miscellaneous musings

You be the judge

Yesterday I began to read Mark L. Winston’s new book, Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive. Winston is a gifted writer who could make mucking a horse stall sound romantic. But not far into the book, he pulled me up short with his description of honey judging. His words disturbed me so much, I put my Kindle on the charger and walked off.

I don’t know anything about honey judging, but because this is the Mark Winston, I’m sure it’s accurate. He says that honey judging is based on “subtle deviations from perfect.” The judges look for moisture levels, debris, bubbles, wax flakes, and foam. They taste the honey looking for odd flavors picked up during processing, and they look at the jars for dirt and fingerprints. All departures from perfect are deducts.

Now, I understand this, and I see why it might be fun to enter your honey in a contest and learn how you stack up, as long as you don’t take it personally. But being the judge? No, no, no, no.

Once upon a time I was an artistic roller skating judge. If you are unfamiliar with this sport, it is very much like ice skating. The skaters do figures, set dances, and freestyle, only they do it on eight wheels instead of two blades.

I used to adore watching both ice skating and roller skating, and never missed a televised or live performance. I became a judge because I loved the sport and because I was a competitor myself.

After my training I judged many events, but after a while I couldn’t see the beauty. Everything I saw was a “deviation from perfect.” Things that the casual observer would never see, glared at me. Deduct. Deduct. I actually gave up skating not long after I became a judge—it was just too depressing—and I never watch it nowadays.

The same thing happened later when my husband and I belonged to the Oregon Daffodil Society. We often made the trek down to the Willamette Valley for the daffodil shows. We never became judges, but we went through the training, learning about the various classes of daffodils, and learning to “spot the defects.”

Before the training, I was a nut case over daffodils. I had them planted everywhere, and in spring my house was full of dozens of vases containing all shapes and sizes and colors. My husband took them to work, too, and passed them around the office. Daffodils were so cheerful they made me infinitely happy.

But what was stunning before, now fails some man-made and arbitrary definition of perfect. Where I used to see beauty, I now see flaws. Deduct. Deduct. Many of those daffodils still reappear every spring, but I hardly pay attention. Once again, judging ruined a passion.

So when I began reading about honey judging, I stiffened up like a dirty sock. I adore honey, the sublime flavors, the subtle colors, the heavenly aromas. It is magical, mystical, and mysterious. No way, no how, will I ever become a honey judge and have that all taken away. Never. Some things are better left alone.


Read the book: *Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive

Honey of many colors. Pixabay photo

Honey of many colors. Pixabay photo.

*This post contains an affiliate link.

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  • I have a friend who was a Dairy Science major in college in the 60s. He became an ice cream judge and has not been able to enjoy ice cream ever since. I understand where you are coming from!

  • I hope someday you will be able to look at a daffodil and smell its sweet fragrance and see JOY and BEAUTY in that flower! Everything is perfectly imperfect…and this quest in our society to be the best keeps a lot of people from doing what they’re passionate about because they’re afraid they won’t be good enough. So sing off key in the shower and know you’ll never sing opera at The Met! Dance (or skate) like no one is looking! Plant daffodils by the bushel and know they brighten the spring landscape…and eat that liquid gold that our bee-girls give us and know it is perfect just as it is.

  • Mark L. Wilson’s Biology of the Honey Bee is one of the first books I read after I had my own bees and I loved it. His knowledge is sound and his curiosity is infectious. I feel lucky that I read that book when I first got into beekeeping. It set me on a good path. I’d like to see him write a revised edition.

    I’ve been reading Bee Time too. Debris, bubbles, wax flakes and foam are things that make raw honey unique. I didn’t like that part of the book either for the same reasons.

    The opening of the book, though, beginning with “Walking into an apiary is…” made me feel like, “Yup, this guy gets it.” I wish I’d written it.

  • I do exhibit, but honey judges annoy me – they often have a schedule separate from the official one. Faced with an array of entries, their aim is to elimate as many as possible. I can give several examples, but two will suffice. I entered a bottle of mead in a local show and the judge disqualified it because, when he removed the cork, the mead effervesced. When I tackled him he said it was still working – I asked if he had heard of champagne. On another occasion I took a bottle of mead to Ireland. The judge eliminated it because of a minute air bubble in the glass. The mead was not judged – the bottle was!

  • Daffodils, dandelions, and red tipped maples the harbinges of spring! Their beauty may be overlooked but never their message. Life should be built around the mercyes of precepts and principles, never the politics and punishments of judges……it is the difference that makes the difference, if everything were perfect then would we not have a monoculture? Sorry just rambling, which is easier than developing purposes for hive inspection…..

  • So well said! Alas we do that to woman in our society to the detriment of us all… so sad, so destructive….

  • From hearing other beekeepers talk about honey shows, how the honey and jar look seem to be more important than how the honey tastes. Air bubbles, smudges, a speck of pollen – it just seems silly to me. I suppose when you have hundreds of entries before you, it’s daunting and you look for ways out of tasting the honey! That’s in Britain anyway – I hear in Italy they take a more relaxed approach to the jars and concentrate more on the flavours.

  • I remember being told that the old handmade lace by Jewish women, even thou they had the skill and talent,
    they never made perfect lacework; they always made sure one flaw was added. Something about it’s the flaw that makes each thing and all things in creation special and a once only event. To copy a flaw is almost surely impossible because hidden in the flaw is something that can’t be seen but it’s there and it makes a difference. So the perfection is in the flaw not the replication of patterns and redundancy.

  • There’s the same thing in the poultry world – birds are judged against the classic book called “Standards of Perfection.” All my birds are non-standardly perfect.

  • I think this happens whenever we think we have experienced the “perfect” of anything and attach a definition that limits it. Everything in that category that doesn’t meet that ideal is forever after “less than”. Whether that is a steak or a date with your honey (pun intended). It’s sometimes a hard thing to learn to appreciate the beauty of the moment for all its intricacies and uniqueness without assigning a value based on a certain criteria.

  • Working for a German motor manufacturer, to whom attention to detail and excellence in the execution of systems and processes is of the highest value, I have suffered at the hands of numerous Auditors. I found a perverse truth – to do well at audit, ensure an obvious imperfection has been introduced for the Auditor to find. Once found, the Auditor feels justified and other imperfections are often missed. So make a spelling mistake on the label and the bee leg in the honey may not be spotted!
    The pursuit of perfection robs us of joy.

    • Dave,

      I’m amazed at all the (im)perfection stories. It seems lots of people have run up against the impossible to please judge, in one form or another. I like your solution!

  • I love to can and have been entering my goods at the county fair for years. The best part used to be the comments that the judges wrote on my entry tags. They always tasted the entries and taste was a big part of the judging. I learned a tremendous amount from those comments. For the last few years tho the judging is only about appearance and processing times. Very seldom are entries tasted and there is seldom a comment either good or bad. Here imperfection is that extra little tweek to a standard recipe that makes it stand out and I believe it should be judged that way.

  • Funny thing about judging. Those that are the most critical are some times the worst offenders of what they are judging.