Last weekend, I attended an event for Earth Day that included a presentation by The Valley Hive, a beekeeping outfit based in the northeast San Fernando Valley. They were invited to discuss the threat to honeybees and what’s being done to protect them—and, by extension, our food supply. This was serendipity, because I’d been wanting to learn more about The Valley Hive since visiting their kiosk at a local mall and tasting a “flight” of honeys.
Head beekeeper Keith Roberts led the presentation with an entertaining and informative talk about the tools and techniques used in beekeeping. He shared some surprising facts about honeybees, which are more fascinating than I’d imagined. Did you know that a hive functions as a pure democracy, with the bees making decisions by consensus that, scientists have discovered, are correct about 98% of the time? We could learn a lot from them about cooperation vs. competition.
But there IS some competition, which occurs when a queen dies or disappears from the hive. Sensing her absence, the bees will start feeding large amounts of royal jelly to a number of larvae. This high-protein substance causes the developing bees to transform into queens, which, upon hatching, will engage in a fight to the death until a single victor emerges. If one of the queens should hatch before the others, she will spear her remaining sisters in a Shakespearean act of mass regicide (and a few other -cides). Hamlet’s got nothing on the hive.
Despite the drama, this story has a sweet ending. The bees make and store honey for food, but produce much more than they actually need, so we humans can skim a little off the top without harming the hive. Honey is rich in antioxidants and never spoils. It has antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial properties and can speed the healing of wounds and burns. While I hear every spring about eating local honey to protect against seasonal allergies, Keith says the results of this practice have never exceeded the placebo effect in scientific studies (having recently read Suggestible You by Erik Vance, I’ve developed an ample respect for the placebo effect).
Still, it’s always a good idea to support your friendly neighborhood beekeepers by purchasing local honey (defined as anything within 300 miles). Honey is naturally viscous, so large-scale producers must heat it above a certain temperature in order to fill assembly line bottles quickly, which destroys some of its beneficial properties. If your honey has a thin consistency or never crystallizes, it’s probably been subjected to high heat or “honey laundering,” so buy raw and local whenever possible.
Over the years, I’ve purchased many different varietals of honey, from alfalfa to tupelo, but I’d never had the opportunity to try several all at once until sampling the lineup from The Valley Hive. With just a taste of each, I was able to compare the nuances of avocado, buckwheat, orange blossom, sage, and wildflower honeys. It’s amazing to discover how different they are when experienced side-by-side. Sage and orange blossom, both light and extra sweet, are perfect for adding to hot or iced tea. Buckwheat is dark and strong, so it pairs well with pungent cheeses and imparts richness to barbecue sauce. Avocado was described to me as savory and has an almost buttery flavor, making it ideal for dressings and sauces. I bought a jar of wildflower honey for myself (because floral) and a jar of avocado for Kirsti, who likes to cook.
The best news we heard was that honeybee populations have been steadily rebounding over the past few years after the devastation caused by Colony Collapse Disorder. While CCD continues to be an issue, its causes are better understood today as beekeepers, scientists, and agribusiness work together to protect these vital contributors to the well-being and beauty of our ecosystem.
Small-scale beekeepers are usually passionate about the environment and the integrity of their honey, so remember that the “buzz” word is local. By supporting local beekeepers, you also support local agriculture and promote diversity, so get a bee in your bonnet to find a small-batch producer near you (or online), because when honeybees thrive, life is sweeter for everyone.
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