that year’s batch, other years the locust strongly dominates and the honey is robust and dark.
We started processing and I noticed almost immediately that something was a little strange. Poplar honey is dark, but this honey was incredibly dark with an odd amber undertone. Being the more experienced beekeeper, I noted in a knowledgeable way to my friend that perhaps the poplar bloom had been really, really big, despite that not having been the case at all. I remembered the poplar bloom as being rather average, in fact.
We kept working. By now I was really puzzled by the color of the honey. It was as dark as a rich chocolate cake. At some point I finally tasted it, and to my surprise the honey tasted strongly and distinctly like molasses. This was totally unlike any other honey I’d ever tasted before.
I’d noticed during the spring that the bees were aggressively working the holly blossoms. Perhaps, I mused aloud in another attempt at beekeeping expertise, the holly nectar gave this year’s batch this distinctive flavor.
Wrong again, as it turned out.
My friend later talked to Bob Binnie, a beekeeper extraordinaire in Lakemont, Ga., and described to him the odd honey we’d processed. Binnie quickly identified the strange tasting stuff we had on our hands: it is honeydew honey. He said other beekeepers in the region also had ended up with honeydew honey, though the production of it was sporadic and unpredictable. Honey in one beeyard was honeydew, honey in a nearby beeyard would be the traditional poplar-based wildflower variety.
Honeydew, I subsequently learned, is secreted by aphids and other scale insects when they feed on plant sap. Honeydew honey, also called forest honey, is prized in many countries for its reputed medicinal qualities, particularly that produced in the Black Forest region of Germany. Honeydew typically has lower levels of glucose and fructose than regular honey and higher levels of complex sugar. A 2007 study in Spain found that honeydew has more antioxidants, giving certain credence to the good-for-you claims.
Interestingly, the beekeeping books strongly warn against leaving honeydew honey for the bees to eat over the winter. Honeydew lacks certain nutrients found in regular honey and can result in winter bee losses if fed exclusively to the bees.
I wonder if local beekeepers are aware of the dangers of honeydew to their bees. Many use the spring honey as their primary feeding source during the winter and strip the hives of the coveted sourwood honey. If the books are correct, those beekeepers whose bees produced honeydew will need to feed sugar water over the winter to ensure survival.
When all was said and done, we had processed about two-and-a-half gallons of the honeydew honey. We opted to bottle in small half-pint jars. The honeydew honey is a rarity and will make great Christmas gifts, particularly if paired with the summer sourwood honey. There could be no greater contrast in taste than between these two honeys. The dark, heavy honeydew versus the light, fragrant sourwood — honeydew to my way of thinking is made for slathering on cornbread and biscuits. The more delicate sourwood is perfect for teas or in other foods that you don’t want dominated by the honey itself.