Food & Drink

Raw honey: one of nature’s pure foods

I’ve always been interested in how our foods are grown or produced, but quite frankly, had never given honey much thought. But that was prior to my recent visit to the Ozarks. There I was privileged to learn about bees and honey production from John Moore, past president of Drury University, who began beekeeping three years ago.

Upon his retirement from the university, Moore moved a few miles out of the city to his scenic farm on the James River to pursue his newfound hobby of beekeeping and other agricultural interests. Although he had left academia for agriculture, he approached it in the same vein – research, learning and networking.

He possessed a wealth of knowledge about honey – one of nature’s pure foods. As I was chatting with this energetic beekeeper, I soon was bubbling over with questions.

Q: How much honey does a beehive actually make? And when you harvest it, how do you know how much to take from the hives? How does that work?

A: Bees work hard during the springtime collecting nectar and packing honey away in the colony to sustain them during the winter. By the end of the season, it is important that they have at least two brood boxes of honey, each weighing about eighty pounds, for the survival of the colony.

In a very productive year, the bees will find lots of nectar. Beekeepers will place additional boxes in the hives; those are called honey supers – it refers to being superimposed in the hives. At the end of the season, usually midsummer, beekeepers harvest the supers, leaving the brood boxes as winter food for the bees.

Q: How is honey extracted from the comb?

A: The super is removed from the hive and a special knife is used to cut off tops of the comb – that is called capping. Bits of wax and debris are filtered out by an extractor that uses centrifugal force to throw the honey out. It runs into a pail and that is pure, raw honey. It then is bottled and labeled.

Q: So what we have here is pure raw honey? What is the difference in pure raw honey and that found in the supermarkets?

A: Pure raw honey means it has not been heated or adulterated in any way. It has no preservatives or added ingredients. Because of the natural enzymes and nutritives, honey has many health benefits. Once it is heated, those health benefits are diminished.

Wholesale companies often import honey, then package it for mass distribution. There have been concerns that some imported honey has been mixed with corn syrup. Or it may have been contaminated with sprays or illegal antibiotics.

Q: Over time, I have had honey crystallize. What is the best way to dissolve the crystals?

A: Honey is relatively shelf-stable, but it should be stored in an air-tight jar. If your honey has crystallized, it is best to gently heat it in a pan of simmering water to melt the crystals. Do not boil it or that will destroy the enzymes.

Q: How do you explain the different colors and flavors of honey?

A: All honey is sweet, but different flavors are the result of what the bees have foraged on and where they collected the nectar and pollen. My hives at the Missouri University Experiment Station at Mountain Grove produce clover honey. The honey from my farm is multifloral honey as the nectar was gathered from different flowers and trees. Orange blossom honey is predominate in Florida. Buckwheat honey is very dark and has a stronger flavor. Color of honey may vary from extremely light to dark amber; the flavors may be very mild to robust – depending upon the forage of the bees.

Q: Where does one find pure raw honey that is produced locally?

A: Good sources would be farmers’ markets, or you can search online for local beekeepers.

Moore gave me with a package of pure raw comb honey – what a delicious treat. Although I cannot share that with you, I will share a recipe for honey butter. It takes only a few ingredients, is wonderful on hot breads, pancakes or waffles. For something really special, put a dollop in a hot roasted sweet potato.