The Local Food Report: the nectar progression

The other day, I walked into a conversation at the farmers' market that stopped me in my tracks. Gretel was standing behind her table, selling those skinny yellow carrots and sugar snap peas that she does so well, and Barbara Dean was next door, selling her Little Caesar's and Rediculous and chatting about the heat. Someone asked Barbara about her honey, and why it was so light in color, and suddenly, Gretel was on red ribbons and Barbara was talking about loosestrife and neither one could stop praising spring nectar. I knew a lot more about local honey when I left.

As it turns out, Barbara's honey was so light because it was spring honey. Bees around here go for the light colored flowers in the spring—the roses and the locusts and all those other first blooms—and the nectar they bring back to the hive is light colored, too. Most years, because of the wet and the cold we seem to bring in May and June, people around here don't get much of a spring harvest. But this year, in Barbara's hives at least, there was a boon.

She took two supers—a super is the wooden box beekeepers put on the hive to collect excess honey, and then grab when it's full—for a total of 45 pounds. She poured the honey, so clear it looks almost like lemon water, or maybe a weak ginger tea, into jars, and shoppers have been wondering after it ever since.

Gretel didn't have any at her stand, but apparently, years ago, she took second place for her spring honey at the Barnstable County Fair. She says she thinks she might have gotten first, a blue ribbon, if she'd properly filled the jars, but she didn't and they docked her and so she took home the red instead.

All of this is to say, of course, Did you ever realize honeys could be so different?

I did not. I had no idea that in the fall, honey gets dark and spicy and even a little cedary toward the end. I had no idea that commercial honey was mixed—from different hives and states and seasons into a monotone, amber blend. I'd never heard of buckwheat honey—dark black, with a taste almost like molasses—or thyme honey from Greece, or locust honey, the kind Barbara harvested this spring. I did not know that there are controversial blossoms for honey production—things like loosestrife, which some people love for honey and others can't stand—or that at certain times of summer, there's almost no nectar for the bees at all.

I talked with several beekeepers besides Gretel and Barbara, and from what I can gather, the nectar progression on the Cape goes like this: In May and June it's black locust and oak and roses and autumn olive, then cranberry blossoms if there's a bog around. Mid summer it's wildflowers and garden blooms like thyme and loosestrife, then in the fall, aster and goldenrod. The locust and roses and cranberry blossoms all give the honey a light, floral flavor, while the aster and goldenrod turn it spicy and dark.

When I got home, I searched through my cupboards to see what sort of honey we had kicking around. I'd gotten a spring bottle from Barbara, we had one mid-season blend from E & T Farms, and there was an old jar that we got from Mel Hammond down the street in Wellfleet last fall. We did a taste test, and the beekeepers were right: there was a huge difference. I couldn't pick a favorite, but I see now how different seasons of honey could be better for different uses and recipes.

Where ever you get your honey—there's a list of local producers over here—I highly recommend you stock up and get it into the kitchen as soon as you can. Because the peaches are ripe and honey—for a batch of summer peaches spiced and chilled in white wine—is all you need to make dessert, and dig in.


Cool, marinated peaches are one of my favorite things on a very hot day. They make an equally excellent dessert plain or over vanilla ice cream—we had them with vanilla ice cream that we made with a batch of Mel Hammond's fall honey left over from last year, and the more spicy fall honey flavor of the ice cream perfectly complemented the lighter, more floral flavor Barbara's spring honey lent the fruit. For the wine, I used a half bottle of Botani—a light, fruity moscatel.

1/2 bottle (about 2 cups) dry, fruity white wine
2 tablespoons honey
a pinch of nutmeg
a pinch of cinnamon
4 very ripe peaches

Heat up the wine, honey, nutmeg, and cinnamon in a saucepan over low heat, stirring until the honey dissolves. Turn off the heat and set aside.

Slice the peaches very thin, and add the slices to the hot wine. Cool to room temperature, then chill for several hours. When you're ready to eat the peaches, serve them either on their own, with a little bit of the wine, or strain them out and use them as a topping for vanilla ice cream.


josi said...

great post.. yummm!

andrea said...

I never knew the exact blooms that dominate the spring, mid-summer, and autumn honey harvests in our area - thanks for the info. The honeybees are all over our thyme right now (which we give up and let bloom). I do so love honey and some of the single species varietals are to die for (e.g., chestnut = swoon)!

Stop by my kitchen sometime if you'd like to do a tasting.

rosarugosa said...

Not being a big fan of the taste of honey, the article was nevertheless interesting and informative. Stop and Shop has had some great organic peaches for $2.99lb., so I may give the recipe a try.
Just to respond to the "to die for" comment. Sounds innocent enough...but to give a postive approach... I started saying "to live for". Nasmaste

Elspeth said...

thank you, josiah!

andrea, i might just have to take you up on that. chestnut honey sounds divine.

rosarugosa, truth be told, i was never much of a honey person, either, before this year. then i embarked on an experimental attempt to FORCE myself to like honey (seeing it as a much better alternative to sugar both health and eating-local wise) and i am pleased to report that after several months of wishing it weren't in my tea, i then got used to it, and the other day, when i went to put a packet of brown sugar in a tea out at a cafe, i actually wished it were honey! just goes to show what a little repeat exposure can do. not sure i'm a full-on honey addict yet, but at least i am getting closer.

hope you enjoy the peaches‚


josi said...

as a full blown honey addict, I can say that this recipe is to die for... or to live for... or whatever... it gets me thru the night.

I've been drinking it compulsively for since the spring honey came in a few weeks ago.


plenty of fresh honey

a bunch muddled lemon thyme (especially the blossoms)

and water to taste

finish it in the sun for an hour or so... then over ice.

variations: mint, lavender, or thai basil... yummm

Elspeth said...


i love this idea. i particularly like the idea of a mint-lemon thyme-honey iced tea combo. trying it today!


Anonymous said...

Love your blog - One of the best honey in the world is acacia honey from Hungary.

Elspeth said...


acacia honey sounds delicious—i will have to take a trip to hungary one of these days!

all the best,

Beth said...

That thyme honey from Greece is very good. Friends and family bring us honey from all over the place, knowing that, as beekeepers, we are definitely interested. My sister brought back some honey from Italy that was almost as mildly herbal as the thyme honey but more woody. I still have a few little jars. My favorite? Barbados honey - mahogany dark and almost like lager. I can't remember what nectar the bees were foraging on, but I think it was a tree.
One thing about super-light spring honey. Most beekeepers feed their colonies sugar syrup in the spring, to help them survive the period when their winter stores are depleted and the nectar hasn't yet started flowing. (Medication is also given at this time in many cases.) While the refined white sugar honey is pleasing to the sweet tooth, it lacks complexity. The locust nectar flow follows right on the tail of syrup feeding, so differentiating between natural and unnatural light honey can be difficult. I tend to avoid extraction until fall when I can see what the bees have put up for winter and make a decision about how much I'm willing to rob. We have had years when we don't take anything, but we also have hives that tend to survive the winter. My beekeeping guru once told me that it would be cheaper to rob all the honey, charge a fine price and buy new bees each season, and he was right, but he, and I, couldn't live with that.

Elspeth said...


i'm so glad you found us here. your insights are invaluable—i had never heard of barbados honey, or feeding bees sugar water, or robbing the hive completely. it sounds like you do the right thing—i wouldn't be able to go through with it, either.

i'm glad to know we have beekeepers like you, and thank you for sharing your knowledge.

all the best,

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