Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 18, 2014

Honey, Honey: Thrilled by depth, nuance of sticky sweet


---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Bobbling, yellow and black sequined antennae provoke Susan Summers' favorite question — "What's the buzz?"

The unwieldy headgear causes a few bumbles, solved quickly by the outfit's other essential — a pair of handling gloves. Style meets sticky-prevention on honey tasting day. The presentation blooms near bulk foods at Oryana Natural Foods Market. Customers circle and hover, waiting to alight on honey's gooey goodness.

The tasting is winery-worthy. Tubs and jars line up neatly in order, from raw to refined. Nibbles like goat cheese and crackers beckon. Summers, a member of Oryana's marketing and educational outreach team, knows everything about the local beekeepers and the fruits of their — and the honeybees' — industrious labor.

"Know Your Honey" is a drippy demonstration that Summers calls a "delightful disaster."

Tasters swarm the table, lured by sweet intrigue. It's most everyone's first time. Wine and olive oil, sure. But honey tasting?

Honey falls victim to a grave misconception — that honey is "just honey," said Sandi McArthur, Oryana's education and outreach coordinator. It's not all the same, she says emphatically, plastic bear or otherwise.

"Honey has many nuances and flavors," McArthur said.

Honey has several sticky points, like how the honey is extracted and prepared, what it looks like and how it's spread. Each is a matter of personal preference, and there are honeys to suit every taste. Summers urges tasters to examine each honey for color, clarity, consistency and finish.

Comb honey is first in the lineup. Nature's packaging makes it a front-runner in the "raw" race.

"This represents a lot of hard work," Summers says, explaining that two years of bee sweat goes into each bite — one to make the honeycomb and another year to fill it with honey. Honey and the beeswax are both pollen products — bees gather pollen and regurgitate it as honey, their primary food source. Beeswax, the stuff of the octagonal food storage capsules, is secreted through the glands of the female worker bees.

The kid tasters make a face. Chewing the honeycomb was "like gum" at first but now they're scanning for a waste-paper basket. Next up — raw honey. Raw honey is out of the comb, but uncooked and unheated. Health purists like raw honey because it retains pollen, enzymes, propolis, vitamins, amino acids, antioxidants and minerals lost to heat processing. Bee-lievers credit honey, particularly raw honey, with tamping down allergies, preventing cancer, reducing systemic inflammation and improving gastrointestinal function.

All honey contains antibacterial properties through hydrogen peroxide. Some honey, by virtue of the locality-specific plants, offers other antibacterial components, like New Zealand's manuka honey.

Oryana shoppers tend to support local connections to the honey for philosophical and allergen-reducing reasons, Summers said.

"For people who want the health benefits, raw, local honey offers the most bang for the buck," Summers said.

Flavors also vary, depending on the pollen and nectar used to make the honey. Janet Chown tried some deep brown buckwheat honey — she'd heard the molasses-like honey was "healthier," she said.

"I had no idea it would be so good. It's way different," Chown said. "You could use this instead of maple syrup on pancakes."

John Studzinski picks the buckwheat as his favorite, too, a surprise to Summers because buckwheat isn't as sweet. Studzinski, 7, has a very "sophisticated palate," she said.

Star thistle honey is another local favorite, Summers said.

Flow is another important factor. Honey's squeezable golden coils often require an amount of heating, as the substance eventually crystallizes from into a whitish solid.

Others prefer creamed honey, a dripless spread created by adding granulated honey crystals to the honey and "whipping it up," Summers said.

Organa's attraction to honey is largely on behalf of the bee, McArthur said. Bee-related events are planned throughout June to illustrate the plight of bees and their important role in pollinating plants.

Insecticides, pesticides, mites and habitat loss are problems bees face worldwide, McArthur said. Buying organic food is one of the best ways to support bees, as it spurs the reduction of pesticides, herbicides and genetically engineered seeds, she said.

"This would make a huge impact on bee health as well as on our own health and the health of our planet for future generations," McArthur said. The market supports a number of beekeeping operations, including Sleeping Bear Farms, Champion Hill Farm, Food for Thought and Shadowland.

Planting bee-friendly gardens and curtailing pesticide use at home also helps, McArthur said.

Supporting local beekeepers is a sweet enterprise, said Joan Studzinski who brought her grandson to the tasting.

"I always have honey in the house — for tea," she said.