The allure of bigleaf maple honey
Early each spring I’m on the lookout for a frame of bigleaf maple honey. It blooms before the honey supers are in place, so I rifle through the brood boxes, looking for that special treat. In anticipation of this event, I often put an empty frame at the edge of a few brood boxes the previous fall–hope against hope that one might get filled with this magic nectar.
Bigleaf maple is the first honey crop of the season here and it doesn’t happen often. The huge trees bloom while we’re still in the depths of the rainy season, so many years it goes uncollected. Some local beekeepers estimate we get a salable crop of bigleaf maple about one year in eight. Sigh. So very sad.
This spring, at the apex of bloom, I spied one frame in my busiest, sunniest hive. It was in the top brood box, in the number ten position, capped with bright white wax and seething with bees. I gently pried it out, shook it, and replaced it with an empty frame, apologizing profusely to my bees the entire time.
I wrapped my prize in plastic, froze it overnight, and stuck it in a kitchen cupboard. I promptly forgot about it. Busy, busy. I thought about it once or twice, but never touched it all through spring and summer. But last weekend, as I was cleaning out my cupboards, I came across the pristine frame and knew it was time.
Since it was in a brood frame, I had to find and cut the cross wires before I could free the comb from the frame. But once I managed to find them all, the comb fell from the frame with a hearty thud. Honey ran out the sides and pooled on the wax paper. It had the color of champagne and the fragrance of spring.
I divided the comb into thirds and fit each piece into a gleaming glass container. On the way to the sink to wash stickies from my hands, I took a taste.
I stopped in my tracks. Licked my fingers. Licked the knife. Licked the wire cutters. I could not remember honey so good. I recalled the flavor immediately upon tasting it, but it was better somehow, richer, more complex. It was immorally good. Decadent beyond measure. Addictive. I had to sterilize everything after I stopped licking the kitchen.
The next morning I put it a container of it on the breakfast table with no word to my husband. We started eating breakfast when suddenly he said, “Oh my god, what is that?” He, too, remembered the flavor but thought it was better than ever. What is it about a good varietal honey in the comb? What is it about flavors we always remember?
Bigleaf maples (Acer macrophyllum) are huge trees. Large specimens can reach 100 feet tall and 48 inches in diameter. True to their name, the leaves can reach 24 inches wide. Seriously, you can lose your laptop under one leaf. The truly amazing thing, though, is the number of mosses, lichens, and ferns the trees support on their branches. Entire ecosystems exist up there among the protective foliage.
The trees produce small, fragrant, yellow-green flowers in March before the leaves begin to emerge. The flowers are attractive to many pollinators and the resultant seeds attract many small animals and birds. And the honey attracts me. Don’t pass up a chance to try it if you can find it.