Monday’s Guests – On Purchasing Honey

We’ve got our very first guest post for the New Year! Today’s post comes from Gary Sieling of Making Beehives.

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As far back as I can remember, my father has kept bees. As children we each had our own beehive and we helped him extract the honey. I have fond memories of the fragrance of melted beeswax mixed with the golden, sweet honey. He still keeps bees, and until recently, I never purchased honey from a store, and that only for this piece.

A friend bought ten pounds of Dad’s honey and remarked that he now only needs half as much honey as before, as this honey has a much richer flavor than what he bought before. Honey sold commercially is graded by the USDA on attributes like clarity, color, and flavor, but there is a wide variance in beekeeper’s field methods. USDA guidelines separate products between consumer and industrial uses. The grocery shopper is left to consider labels chosen by wholesalers and individual apiaries from a variety of geographical origins, floral sources, and treatment
and feeding options.


Bees collect nectar from flowers or sugar syrups, which they partially digest and store in small wax compartments. Flowers local to the apiary and in season when the honey was made determine honey color, taste, and flavor. For me, part of the charm is that each bottle is a little different. There are certainly companies that try to give their honey a uniform flavor, but it goes against the grain of the product.

Beekeepers often feed the bees a sugar syrup in the fall to build up the hive’s store of food, if they are concerned about the hive’s survival. Some beekeepers have been accused of doing this to create saleable honey, or mixing honey and sugar syrup.

Many beekeepers treat bees for parasites such as varroa mites, which suck vital fluids from a bee’s body. Commercial miticides must be applied with care to prevent honey contamination. A growing trend among beekeepers is treatment free beekeeping, which advocates mechanical protections for bees, rather than chemical, with the idea that over-treatment leads to resistance and food contamination.

Large commercial packers flash heat honey, then filter it to remove every particle of wax and pollen. This leaves a crystal clear product with longer shelf life but volatile flavors are lost. Smaller producers warm honey just so it flows, then strain it to remove wax particles. The result may be clear or cloudy, but has much more flavor. This honey may crystalize more easily, but this is easily reversed by gently warming it in a double boiler until the sugar crystals melt.

Field methods are controversial, and not always apparent from the honey labelling. If you buy straight from a beekeeper (or find a bottle with an apiary’s number), you can ask them how their bees are treated, whether the honey is from flowers or sugar fed, and whether the honey is even from your area.

Gary Sieling is a partner at Garreson Publishing, who make woodworking books for beekeepers. You can contact him at gary@garresonpublishing.com.

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Discussion

  1. Eliza @ Appalachian Feet says:

    These are great insights into what the beekeeper does before honey makes it to a shelf. Thanks!

    Also, thanks for participating in How to Find Great Plants — the newest edition is up today!

  2. Thanks to Gary and Dog Island for the informative post!
    We have a dilemma with our bees. Maybe someone can help us with ideas.
    We farm vegetables on the Russian River's flood plain. We are keeping bees partly for pollination of our vegetables and partly for honey and as an educational tool for our CSA members. The ideal location for our bees to meet these goals is out on the flood plain near the veggies and CSA pick-up. Only problem is…surprise…it FLOODS on the flood plain!
    We don't want our bees to go nautical, but there are complications with moving them. We're told that bees can swarm back to their original location when moved anywhere less than five miles away. We're wondering if there's a way to move them less distance (say 1 mile or so) and not have them swarm. We'll need to move them most winters when the flood risk is highest. Any ideas from anyone out there?

    Thanks again for the great post. We love reading the blog!

    -Emmett
    http://www.wisdomoftheradish.com

  3. Emmett, I'll have to go over my notes but I believe it's 3' or 3 miles. That said, you don't have to keep them with your crops to get the benefit as they will travel in a 3 mile radius to forage. No ideal of course.
    Is there any way to raise the hives to avoid floods when they do come?

  4. You can move them less distance, but you'll lose a lot of the older bees. You could try to reduce the losses by closing the entrances for three days (with lots of ventilation), then letting them out. Better-move them twice by leaving in another more distant location for a couple weeks, then putting them in the final location. If you need to do this twice a year, an elevated platform might be a good plan.

  5. Thanks for the ideas. If we raised them up, it would have to be like 15 feet (!) which I think would probably be too high for the bees…and of course would be a ridiculously huge undertaking.
    And we have thought of having them farther from the fields…maybe we'll do that with any future hives and just keep a couple down by the CSA for demonstration purposes.
    My best thought so far is to move them away and back both during cold spells, so they won't be very active around the time of the move and the most we'd lose would be some of the older foragers.
    Thanks again.

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