How can you do that? How can you lower the value of your honey? Extract it, of course.
If you think I’m kidding, consider this. According to on-line sources, the average price for a pound of extracted honey packaged for retail sale is about $8. Now go and price a pound of comb honey. Depending on where you live, a one-pound square may run $20–$25. I can sell as many 8-ounce Ross Rounds as I can harvest for $12 each, so again, that’s $24 a pound.
Yes, I’ve heard the opposing arguments. You say section frames and containers are expensive. I agree. But if you are extracting, you still need containers. You also need strainers and funnels and taps and, oh, did I mention an extractor?
The second most popular argument is about beeswax. Beeswax, you say, is valuable and expensive. True, but it’s not that valuable. Take a $24 square of comb honey that weighs about 1 pound. Extract the honey inside which goes for about $8. Do you really believe the remainder—that skinny little pile of sticky flakes—is worth $16? Not on your life.
So that’s the way it works. You buy an expensive extractor and all the peripherals, and as you run your precious honey through said device, it magically loses two-thirds of its value. Gone, gone away.
On the surface, that may seem unfair. Is it not the same product? Isn’t extracted honey the very same substance in a different but easier-to-use container?
The answer is a resounding “No!” If it were the same product, it would command the same price. But people are willing to pay three times as much for a less convenient product because is offers qualities that extracted honey doesn’t.
Taste the flowers
I became a beekeeper so I could avoid extracted honey. Before that, I scoured farmers’ markets, health food stores, co-ops, county fairs, and rural roads on a relentless quest for the comb honey I could never find. I would have paid almost anything had I found it. And now that I produce it myself, I find that there are droves of people out there, people just like me, who want comb honey and are willing to pay handsomely for it.
What’s the difference? Well, just think about it. Each cell within a comb of honey is slightly different than its neighbor. It was collected from different flowers by different bees. Although all the flowers may be fireweed and all the bees may be sisters, the plants are growing on slightly different soils with slightly different microbes and nutrients. They get various amounts of water and sun and heat. The bees—though genetically similar—are not genetically identical. Enzyme levels may fluctuate, flower preference may differ, even their metabolic processes may vary. Each of these variables—and others—affect the flavor of the honey.
The next day may bring different flowers, different fields, or different bees. Nothing stays the same, which means each cell of honey is unique. Each contains a history of the colony’s activity for that particular day—even that particular hour. Each cell is a one-time event that may never be repeated, not exactly. The joy is in tasting the flowers.
Mixing honey destroys the individual flavors
The easiest and quickest way to destroy the individual flavors is to mix them together. The high notes are offset by the low notes. The ephemeral taste of one delicate nectar is offset by a robust and overbearing one. You are left with the muddy brown flavor of supermarket honey, of honey in a plastic bear. If you melted your box of crayons together in one big pot—all the reds and yellows, the electric blues and grassy greens—you would get something similar, a muddy brown color. All the brightness would be gone.
The taste of supermarket honey is bland and unexceptional. We recognize it instantly as honey, just as we recognize the taste of hamburger meat. But like mayonnaise in a jar, the flavor is not exciting, thrilling, or memorable. Honey in a jar is just honey in a jar, but honey in a comb is an experience, a wonderment, a sacred communion with nature.
Confusing business with pleasure
Am I saying that honey should never be extracted? Of course not. Separating honey with a centrifugal extractor is a commercial/industrial process designed to efficiently handle large volumes. It has its place in agribusiness. After all, we need tons of extracted honey to make things like breakfast cereal, graham crackers, and baked hams. And a huge and growing market exists for extracted honey as a basic fast food commodity—honey-glazed entrees and single-serving packets of honey mixed with high-fructose corn syrup can be found in many restaurants.
But what you get from an extractor is a commercial/industrial product. The honey is handled, mixed, exposed to air, strained, bottled, and sometimes heated. It is degraded at every step of the process. Although this product is perfect for processed food where honey is not the main event, it was never meant for the connoisseur or the backyard beekeeper with just a few hives.
The perils of oxidation
If I had to rank the indignities wrought upon honey by the extractor, the second highest after mixing would be exposure to oxygen. The centrifugal extractor flings the honey through the air and slams it against the drum. It’s the flinging through the air business that is troublesome. Air contains oxygen, and oxygen is—get ready for this—an oxidizer.
Oxidation of food is usually undesirable. Brown apple slices, black guacamole, and gray beef are all memorable results of oxidation. While oxidation of honey is not a health concern, it can degrade the flavor as well as the vitamin content. It is my belief that oxidation is the second largest contributor to the characteristic supermarket honey flavor.
Other people dislike extracted honey because it is processed by humans. Many want the closeness to nature that honey comb confers. While this has never been my primary concern, I have seen the insides of enough extractors to know I don’t want to eat anything from them. Knowledge of the antibacterial properties of honey notwithstanding, some of these devices are gross. Then too, you never know about the cleanliness of the strainers, the containers, the utensils, and the beekeeper. People are willing to pay good prices to avoid the unknowns.
As if that isn’t enough, some beekeepers heat their extracted honey to get it to flow into bottles. It doesn’t take much heat to start degrading the precious flavors, so why would someone want to pay for that? When you add together all the negatives—the mixing, oxidizing, handling, heating, bottling—it’s no wonder extracted honey loses so much of its value. Extracted honey is, after all, processed food.
The American taste for non-food
Okay then, here’s another question. If extracted honey is as boring and nondescript as I say, why is it so popular? Part of the answer is price and part of the answer is that Americans have been trained to prefer tasteless food. We have learned how to eat by watching television, and televised commercials are all about cheap, bland, and unpalatable substitutes for real food.
Recently, I read several articles in the Washington Post that are relevant. One was about why Americans prefer maple-flavored corn syrup over real maple syrup. Really? Another was about the best-selling beers in America, of which three of the top four happen to be lite beer. What’s that if not bland and tasteless? If you want beer, drink real beer, otherwise don’t bother.
But that’s the tip of the iceberg (an unfortunate word that reminds me of head lettuce, another big winner in the flavor category). American consumers prefer artificially-flavored vanilla ice cream over the kind with real vanilla specks. And milk chocolate? Now there’s a concept: a convenient way to ruin both milk and chocolate. Diet soda: zero calories, zero sodium, zero caffeine, zero nutrition, zero taste. Why on earth would you pay for multi-syllabic chemicals in a can when you can get multi-syllabic chemicals out of your faucet for free?
Depression era thinking lives on
The most sought after honey in the United States, and the one that commands the best price, is clover honey. Clover honey embodies bland and tasteless. It is light in color as well as taste, with no assertive flavors whatsoever. Actually, if you read historical references to honey, you can understand how this preference came about. During the world wars when refined sugar was scarce or unattainable, homemakers used honey for canning fruits, jams, and jellies. Considering how strong honey can taste, you can understand how a mild-flavored honey would be the best choice for showcasing the fruit. Nondescript clover honey fit the bill.
Years ago, I remember people complaining about dark honey and telling stories of unpleasant encounters with honey-canned products. I understand that, but the war is over and has been for 70 years. It’s been decades since anyone had to can with honey, so let it go. Today we should enjoy robust honey for all it has to offer and stop trying to make all honey taste like corn syrup.
Another article I read discussed the fast food industry and how much it prizes the idea of consistency. They want the meal you buy in Shanghai to taste exactly like the one you buy in Sydney. If you think about that, you realize that to make products taste alike, they need the ingredients to taste alike. How do they guarantee consistency of flavor when it comes to honey? Easy. Just mix it all together. Nuff said.
The ubiquitous extractor
Newbees often start talking about extractors before they receive their first colony of bees. Even after years of blogging for beekeepers, this cart-before-the-horse thinking still surprises me. A person plans to try beekeeping. He is going to start with a hive or two or three, and for some reason he thinks he needs to buy a piece of downsized commercial/industrial equipment to care for his 100 pounds of honey. Whoa.
I want to say, “Stop and think.” If you want supermarket honey, go to your local store or farmers market. It is way cheaper and a lot less work. If you want to enjoy the wonders of the hive, if you want to experience indescribable flavor that nearly knocks your socks off, if you want to taste the flowers, forget the extractor. That’s not why you keep bees.
If later you decide to expand and sell your honey (at a reduced rate) to all the folks who want bland in a jar, you can add an extractor. But honestly, I have never—not even once—put a single frame of my honey into an extractor. Go ahead and read that last sentence again.
If I wanted honey “purified” by a human, I wouldn’t be a beekeeper. Extracted honey is everywhere and ridiculously cheap. It’s cheap because it’s like stew—individual parts mixed together until they all taste the same.
At my house we keep a glass container of comb honey on the table the way some folks keep a sugar bowl. Plenty of honey oozes out of the bottom for those who want their share “extracted” or for use in a recipe, and plenty remains in the comb.
Our breakfasts are often punctuated with comments: “Oooh. Taste the upper right corner!” or “See that darker section? That’s mine.” Or smug in discovery, someone gloats, “All gone.” I sometimes wonder what we would talk about if it all tasted the same, if we couldn’t unpack an individual cell and report back. Would we discuss convenience? Matching jars?
Now, I fully expect someone to respond that their canola honey will crystallize in a heartbeat so they need to extract soon and extract often. I understand that. Someone else will say they don’t have a way to store, market, transport, or _____ (fill in the blank) a whole lot of comb honey. I get that too. You’d be surprised at how much I understand, including the fact that I’m a fanatic.
But if I could get beekeepers to do a single thing, it would be to harvest at least one super of comb honey to eat and to share. Lick your fingers. Play with the cells. Give some to your friends.
Consumers don’t know what they don’t know
We often make the assumption that customers want their honey extracted, but more than likely they don’t know there’s a choice. Time after time, after I’ve convinced, persuaded or cajoled folks into trying comb honey, they became transfixed.
For example, my neighbor with young children wanted to try my honey. I decided to be accommodating and asked if she wanted it extracted or in the comb. She didn’t know what I meant, after all, honey comes in a jar, right? So I went home and mashed a comb and strained it for them, but I also gave her a section of comb honey with instructions.
A few weeks later, her kids asked me if they could have more honey. “Sure,” I said, “I will strain some for you tonight.”
“Oh, no!” they chorused. “We want it in the comb! In the comb!”
I’ve been through that same scenario dozens of times, always the same. People aren’t aware of the option of eating honey in the comb, but once they learn, they love it. They can’t get enough.
Just last week, my husband gave some comb with instructions to some people at work, simply as a gift. The very next day, one person put in an order to purchase five more. A day later, another ordered five as well. One time I gave a square to a store owner who thereafter purchased as many as I could supply over the next several years. It turns out she was giving them to A-list customers, and it was considered a very special, extremely personal gift.
Beyond the bear
Whenever I go the the local farmer’s market I always stop at the honey booth. I always ask if they have comb honey and they always say no. They recommend a plastic squeeze bear instead. So convenient. They are making the assumption that everyone wants extracted honey and, because of that assumption, they are losing sales—top dollar sales—the “I-will-pay-anything” kind of sales. We are frequently introduced to their value-added honey products, which are often just value-subtracted honey in a fancy container.
Selling comb honey, even if it’s only part of your offering, will set you apart from the grocery store, from the farmers’ market, and from other beekeepers. And if you believe a market doesn’t exist for comb honey, just give some away. Those gifts can repay for years as people develop an interest in comb honey and tell their friends who tell their friends. That is the real gift—the gift of knowledge.
Extracting honey just because everyone else does is not a valid reason. In fact, it is a good argument for doing the opposite. I find very little value in doing what’s expected, and very little charm in doing what is popular. So go for it. Take the plunge. Leave your honey in nature’s container and keep its value intact.
Note: I hesitated many months before writing this post, knowing I’m in the infinitesimal minority. Still, it’s what I believe and why I write so much about comb honey. I would love to hear your thoughts.
Honey Bee Suite