Varietal honey. Is it worth the price?February 26, 2023
Producing a varietal honey is about how a beekeeper manages a honey flow to limit the flower nectar that makes it into a bottle. Like quality wines, craft beers, or artisanal cheeses, honey flavors are quite complex. The University of California-Davis developed a flavor lexicon with over 100 unique descriptors(1). These unique flavors are derived primarily by the flowers visited. I will discuss why in an upcoming blog. According to the National Honey Board, there are more than 300 varietals sold or produced in the US(2). These can be either monofloral, polyfloral, or regional. When more than 51% of the nectar is from a known single flower source, it is monofloral. This can be achieved by placing hives next to a field or orchard, such as an orange grove, that is predominantly a single flower type. A polyfloral varietal means that the beekeeper cannot be certain of the dominate floral source but still limits which nectars are in the final, jar of honey. An example is when small batches of honey are removed throughout a season to lock in the flowers in bloom. A regional varietal limits the nectar source to a geographical range. Examples of this are mountain-, or desert wildflower honeys. Although polyfloral, these honeys will be unique compared to a hive placed next to a Nebraska prairie.
Timing bee populations with the blooms is essential regardless of the type of varietal honey harvested. According to the Canadian Bee Council, a bee over its 45-day lifetime will collect nectar to produce 0.0288 oz of honey (3). Given there are 16 oz in a pound, a minimum of 700 bees are necessary for each 1-pound jar. Not all nectar collected is turned into surplus to be harvested. Much is used to directly support the colony as well as stored for winter. Therefore, the minimum number of bees needed is about 30,000. Bee populations in a colony are not constant throughout the year. The figure shown below is derived from a mathematical model of bee populations for eastern Nebraska. Population is a balance of eggs laid per day and life expectancy, which in the summer is about 45 days. In winter, when the queen stops egg production, populations may dip to 5,000 and by mid-June can top 50,000. You can see in the figure that there is an insufficient population of bees to produce early honey varietals such as Apple Blossom or Black Locust, or late season varietals such as Golden Rod and Buckwheat.
The beekeeper has options to overcome these deficiencies. Here at Country Road Bees, we inspect and designated production and support (resource) hives in February, assuming there is a day or two above 50 F. This is also when we make sure there are adequate reserves of honey to last until the first nectar flows of the year which start early- to mid-March. If not, we feed them a sugar product called fondant. Maple, Willow, and Poplar trees provide the early spring food sources. Unless temperatures are 60 F or greater, and no rain, the bees won’t leave the hive even if trees are in bloom. To ensure an early start to rebuilding the colonies, we feed the bees a sugar water solution that has an identical chemistry to natural nectar, and a source of protein that is similar to pollen. By early April, natural nectar and pollen sources, as well as a few warm days, allow the bees to forage, and for the queen to lay eggs in earnest. Should the population in a production hive grow too strong, a few frames of bees are moved to a resource hive and replaced with drawn comb. This process is called equalization. In mid- to late-April fruit trees begin to bloom. Start the process too early, or become lazy with weekly inspections and the bees could swarm.