Blackberry honey, mesquite honey, peach honey, buckwheat honey,
alfalfa honey, cotton honey (the last is amazing, to me, but true)… The list of honeys that bear the name of a particular flower or plant go on and on. According to the National Honey Board, we produce over 300 varietals honeys in the U.S. When the honeys produced worldwide are taken into account, the list is astronomical.
Varietal honeys (also called monofloral honeys) are honeys produced from one primary nectar source: one specific type of flower. Usually the particular flower species represents at least 85% of the nectar source. But the bees aren’t keeping a record, so how does the beekeeper know?
Bees, like most people, will opt for the easy way when it comes to work. Put hives in the middle of a blooming alfalfa field and the bees will go to the flowers in front of them. Put the hives in an area where one particular wildflower is in bloom, like fireweed or yellow star thistle, the bees will head, primarily, for those plants.
They can make extra stops however. Which is why there will nearly always be a trace of other nectar sources in a varietals honey. Even with the small amount of alternative floral source(s), every varietals honey retains its distinct color and flavor.
Why Do Varietals Honeys Come In Different Colors?
The color of all honeys, varietals or wildflower, reflect the color of the nectar from which they were made. Fireweed honey is almost white. Buckwheat (before crystallization) is nearly black. There’s a whole range of colors in between. A partial list of varietals honeys, their tastes, and colors can be found at The Nibble’s site http://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/honey/types4.asp
I searched around the internet and could not find public domain images – and I’m at the library so I can’t photograph ours, but some very nice images comparing a few varietals in jars and on bread can be found at this very eclectic site: http://www.waynesthisandthat.com/honey.htm
Does Varietals Honey Taste Like The Fruit or Plant Source?
Most of the time, varietals honey will NOT taste like the plant that produced the nectar. Blackberry honey does not taste of blackberries. Rosemary honey does not taste of rosemary. If you taste a “varietals” honey and it tastes of the plant or fruit, you are probably eating an infused (flavored) honey. Infused honeys are good (especially the ones I make at Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey in Maple Fall, WA – shameless plug alert), but they are not varietals honey.
There are a few varietals honeys that do taste somewhat like the plant. Buckwheat honey is said to taste like buckwheat. I don’t taste that, but other people do. Honey from Big Leaf Maple and Vine Maples do have a maple-like taste, but it is much lighter than maple syrup.
How is a buyer to know if it’s varietals or infused?
The best bet is to buy your honey at a farmer’s market where you can talk to the beekeeper(s). On-line you can go to the National Honey Board’s honey locator page: http://www.honeylocator.com/locator/varietals
In either case, you are still going to base your decision on trust, and a bit of research at the above sites and http://www.honey.com/nhb/about-honey/honey-varietals (the National Honey Board again).
I have seen “fireweed” honey labels on bottles that were darker than blackberry, and “sage honey” labels on sage infused honey. In both cases the labels were false.
Sometimes misidentification is done by accident: hives are set into fireweed, but the bees find another nearby source that, to them, is easier to get to and more attractive, and the beekeeper does not have enough experience to detect the difference. Sometimes mislabeling is done on purpose. I think this is sad, but it happens. Talk to the beekeeper(s), ask about their hives: Where are they? How are they moved in and out of the floral source? What is done to the honey after extraction (beyond “are flavors added”, this will help you to know if the honey has been heated or filtered, which is a whole different discussion).
Beekeepers work hard to harvest varietals honeys. Hives must be moved into an area just as the flowers bloom, and be removed again as soon as the bloom ends. If the hives are left after the flowers fade, the bees will search out other nectar sources, and the varietals honey suddenly becomes wildflower honey.
Wildflower Honey – regional honeys with variety (confusing, eh?)
Wildflower honeys can be just as exciting as varietals. They are a mixture of all the nectar-producing plants within flying distance from their hives. No two wildflower honeys from different areas taste the same. Flowers visited by bees in one region will vary from location to location and from year to year. The weather as well as other natural and man-made changes can make a marked difference in what flowers will bloom, and if the bees can get to the blooms. Rain can keep bees inside. Drought can dry up the nectar. A fire may clear an area, but bring fireweed in following years. Developments can replace wildflowers and agricultural crops. Climatic differences create habitat for different wildflowers.
In our area, the foothills of Mt. Baker in Washington, the bees will visit maples, snowberries, fireweed, goldenrod, and other native flowers. The bees of the Kraus Honey Company, in Fruitland Washington (northeast), have a vastly different selection of wildflowers: from vetch to black locust. Both delicious honeys are “wildflower”, but the tastes are completely different.
So, happy honey tasting (and buying). Try different wildflower honeys as well as different varietals honeys – there is a honey for nearly every taste and one that will enhance nearly every dish. But then I’d say that wouldn’t I? I do like bees and honey.
That’s about all the news from Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey in Maple Falls, Washington.
Do you have favorite varietals honeys? Do share which they are, and where they can be found. It is always fun to try new honeys.