Would you take all your crayons—crimson, daffodil, indigo, grass, bubblegum—and melt them together in order to make one dingy brown crayon instead? Would you take all your favorite varietal grapes, perhaps sauvignon blanc, merlot, malbec, viognier, and gewurztraminer, and mash them together in a vat to produce something less compelling? Would you take your favorite marmalade and mix it with strawberry jam, grape jelly, and lingonberry preserves in order to attenuate the flavor of each?
Of course not. What a blasphemous idea. You think I’m nuts for suggesting such a thing. But most beekeepers do something far worse: they take all the discrete nectars the bees worked so hard to contain in little protective portion cups and mix them together so the whole batch tastes the same. Your bees did all that hard work so you could muck it up, blending it into that well-known flavor called grocery store honey. You took a valuable product—a unique blend of flavors and aromas that came together at a particular point in time and space—and trashed it. After all, why have more when you can have less?
Why produce commercial-grade honey?
The why is the part I still can’t answer. I started this website in part to answer that question, but nearly a decade later, I haven’t come close. On one hand, I can certainly understand why a commercial beekeeper would extract. The commercial guys run big operations, they need to do things in an economically prudent way, and they need to pay the bills. Things like extractors were designed for big operations, and they allow huge crops of honey to be sold, stored, and shipped in ginormous barrels which can later be turned into breakfast cereal and barbecue sauce. I get it.
But why would a backyard beekeeper try to emulate the flavor of industrial honey? When we bake at home, we don’t try to copy the flavor of Wonder Bread. When we squeeze our own oranges we don’t aim for the flavor of Minute Maid. We don’t try to make home brew that tastes like Coors or burgers that taste like MacDonald’s. So why, oh why, do we try to dumb down the taste of our honey?
Yes, I’m repeating myself here. I’ve written about this phenomenon extensively in the past, but I still can’t get over it. I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that every two-bit backyard beekeeping operation has an extractor. Nothing horrifies me more than the idea of an industrial-commercial process that lowers the quality of honey, a machine that takes all the bright notes, the flavor highs, the unexpected explosions of nectar bliss and melds them into something ordinary and bland.
The marvel of bees and perfect honey
To me, beekeeping comprises two marvels: the bees and the honey. We are well-attuned to the bees, but I think we overlook the incredible range of flavor, color, and aroma that can occur within a single comb of honey. Cutting into a comb—breaking open pristine cells that have never been exposed to air—is a different experience every day. We overlook the wonder of honey, I think, because we seldom experience it. We accept the mundane mixture. But extracted honey is processed food which can never hold a candle to the real thing.
I find irony in the level of care people lavish upon their bees compared to the care they give the honey those bees produce. Beekeepers will do anything—and pay any amount—to keep their bees happy and healthy, and then process the life out of their honey, manhandling, uncapping, spinning, aerating, straining, warming, bottling—process after process after process. To me it’s the greatest disconnect in the entire world of beekeeping.
Go ahead and make some
So, if you’ve read this far, I urge you once again to make at least one super of comb honey for yourself and your friends. Let the bees make it without foundation while the nectar is flowing fast. Harried bees build thin-walled cells of white wax without propolis-reinforced edges. If you don’t have an extra super, just give them a shallow eke to fill with convoluted comb. It will be the best honey you ever tasted, bar none.
If all my preaching yields but one convert, I will have succeeded in my quest. And by the way, if you decide to make extra, there is a huge untapped market out there for comb honey. Not a day goes by when people don’t write to ask where they can buy comb honey in their area. They often explain that their local beekeeper doesn’t produce it. How sad is that?
Honey Bee Suite