bee forage varietal honey

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.


Bigleaf maple near the hives.


  • How is this honey different from red maple or mountain maple honey? The valley where
    I live in is full of both these maples but like yourself our springs can be hit or miss.

    • I don’t know, Jeff, maybe there’s no difference. I can only comment on things I know about. If I had any type of maple honey when I was a kid in Pennsylvania, I don’t remember it.

  • Oh boy, that sounds amazing. We are surrounded by Big Leaf Maples, and I am now plotting how to get some of that honey! I am leaving an extra honey super on this winter, to help them through our winter and in hopes of not having to feed much in the spring. I wonder…. if I am not needing to spring-feed, what about taking out a couple of frames from the super and putting in some empties if we have a window of dryness. If it is not snowing or raining…. If it is warm enough one afternoon to manipulate the hive…. If I don’t have to feed….. If, if, if. I can see why the honey is so rare.

  • I don’t think you should write about something like this unless you have enough to share with everybody. Do you know if anyone sells that kind of honey? I would like to try some now that my mouth is watering with jealousy.

    • When I first started reading your comment I thought I must have done something horrible . . . then it made me laugh. I probably have about one molecule of maple honey for every reader . . . but the postage would kill me.

  • I’ve been feeding our bees mostly honey this year to top them up for winter instead of syrup. Today I put a decapped deep frame of honey over the inner cover of one hive. The honey from the frame, which was pulled early in the spring, had a maple syrup kind of thing going on. Maybe it’s the magic maple honey you’re talking about. And maybe not. But I liked it.

    I also like it that I’m developing my honey palette, if that’s the phrase for it. I can notice the difference between various honeys. I can’t say, “That’s a spring honey,” and “That’s a late fall honey,” but I can detect the subtleties of sweetness and flavour now.

    That’s kinda cool.

  • I was looking through some old photos on my computer this morning and noticed a photo taken of me next to a giant maple tree in a nearby park. I’m standing under the branches hiding my face behind some hanging flowers that look like the flowers shown in the Wikipedia entry for big leaf maple, except larger:

    The full entry:

    The photo was taken in late June. (That shows you how late spring arrives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.)

    I’m going to try your trick of putting an empty frame at the edge of the brood box and see if I can steal a frame of maple honey from them. Seems like it’s worth a shot.

  • Rusty, I’m daydreaming about “Magic Maple”. Our trees are about budded out. I’m hoping, hoping, hoping that the bloom corresponds with the forecasted mostly dry and sunny weather next week.

    Re-reading your post, I see that you froze your frame overnight when you brought it in. Was that to kill any wax moth larvae (or other pests???) and prep it for storing before harvest? I’m hoping to pull frames throughout the season but not extract until I have several, so I am interested in what you do to “hold them over”. (I know with extracting, I’ll need to get any stored frames good and warm first. Eating it with the comb, like you do, is something I’m hoping to try this year too.)

    • Gretchen,

      Yes, the freezing is just so I can store it long-term in the comb without having to share it with creepy crawlies. Just remember to wrap it tightly in plastic before freezing and letting it return to room temperature before removing the plastic. This is to avoid condensation on the comb. If I’m going to store it for a long time, I just leave the plastic on so no other critters deposit eggs on it.

      If I were going to extract, that’s exactly how I would do it. Harvest throughout the season, freeze and store, then extract all at once.

  • Rusty, I enjoyed your marveling about Magic Maple Honey. I am into harvesting early to have spring honey that is always light in color a delicate taste. I was blessed this year with a light yellow very clear early spring honey that I have been thinking is early from tree blooms with a slight maple flavor. Some years it is more floral with an intense flavor but a bit more orange in color. Could you say something about color and clarity to help me get a better sense. I’m in an area of west suburban Portland with a mix of maple, wild plum and ash trees blooming early, and the weather was warm early this year and dryer for a while which I think helped. Thanks for the wonderful insights into the world of bees and their keepers.

  • Hi – I came across your post searching for bigleaf maple honey. I moved to the Seattle area from NYC over six years ago, and have really enjoyed getting to know the local flora and fauna. Now that I’ve retired, we moved up to Anacortes, and a few Saturdays ago I checked out the Mt. Vernon Farmers market. Guess what – someone was selling bigleaf maple honey! I’d actually never heard of it, but after a sample, I eagerly bought some. It truly is an indescribable flavor, and I love that it comes from flowers that I admire every year. And I’m with you, darker, more intense flavors (as in Grade B maple syrup) are usually more rewarding. Thank you for posting about this gem; there seems to be very little information around.

  • So if this only happens once in every eight years, and you wrote this back in 2011, I’m thinking we’re due, right? We have several dozen broadleaf maple trees on the property and adjacent properties. In fact our entire stretch of road is named for them. Fingers crossed. Never considered the possibility, but will be watching for it. Thanks!

    • Gary,

      The bees always—or almost always—put it up, but it’s so early they usually end up eating it. I often see it in the hives, but I leave it for them, and then it’s gone once we hit a rainy spell in say March or April. If you really want to taste it (and it’s great) take out a frame as soon as you spot it, otherwise it will disappear. Very rarely do we have a year dry enough for them to put up whole supers of it.

  • Hey Rusty,

    Here’s something you might find interesting.

    I’m located in Concrete WA and I’m a small-scale maple syrup producer as well as a beekeeper. Last week I tapped a few test holes in some big leaf maples since the conditions have been perfect for a good sap flow. The first tree that I tapped is close to my bee yard. It immediately started dripping sap as soon as I removed the drill bit! I totally spaced bringing a collection bucket with me so I just tapped the spile into the tree and placed a bowl underneath of it so I can monitor how quickly it would fill up. When I went to check on it later I discovered a bunch of my bees gathered around the bowl sampling the fresh maple sap! They really seemed to like it so I’ve left it for them to enjoy.

    • Mydnyte,

      That sound like so much fun! I’ve got big-leaf maples everywhere, so I need to try this. I didn’t know they could be tapped for sap.

      • Technical language question—if the bees process and cap that drippy sap, is that “honey”. Also, I want some of that, no matter what it is.

        • Roberta:

          Here is the USDA definition of honey: “6.1.1 Honey. Honey is a sweet, syrupy substance produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living part of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specified substances of
          their own, deposit, dehydrate, store, and leave in the honeycombs to ripen and mature. Honey consists essentially of different sugars predominantly glucose and fructose as well as other substances derived from the collection of nectar by honey bees for conversion into honey. The color of honey varies from nearly colorless to dark brown; the consistency can be fluid, viscous, or partly to entirely crystallized. The flavor and aroma vary but are derived from the plant origin.”

          It sounds like “or from secretions of living parts of plants” would include the sap from maple trees.

          And I agree, I would love to taste whatever they decided to store. I’ve never had big-leaf maple syrup, but big-leaf maple honey is to die for. We don’t often get it because the flowers bloom so early, often before it’s warm enough to fly. Or, if it’s warm enough, it’s usually raining.

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