I love to go to the farmers' market. I really like the idea of buying my favorite fruits and veggies directly from the farmers. It is so much fun making tomato pie and feasting on strawberries, blackberries, and watermelon during summer months. I enjoy making stews using winter squash and root vegetables as we move into fall. Supporting local farmers and eating the items that are fresh and in season keeps me in touch with the Earth’s annual cycle. Now, I understand that I can get a tomato or a pepper from Mexico or South America at the supermarket anytime I wish, but in my experience, nothing compares to fresh local produce. The global marketplace and the unconditional availability of every product imaginable can disconnect us from the seasons and the source of our food. The very same can be said for the honey industry. Can you imagine making a trip over to your local big box megaplex supermarket only to find that they were fresh out of honey, or what you assume to be honey? This seemingly endless supply and availability of "honey" distorts the production cycle of pure honey. Honey varieties are very much seasonal products and their availability is critically connected and dependent on so many variables.
Dealing in honey markets keeps you acutely tuned into the subtle seasonal nuances that will influence the quality and quantity of individual honey varieties. Keep in mind that each honey variety has very specific geography, so shifts in regional climate patterns can make or break the honey crop for that year. Take Orange Blossom honey, for example, this product is produced in large quantities in only two small regions in the United States, south-central Florida, and Southern California. A regional climate disruption in one of these areas during times of nectar flow will influence the entire honey harvest for that region. A hard freeze in Florida at the beginning of the Orange Blossom bloom cycle can completely eliminate honey production for that year, effectively cutting the nation’s Orange Blossom honey supply in half for that annual cycle. Needless to say, such patterns are watched very closely by honey producers.
So what exactly is the “honey season” and what are the variables that may influence the quality and quantity of the honey harvest? Honey produced by honey bees is directly related to the nectar produced by the flowers visited by the bees. The nectar is collected by honey bees and converted into honey inside the bee hive. The quality and quantity of the nectar produced by the flowering plants will ultimately determine the quality and quantity of the honey produced by the honey bee. Maybe the deeper question we should ask is, What factors or variables are involved in nectar production?
You probably know that nectar is a sweet liquid produced by plants to attract insects who will assist in the pollination process by carrying pollen from flower to flower. Although nectar is a sweet liquid, it is also a very complex chemical brew, a brew that differs greatly from on plant species to another. Nectar typically contains a species-specific combination of three different sugars, sucrose, glucose, and fructose. The ratio of these sugars in the nectar will dictate the sweetness and the propensity for crystallization of the particular honey product. Nectar also contains a variety of amino acids and an assortment of minerals like, phosphorus, sulfur, iron, copper, potassium, and magnesium. In addition, nectar varieties contain these cool chemicals generally referred to as volatiles or volatile aromas. These chemicals are released from the nectar into the air as aromas or scents to entice would-be pollinators. Plants specifically design and manufacture volatiles for the recruitment of specific insects!
Plants regulate their nectar flow based on resource availability. For example, nectar contains a good bit of water, so a regional drought during the flowering season will certainly decrease nectar flow. This concept holds true for each component of nectar. In addition to resource availability, regional climate conditions also impact nectar flow. Such conditions include light availability, the wind, humidity, and temperature. All of these variables must work in concert to give rise to a strong seasonal nectar flow.
Tupelo honey is produced in the swamps of Georgia and Florida. The Tupelo tree bloom cycle is relatively short lasting only about three weeks! Tupelo trees bloom in mid to late April, a month of very unpredictable weather across the southern states. The nectar that the honey bees collect during this short bloom will be converted by honey bees into the Tupelo honey for that particular year. Thousands of pounds of Tupelo nectar are converted into Tupelo honey during this brief three-week window. So what if something happens during the brief Tupelo bloom? In 2013, the spring was wet, cool, and humid which is a nice set of circumstances leading into Tupelo blooming season. Just as the Tupelo trees bloomed we had a long string of incredibly windy days. Much to our dismay, the nectar flow dried up very quickly and the Tupelo honey harvest came in about one-half the volume of a typical year. This year the pre-bloom conditions were perfect. 2014 was predicted to be a banner year for Tupelo honey, perhaps the best year in a decade! However, we had a cold, wet snap just a few of days into the bloom cycle. The weather was not cold enough to kill the bloom, but it was just nasty enough to keep the bees in the hive instead of out collecting nectar. When the weather turns ugly, not only do the bees not collect nectar but like us, when we are stuck indoors due to bad weather, honey bees sit around the hive and eat. So this year we had a strong nectar flow and a strong beginning to Tupelo honey production that was erased as the bees hung around the hive devoured the annual supply! Fortunately, the bad weather passed quickly and 2014 turned out to be a better than average year for Tupelo honey.
I use Tupelo honey as an example, but I can tell these stories about all of our honey varieties. Yellow Star Thistle honey is being produced right now and it seems to be a great year. As the bees are collecting nectar and converting that nectar into delicious honey all we can do is wait, keep our fingers crossed and hope the region isn’t blasted by an early snowfall. As you can see there is a very delicate balance at play in the production of pure honey. From year to year, the quality and quantity of each honey is tied to so many different variables. Each harvest is so exciting. It is impossible to predict how much of any honey we are going to have from year to year. One thing is for sure, we will sell all jars of all honey varieties each and every year, especially in years of low nectar flow!
The honey business is very much like being a farmer and selling your goods at the farmers' market. Each year and each season we wait and watch. We follow the weather religiously and we do a rain dance if necessary. We cross our fingers and pray for strong nectar flow. Each season we are ever hopeful that we will harvest the biggest and best crop of honey ever. We get excited daydreaming about the hundred-year flow! So remember the next time you enjoy one of our outstanding honey varieties, you are tasting and experiencing an absolutely unique, never before and never again product. Every drop of rain, ray of sunlight, and fragrant spring breeze is represented in that one spoonful of golden honey!
Submitted By: Brantley Crowder