That sign is what greeted me outside the conference room doors when I arrived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota last month. I was there to meet with the National Honey Board, for the purpose of learning about all things honey, from the bees that make it to different varietals to how to pair each one best with different foods. It was an interesting, educational and eye-opening experience (not to mention incredibly fun)! I’m going to share with you the things I learned that I believe you’ll find most interesting as well as the highlights of my experience. My goal upon signing on for this assignment was to become more educated about honey so that I could pass along some of that information to you (and create some new recipes using honey, which I’m already working on)!
The highlights of the trip were, for me:
- Visiting the apiary
- Eating so much amazing food – all made with honey
- Tasting different varietals of honey and learning how each pairs best with different foods
Let’s start with the apiary. And, while we’re at it, we’ll just get this out of the way right now:
That would be (from left to right) Rachel from A Southern Fairy Tale and Allison from Some the Wiser with me looking buzzed (haha, get it?) on the far right. I’d never met these fine ladies before but I highly suggest checking out both blogs; I know you’ll dig them as much as I do. Super nice, talented women – always a good thing!!
So there we were, all hot and sweaty and laughing hysterically at the unfamiliar feeling of not being able to scratch our noses because we had these nets covering our entire head. (Side note: have you ever worn one of these contraptions and, if so, did you happen to have a camera in your hand and, if so, did you try to take a picture of any kind?? Because, let me tell you, it is not easy. Not easy at all. It’s funny, though, and makes for good memories and an even better story.)
There are an estimated 115,000–125,000 beekeepers in the United States, and the vast majority are hobbyists with less than 25 hives. Commercial beekeepers are those with 300 or more hives. We spent an afternoon with Tim Hollmann, who has been a beekeeper for over 30 years! His start in the beekeeping industry came as a summer job then in 1984 he started Hollmann Apiaries with 350 hives. Today, he has over 3000 hives and an extracting facility, working alongside his wife and son. Hollmann is a member of the Sioux Honey Association and based out of Dante, SD. These photos are from our afternoon with Tim who was extremely gracious in sharing his knowledge with us.
Honey bees are social insects, with a marked division of labor between the various types of bees in the colony. A colony of honey bees includes a queen, drones and workers. Drones are stout male bees which have no stingers. Drones do not collect food or pollen from flowers. Their sole purpose is to mate with the queen. If the colony is short on food, drones are often kicked out of the hive. Workers, the smallest bees in the colony, are sexually undeveloped females. A colony can have 50,000 to 60,000 workers. The life span of a worker bee varies according to the time of year. Her life expectancy is approximately 28 to 35 days. Workers that are reared in September and October, however, can live through the winter. Workers feed the queen and larvae, collect nectar, guard the hive entrance and help to keep the hive cool by fanning their wings. In addition, honey bees produce wax comb. The comb is composed of hexagonal cells which have walls that are only 2/1000 inch thick, but support 25 times their own weight. Honey bees’ wings stroke 11,400 times per minute, thus making their distinctive buzz.
The queen is the only sexually developed female in the hive. She is the largest bee in the colony (can you spot her in the photo above?). A two-day-old larva is selected by the workers to be reared as the queen. She will emerge from her cell 11 days later to mate in flight with approximately 18 drone (male) bees. During this mating, she receives several million sperm cells, which last her entire life span of nearly two years. The queen starts to lay eggs about ten days after mating. A productive queen can lay 3,000 eggs in a single day.
I find all of this incredibly fascinating. Learning where our food comes from is such a hot topic these days and honey is a naturally delicious food with just one ingredient – honey! It gives me a boost of energy naturally, tastes amazing and I always take a spoonful when I have a cough. We were all sucking on honey sticks during our trip and I found that a little honey in the morning was a fun way to get me going until I had time for breakfast. I became so fond of them that I ordered some immediately upon returning home (and just made a second order today). I bought both clover and wildflower, 50 sticks each (I prefer the wildflower). A friend was over one night and I put out cheese, crackers and a few honey sticks. It was fun to drizzle it over the cheese and our kids would come and grab them off the tray! They thought they were so fun and we were happy because they’re a great snack.
The color and flavor of honey differs depending on the nectar source (the blossom) visited by the honey bees. In fact, there are more than 300 unique types of honey available in the U.S.. Honey color ranges from nearly colorless to dark brown, and its flavor varies from delectably mild to distinctively bold. As a general rule, light-colored honey is milder in taste and dark-colored honey is stronger. Honey is produced in every state, but depending on floral source location, certain types of honey are produced only in a few regions.
The downloadable pdf file below lists some of the most common U.S. honey floral varieties. To learn more about available floral varieties, contact a local beekeeper, beekeeping association or honey packer, or visit the Honey Locator.
We tasted four different honey varietals: clover, orange blossom, tupelo and buckwheat. The tupelo honey was, by far, my favorite; it’s smooth and subtle with fantastic flavor that lingers. The buckwheat was deep and rich; it’s great for baking and barbecue sauce (think molasses). I liked the orange blossom but had assumed that would be my favorite (it’s what I’ve always bought) and was shocked to find it was upstaged by the tupelo. And clover is always a solid choice!
Rachel from A Southern Fairy Tale took this fun video of our honey tasting:
We were also joined by the lovely Marie Simmons, author of Taste of Honey: The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Cooking with 40 Varietals and our teacher through the honey tasting. Most of the dishes we enjoyed on our trip came from the cookbook and they were all. so. good!! There’s a recipe for “Goat Cheese Spread with Lemon and Honey” that was served to us at lunch – we were all cooing over how delicious it was. Marie is so passionate about cooking with honey and it was such a pleasure to hear her speak and learn from her. She mentioned that one of her favorite salad dressings is made with just two simple ingredients: lemon juice and honey! I’d likely add freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of salt, but that’s just personal preference. Even this cauliflower salad was made with honey (who knew honey is so versatile?):
Marie also has some wonderful suggestions for how to throw your own honey tasting and tips for using and cooking with honey. One of the best things I learned was how to bring honey back from the brink after it’s crystallized; simply boil some water, remove from the heat, place your jar of honey in the water and leave it until it’s cool. Remove honey from the water and stir until smooth! And, since honey never spoils, you can do this as often as you need to until you’ve enjoyed your honey to its official end. Here’s another pdf file filled with Marie’s honey wisdom! It’s worth the read or just download and save it for later. And don’t miss out on her cookbook, Taste of Honey: The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Cooking with 40 Varietals! I have my own copy and I love it! It’s fantastic and is filled with incredible recipes.
Our final stop was to tour the Sue Bee Honey factory where we were fortunate enough to hear first-hand how honey is graded, bottled and peek into the behind-the-scenes of the honey industry.
A video posted by Kristy Bernardo (@thewickednoodle) on
This is where I had my very first taste of “Spun Honey“, also known as “creamy honey” (I’ve since learned after obsessively researching it on the internet). Let me tell you…SPUN HONEY IS WHERE IT’S AT. It’s thicker than regular honey with a buttery, creamy texture. Just TODAY I found some at a store (I wanted the Sue Bee brand which I couldn’t find on Amazon; I’m open to other brands but since their spun honey was the first I tried, that’s what I wanted the first time I bought it). I’m going to make crostini, top them with goat and blue cheese (one cheese per crostini) and spreadable, luscious spun honey. I’m telling you…it’s AMAZING. My mom’s eyes lit up when I was telling my parents about it. She said, “Do you mean ‘whipped honey’?” And I said that I wasn’t sure but that sounded right. She said that my grandma used to buy it all the time and she’d loved it as a kid. I’m surprising her with it this Friday when my parents come over – so fun!! I can’t wait.
Just wait until she tries the Tupelo!