By: Diana Friedman
(SPOILER ALERT: DON’T KILL THOSE DANDELIONS!)
Beekeeping has always been popular in Maryland, but each year more homeowners, concerned about rapidly declining bee populations, have started to tend bees. According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, more than 800 new beekeepers have registered in the state since 2009, bringing the total number of beekeepers in Maryland to over 2,100. First and foremost, these honeybees work to pollinate more than $40 million worth of Maryland crops. But local honey production is thriving across the state as well; the Maryland State Beekeepers Association lists more than 100 Maryland keepers who sell their honey.
One of these beekeepers, Doris Walsh, is also a mentor, teacher, outreach coordinator, and the de facto spokesperson for the Howard County Beekeepers Association (HCBA). She recently sat down with Maryland Sip and Savor to chat about local honey, including its curative properties, its wide range of flavors, and the friendly but fierce competition among local honey producers.
APIARIST DORIS WALSH ANSWERS THE QUESTIONS
Q So, honey. What’s the big deal?
People say, ‘oh, it has so many calories,’ but honey is so much more than a sweet treat. It’s packed full of good things for you. It can deter bacterial growth, stimulate new tissue growth, and prevent scarring— that’s why it’s used in burn healing. In the spring we get a lot of people asking for local honey because of allergies and hay fever. The local pollen and nectar in the honey help desensitize you, like shots. So, it’s not just sugar!
Q What’s the best local honey you’ve ever tasted?
At our club’s honey tasting event, I zeroed in on this one honey that was full of so many different flavors. The beekeeper lived next to a fruit orchard where the bees were foraging. They were getting all different types of nectar from apples and peaches and probably cherries. The flavor of those mixed fruits is still embedded in my brain.
Q What’s the most delectable honey you’ve produced?
One year my honey tasted really lemony and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I remembered that when my American Holly tree blooms, the bees are all over it. The nectar from holly trees is very, very lemony. That was a couple of years ago. We haven’t had that lemony honey since.
Q You mean you can’t replicate the taste of your honey from year to year?
Local honey is a product of whatever nectar the bees bring in. We have a short season in Maryland because of the climate—only about two months when the nectar flows. So, it depends on the weather, what the bees are gorging on. A great nectar source is black locust. If it is a good weather week when the black locust blooms, the honey will be great. But if it rains the whole week, then the bees can’t collect nectar from that source. So yes, the flavor changes from year to year.
Q Why does store-bought honey always taste the same?
The general public wants honey to taste a certain way, so manufactures blend it to taste the same. Commercial honey is also pasteurized and processed, so it loses many of its properties. About 10 years ago, I went to a honey packer company in Pennsylvania where they had 50 gallon drums from all over the world that they blend. It’s a whole different process than getting honey from a local beekeeper.
Q What about exotic honeys such as orange blossom, mimosa, and eucalyptus you see in places like Trader Joe’s? Not local enough?
Varietal honey is wonderful. I like to sample all sorts of honey. But varietal honeys can only be achieved when there are acres and acres of a certain crop—like blueberries or orange groves. And where the beekeepers can harvest the honey in a small window of time. In Maryland, we don’t have that option. So, our local honey is always a mix of lots of things.
Q What’s the most innovative product you’ve seen made with honey?
My neighbor painted the inside of this little honeycomb mold with dark chocolate and tried to fill it with honey, but it was too liquid. So, he made creamed honey, an incredibly complicated process itself, and then filled the mold with that. This chocolate was unbelievable. When I bit into it, it sort of exploded in my mouth. It was like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. I insisted he enter it in the fair and he won multiple ribbons, including grand champion in both the Honey Exhibit and Home Arts.
Q I understand you’ve produced some award-winning honey yourself.
The competition is fierce in Howard County. To win a blue ribbon you have to have the highest score in multiple areas. Two years ago, I had my best honey ever. I worked really hard. And I still came in fourth! You’re not only judged on taste, but overall marketability. The judges ask: “Is the honey free from crystals? Are the jars filled uniformly? Is your water content below 20 percent? Did you clear all the foam off the top?” The scores get added up, and you could be half a point off a perfect score and still not win!
Q But you won a blue ribbon at one point, right? When was that?
Uh, can I just say several years ago?
Q Sure. But as you said, the competition has gotten fiercer, right?
Yes! And I do ask myself who I am competing against. When I appeal to other beekeepers I’m like, ‘hey, let’s go, let’s compete!’ And truly, it’s been really fun because we’ve gotten more and more people involved. For example, I was beat out two years ago in the honey competition by Wayne Esaias, a master beekeeper, and Phil Serafinas, a long-time beekeeper, who also makes mead. So, if I came in a few points behind these people, I’m good, right?
Q Mead! We forgot to talk about that.
Yes, Phil Serafinas also makes great mead. He brought me some to put in a basket raffle for my businesswoman’s network to raise funds for our scholarship. It was so smooth!
Q Any final words on the benefits of local honey?
Yes. everybody always wants to kill dandelions in the spring, but they are one of the earliest nectar sources for the bees. So, I always preach about how important dandelions are. From there, people learn what’s needed for healthy honey and healthy food sources for bees. For the bees to make honey, you have to have things blooming, and the flowers and trees can’t be adulterated by pesticides or fungicides. My hope is that as more people taste local honey derived from local nectar sources, they will realize that the bees that made that honey came from their neighborhood, collecting nectar from trees and plants on their property. So, they can make a positive contribution as stewards of the local honeybee population.
Local honey is not just something you go to the store to buy, but a much better, more robust flavored product. It’s like buying plain old bread versus artisan bread. Local honey is wonderful because you get to know your local beekeeper and appreciate the art of what it takes to make honey.