Honey straight from a hive is full of unique flavor notes based on its location and season. With a little background information all of these delicate variations can be appreciated with the same respect and admiration as the tasting of wine.
The squeezable, plastic bears you find in grocery stores are labeled as ‘honey’ but contain a homogenized product void of nuance. In an effort to offer a consistent taste, color, and viscosity, anything that might reflect a unique time of season in a specific place is melted down and processed to create a mediocre syrup everyone has grown accustomed to. This humdrum version of honey never excites the taste-buds.
If you were to open the hives at Lurie Garden and taste the honey it would taste differently from honey from a hive in Louisiana or even a hive on the other side of the city. Honey expresses many characteristics including color, texture, viscosity, taste, smell, and how quickly it crystalizes. These characteristics vary based on what plants the hive’s bees have been collecting nectar from.
Foraging from the Flower
Flowers produce a sugary fluid called nectar as a means of attracting all sorts of insects for the purpose of pollination. As insects search for the nectar in the flower, the flower’s sticky pollen catches on their bodies and gets transferred to the flower’s stigma. The meeting of the flowers pollen and its stigma starts the process of pollination or fertilization, enabling the plant to make seeds for its next generation.
Honey is made mainly by insects from the species Apis mellifera – fondly known to everyone as honeybees. (Bumblebees and some wasps also make honey, though they don’t store it in the quantities that honeybees do.) Honeybees eat nectar straight from the flower, but they also bring nectar and pollen back to the hive where the pollen, high in protein and fat, is stored as bee bread and is fed to the hive’s brood, and the high-energy nectar is stored as honey for times when the weather is not conducive to foraging such as the harsh winter months, rainy seasons, and times of drought.
Turning nectar into honey
While out foraging, honeybees mix the collected nectar with enzymes in their mouth, then store the nectar solution in a special pouch inside their abdomen called a honey stomach. The enzymes break down the sugar into simpler forms which resist bacterial growth. Back at the hive, these worker bees start to dehydrate the nectar/enzyme solution by moving the nectar around in their mouths then deposit it into hexagonal cells that make up the hive. The dehydration process is then continued by the house bees. The house bees fan the filled hive cells with their wings in order to bring the water content below 18% at which point the cell is capped with wax and its contents are considered honey. This honey stays unspoiled and unfermented for years…even ancient Egyptian tombs have been found to contain unspoiled honey!
If you look closely, in this video you can see how honeybees work together and use their wings to move air – whether to dehydrate the nectar/enzyme solution or, as in this video, to cool the hive on a hot day.
Tracing the honey back to its origin
Where bees get their nectar and pollen depends on the season and the available blooming plants in the area. This all contributes to how the honey tastes, as well as to its color and texture. When the honeybee is wrestling in a flower collecting nectar and pollen, she gets covered in pollen granules which inevitably find their way into the finished (capped) honey. This pollen not only adds to a honey’s unique characteristics, but it is the traceable indicator, not nectar, to which flowers the honeybee visited during her foraging.
A honey’s unique taste
Most honeys are a blend from various hives and many varieties of flowers that are in a certain radius of the honeybee’s hive at a certain time. There are also honeys referred to as “univarietal”, such as blueberry honey. Univarietal honeys are created by placing a hive in a spot where, within about a 3 miles (4 km) radius, there is an abundance of one type of plant blooming. On average, honeybees will travel up to 3 miles (4 km) in any direction to forage, therefore much of nectar and pollen collected will be of one particular plant whose nectar and pollen will be dominant in the honey (at least 45%) to producing a distinct flavor. These honeys are harvested right after a particular flower, usually a crop, is done blooming. Even still, univarietal honey may have a different taste depending on the region and growing season.
Sometimes a univarietal honey’s taste and look seems to correspond to the dominant plant it was foraged from. For example, wild blueberry honey has strong tasting notes of blueberries and even an indigo tint to the color. But often a honey does not have an obvious correlation to the flowers it was foraged from. Buckwheat honey does not really taste of buckwheat – it is a dark-colored honey with a rich, molasses taste. Linden tree flowers produce a honey that tastes minty and has a light color. When extracting honey sometimes small amount of resin ends up in the honey. Bees forage resin from tree trunks to seal the hive from the elements. When tree resin makes contact with a bees mouth parts, it is considered propolis. When opening a hive the propolis seal is broken. If some of the propolis gets in the honey a light pine or nutty taste may add to the flavor profile of the honey.
Appreciating honey’s delicate characteristics
Just about anyone with the inclination can appreciate each honey’s character. It is not unlike becoming familiar with wines or cheeses. Here are some simple steps for getting familiar with a honey’s character:
- Observe the color of the honey in the light. What color is the honey? Challenge yourself to try to use descriptions that the color reminds you of, such as “dark chocolate” or “polished walnut”.
- Smell the honey. Does it smell bright and citrusy or maybe dusty and sweet like a dried flower arrangement? Does the smell remind you of anything?
- Note the texture of the honey. What texture and consistency does the honey have? Is it thick and smooth or maybe clear and runny? Tropical honeys tend to be thin and runny due to the high humidity of those regions. Desert wildflower honey tends to be thick, so thick they are actually difficult to extract. Has the honey crystallized? Nearly all real honey will eventually. The tiny pollen granules in the honey and sometimes other particles such as dust and resin allow the crystals to form in the super-saturated solution of sugars. Some varieties such as black locust honey never crystallize while others such as linden honey crystallize within a few months.
- Taste the honey. Actually tasting the honey is obviously the best part of becoming a honey connoisseur. The best way to taste honey is to gather some toothpicks or small tasting spoons. Take about half a teaspoon of honey and taste it. Is it immediately bright and astringent on the pallet? Or is it a warm and super-sweet? Let the honey melt on your tongue. Try to breathe through your nose; it will heighten the tasting experience. Now you can pick-up on the more subtle tasting notes. Hazelnut? Caramel? Burnt caramel? Lemon? Lemon rind?
Tasting a few honeys in a row may help you clearly see their differences, but too many can get confusing. Be sure to take a break and eat simple foods such crackers, apple slices, or plain almonds. Drink some water and start again. After you start to get familiar with the differences between honeys you may find it enjoyable to play with pairing honey with various foods, whether it is drizzling it on various cheeses or nuts or matching honeys in your cooking to compliment spices being used.
Harvesting Lurie Garden Honey
Lurie Garden has two hives, but you cannot find them in the main garden area. They are found in a restricted area west of the garden. You can get a peek at them if you look down on the east from the Nichols pedestrian bridge that connects the Art Institute of Chicago’s modern wing with Millennium Park. The Chicago Honey Coop, who manages our hives, harvests our honey in late summer. On average, 100 pounds of honey is collected each year and 70 pounds of honey is left in each hive so the bees have plenty of food to last through the long Chicago winter.
The beekeepers from Chicago Honey Coop take the frames from our hive that are full of capped honey to their extraction facility. The caps on the cells of are removed and the frames are then quickly spun in an extractor’s centrifuge. The honey slowly pours out of a spout at the bottom of the extractor into a bucket and is filtered. The honey that remains is raw, which means it is never heated. Our honey is lighter in color in spring and darker and richer in fall. The jarred honey you can buy at our Urban Wild event each October is a blend of the two seasons because we only harvest once.
The Mystery of Lurie Garden Honey
There is no question the flavor of Lurie Garden’s honey is very special. Every year we get questions about its availability and we sell out of the honey within the first hour of Urban Wild! Our honey is a blend of different plant nectars and not a univarietal honey of predominantly one plant. There is much conjecture as to which plants Lurie Garden’s bees forage from and what then ends up contributing to our honey. Eastern bee balm, various ornamental onion flowers, and salvia seem to be the main attraction for bees in late spring. Calamint, blunt mountain mint, and anise hyssop are popular plants for bees in mid-summer through fall. Honeybees will commonly travel as far away as three miles in any direction to forage for nectar, so the plants in the garden may be only a fraction of where they forage.
How do we find out what plant species were foraged for our honey? What is the secret plant mix that is giving Lurie Garden honey its remarkable flavor? Professor Vaughn M. Bryant, director of the pollen research lab at University of Texas A&M’s Anthropology department, helped us out by analyzing the unique pollen grains found in our honey. (Dr. Bryant can trace pollen grains that were found in centuries-old archeological artifacts as well as from crime scenes, even long-ago murders where the cases have gone cold!) As mentioned before, when bees forage nectar, pollen inadvertently collects on their fuzzy abdomens and legs and it is the pollen, not nectar, is the element in honey that allows us to trace a honey’s origin back to a type of flower. Some of these pollen grains will end up in honey.
But it is also not a simple correlation of pollen grains of a particular plant found in honey and the amount of nectar used to make the honey from the same plant. Some flowers do not produce the same ratio of pollen and nectar. The tiny forget-me-not weed flowers (Myosotis sp.) produce large quantities of one of the smallest pollen grains in the world, but not a lot of nectar while black locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia) flowers produce large quantities of nectar, but small amounts of pollen grains. So honey with many forget me not pollen grains and few honey locust pollen grains will likely be getting most of its flavor from the black honey locust.
Dr. Bryant came up with an algorithm to arrive at what different flower nectars comprise a particular honey by analyzing the types and amounts of the various pollen grains that are in a honey. He chemically dehydrates the honey sample and then scans the resulting pollen residue at 400x under a microscope. After identifying the various pollen grains he tediously arrives at a count of the various pollen grains expressed at more than 1200 grains. Any particular pollen amount smaller than that isn’t worth counting for the purpose of this type of testing.
He analyzed our honey and came up with some surprising results. The top plant contributors to our Lurie Garden honey include several trees, notably linden, hawthorn, maple, and redbud. Clover was represented as was a rose family pollen. Dr. Bryant had trouble identifying which rose family plant the pollen was from due to the many of the pollen grains in the rose family looking very similar, though he did note how it looked very much like goatsbeard pollen, which we have in large amounts of in the garden.
Lurie Garden visitors often notice the amount of honeybee activity around the mint family plants. Surprisingly, there was only a small amount of mint family plants represented in our honey. It seems the mint family plants are always so busy with activity, imagine how much more busy they are with the other plants, especially flowering trees, when they visit in Lurie Garden and the surrounding park! The result of this pollen analysis explains some of the tasting notes in our honey. We have the lemony, minty element from the linden nectar and the light sweetness of black locust trees. Perhaps the hawthorn nectar, which has a somewhat unpleasant scent contributes a slightly astringent undertone that actually enhances the overall flavor by keeping the heady, floral notes from the clover and goatsbeard from becoming too cloying.
The flowers and weather of a particular place is as integral as honeybees themselves to creating artisanal, raw honey, not the homogenized product sold in squeezable plastic bears. When you care about interesting, artisanal food, you care about a particular location be it your own home or a place you love to visit. When you care about a particular place, you can’t help but to become curious about that area’s ecology. You then become not a passive consumer but a noticer of the environment and an engaged citizen. Life becomes, like our multi-floral honey, enriching.
We love to learn about people’s favorite honey varieties, please let us know if you have a favorite and what you like to pair it with!
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