WINNIE-THE-POOH GOT A BUM RAP.
Although he may not have known it, the honey-loving "Bear of Very Little Brain" actually was following the lead of the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder who, two millennia earlier, declared honey to be "the finest, most health-promoting liquid known to man." Honey was big in ancient Rome: When Emperor Augustus asked a centenarian how he managed to live so long, the man replied, "Oil without and honey within." And the Roman poet Virgil (the bane of high school Latin classes) wrote, "Next I sing of honey, the heavenly ethereal gift."
Until 1810, stealing bees on the Isle of Man was a felony punishable by death.
In fact, honey was popular throughout the ancient world. In the Iliad, Homer called honey "the food of kings." Ambrosia and nectar, the food and drink of the Greek gods, were both honey-based and said to confer immortality, thanks to honey's healing and cleansing properties. In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra's beauty was attributed to her frequent baths of milks and honey. And as if that wasn't enough, in The Holy Land ("the land of milk and honey"), Jesus was raised on butter and honey "that he may know to refuse the evil and choose the good." It's even said that Christ requested fish and honeycomb for his first post-resurrection meal.
Over on the British Isles, honey was used primarily for the production of mead (honey wine) and the word "honeymoon" refers to the (alas, now rare) tradition of providing newlyweds with one moon's supply (about 31 days) of mead so that the couple might relax and be successful in procreating. On the Isle of Man, the Irish god Manannan praised his native island, saying, "Abundant there are honey and wine, Death and decay thou wilt not see." With no disrespect to Manannan, that's not entirely true—until 1810, stealing bees on the Isle of Man was a felony punishable by death.
Fast forward to the Hudson Valley, which is now home to many professional beekeepers, like Ray Tousey, who displays a hive of live bees at his farmstand at the Rhinebeck Farmers' Market. Tousey's honey comes from the hives he "leases" to local farms like Migliorelli's and Greig Farm. The bees pollinate the vegetables and Tousey harvests and sells the honey.
If the only honey you've ever tasted came from a plastic bear squeeze bottle, stop into Rhinebeck's Bumble and Hive and taste the different honeys from their dozens of varieties, both local and national. Honey takes on the taste of the nectar's flower and there's a wide range of different flavors. Popular honeys in this area include clover (mild and floral); basswood (light and woody), buckwheat (dark and full-bodied), and wildflower (a mix of different flowers; the taste varies by season and field).
One pound of honey requires two million flowers and 55,000 miles of flight taken on ten million trips by roughly 768 bees.
Honey production is a miracle of efficiency. Older "worker bees" draw liquid nectar from flowers and store it in a their aptly-named "honey stomachs," where enzymes break down the complex sugars of the nectar into simpler sugars. When their stomachs are full, they return to the hive and regurgitate the nectar to the "hive bees," which ingest the nectar and break it down further before regurgitating the it into a cell of the honeycomb. Next, the hive bees flutter their wings to ventilate and cause the nectar's water to evaporate—as it does, the liquid thickens into honey. Once complete, the hive bees seal the honey into the honeycomb for later consumption. A single worker bee produces only one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its short lifetime, and according to Diane Sammataro and Alphonse Avitable's, The Beekeeper's Handbook (4th ed., Cornell, 2011; $29.95 paperback), one pound of honey requires two million flowers and 55,000 miles of flight taken on ten million trips by roughly 768 bees.
The lifespan of bees varies widely and it's really, really good to be the queen and really, really bad to be a male. The queen can live 2 to 5 years; the male drone lives only 40 to 50 days. Mating with the queen is sexual suicide: The drone's barbed sex organ is left behind and he dies. (If he doesn't mate with the queen and lives until winter, female worker bees, which live 1 to 4 months, expel him from the hive—meaning certain death—because he's good for nothing else and is a drain on the limited food supply.)
The best time to enjoy honey is when it is at its freshest and most flavorful—in the summer and fall, just after it's been harvested. Honey's healthful properties come from phytochemicals that kill viruses, bacteria and fungus. It is also an anti-inflammatory, making it good for abrasions and burns. Recent studies claiming that local honey is good for allergies and asthma because it boosts the body's immunity to local allergens recently have been refuted by scientists at the University of Connecticut Health Center. Honey does, however, contain B vitamins and minerals such as copper, calcium, iron, magnesium, potas-sium and zinc, in addition to amino acids and antioxidants. As Cleopatra knew, these help nourish the skin as well as the body.
Holly Raal, who owns Bumble and Hive, is an advocate of raw, unpasteurized honey. (The only purpose of pasteurization is to keep the honey clear—raw honey crystallizes, a natural process that does nothing to harm it. Pasteurizing, on the other hand, reduces both the flavor and medicinal benefits of the honey.) Raal encourages her customers to think of honey like wine, sample different varieties and see which ones you like. Some of her favorite combinations are orange blossom honey with chicken, and blueberry honey on pancakes. She's also a big fan of using honey in place of sugar to cut acids like vinegar—it adds flavor as well as sweetness.
A generous drizzle of wildflower honey adds just the touch of sweetness needed to the spicy jalapeño hushpuppies at Murray's, a new eatery in Tivoli started by two Bard students. There, chef Amy Lawton's approach to menu planning anchors her reputation as a foraging fanatic—Lawton prefers to source her ingredients from the smallest local farms she can find. Currently, she gets her honey down the road at Tom and Ethel Barone's boutique Red Hook Farm, but by winter the honey will be coming from her own hives. "My friend Sam [that's Sam Comfort of Anarchy Apiaries], gifted me two hives in April, and we will be serving that after I filter it out for the winter." She prefers wildflower honey for her hushpuppies.
After winning six beehives in a poker game 10 years ago, Comfort (a Bard graduate) fell in love with bees. Since then, he has become a leader in alternative bee care and hiving techniques.
Bees, which pollinate billions of dollars worth of fruits and vegetables annually, are essential for roughly 90 crops and one-third of the food we eat. The big problem is that the world's bees are dying. Beekeepers have reported a loss of up to 90 percent of their hive population due to a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder.
If this starts you thinking about getting into beekeeping, great places to get inspired are Sam Comfort's irreverent website, www.anarchyapiaries.org, and www.honeybeelives.org (another Hudson Valley beekeeper, Chris Harp's website). Even mass-market giant Williams Sonoma is into the bee act, recently introducing a "Backyard Beehive & Starter Kit" that includes the hive, a helmet with veil, gloves, smoker, and tools (caveat: bees sold separately).
Whether you become a beekeeper or a honey buyer, you're in good company. King Solomon wrote in Proverbs 24:13, "Eat honey, my child, for it is good." The sage of Hundred Acres, Winnie-the-Pooh, said, "Yum, Yum, Yum, Yum, Time for something sweet." It's the same thing, really.