Beekeeping: The Gift of Honey

We know each other well… Well, it’s mostly you who know me, but as so many of you comment on my articles every week with your anecdotes, I know you a little too.

In short, you know that I love ecology, ecosystems and the well-oiled machine that is our environment. You also know that I like to flirt with subjects that are on the edge of what you’d expect to find on a gardening blog. But since everything in nature is interconnected, can we really say that something is totally out of context?

So after bananas, wild picking and toads, here’s beekeeping!

What’s the Connection?

Well, since you like to garden and enjoy fresh produce, since you’re often fascinated by nature and pollinators, and since some readers have even mentioned having or wanting beehives, I thought: why not?

But the reality is that just as I was getting interested in the subject, wondering whether clover honey or buckwheat honey were really different, I met a passionate and exciting couple, Evelyne and Olivier, who own nearly 20 hives. I was even able to witness the opening of a few of them, and it was a truly unique experience. They also have a small business, Miel Tonic, which enables them to sell the fruits of their hobby: honey, but also beeswax products!

Craft vs. Commercial

What is an artisanal beehive (or apiary)? That’s what we call the beekeeper’s collection of hives. It’s like a farmer’s field or orchard. We often associate the word “artisanal” with art, jewelry, soap… with something that’s been worked by hand and not made by assembly-line machines in a factory.

The same goes for honey!

Handcrafted or commercial honey

The work is done by hand, and each product will have its own color: that’s the famous artisanal touch. Why am I telling this story? Because when I met Evelyne and Olivier at a market, they had several jars of honey for sale at their kiosk and, to my great surprise, they weren’t all identical. I’m not just talking about the amber color, but also the turbidity of this one, which was much less translucent than the jars sold on a large scale.

The Main Difference From Commercial Honey

This is because commercial honey is heated to reduce its viscosity for machine processing. Think about your blender: if you’re making a smoothie with lots of liquid, it will force much less than if you’re trying to make energy balls with nuts and dates (Yes, I’ve blown up blender motors a few times!).

Commercial producers therefore heat the honey slightly, to between 44°C and 50°C, 111? and 122?. (This is not pasteurization, however, which is why it’s not recommended to give honey to children under one year of age. The Clostridium botulinum bacterium could be present in honey, and infants don’t have the immune system to fight it).

Slightly heating honey is not harmful; in fact, in the hive, honey is exposed to heat in excess of 30°C (86?). However, as soon as it exceeds 42-43°C (107-109?), pollen and wax particles rise to the surface. They “float” and are often removed by fine filtering. While this honey is still delicious (it’s still honey!), it’s the suspended particles that give the honey its extra flavor and personality. The industrial process is therefore less of a tribute to the product’s subtle, delicate fragrances.

Photo: Pixabay

What Makes Different Nectars Taste Different?

Are all blueberry honeys the same? No!

It’s impossible to have 100% honey made from the nectar of just one type of flower. Even if your hive is right in the middle of an apple orchard, there are bound to be dandelions, brambles and clover in the vicinity… So yes, a lavender honey will taste different from a lime honey, but have the little workers ignored the other flowers in the field? Of course not!

You know the famous and poetic appellation “wildflower honey”?

It means “honey from everything that grows here”!

Apiculture, élevage d'abeilles
Look at lawns: in this photo alone, you can see several varieties of flowers or plants that have bloomed or will bloom this summer.

Example of the composition of a honey crop

Evelyne sent me the results from the analysis of the composition of a harvest of honey.

There’s a lot of nectar from brambles (Rubus sp.) and clover, which flower from May onwards. There’s a small percentage of plants that bloom later in the summer, like sweet clover or sunflower, but also a small percentage of spring flowers, like maple. We can therefore assume that the time of harvest was early summer. The same hive, harvested at a different time, will yield a completely different honey!

(At this point in the article, I have a confession to make: I’m probably gobbling up three or four spoonfuls of honey as I write, so… yeah… you’re allowed to go rummaging in your pantry too!)

On Olivier’s advice, I bought a summer jar from a hive surrounded by lime trees. The taste is distinctive: it’s honey, of course, but there’s also a surprising freshness reminiscent of mint or conifer. It’s really amazing how you can taste the plant identity of a place through the honey produced there!

For Evelyne, it’s milkweed honey that takes the cake. Unfortunately, their hives in a milkweed field were washed away by the July deluge during our “wonderful” rainy summer of 2023. I’ll have to try again next year to taste this honey which, according to Evelyne, tastes of pink: cotton candy, unicorns…

Raw Honey vs. Churned Honey vs. Crystallized Honey

I’ve learned a lot writing this article (and I’m not even getting into all the topics we’ve talked about!), but this part is probably the one that surprised me the most: churned honey (the paler, opaque, creamy honey) isn’t whipped like cream. There’s no introduction of air, or anything else for that matter. It’s actually… crystallized honey.

“But Audrey! When honey crystallizes, it’s good to throw away!”


Honey Crystallization

Honey is ALWAYS good, even if it changes shape. In fact, this is a perfectly normal chemical process that in no way reduces the quality of your honey. I’ve even learned that in Europe, crystallized honeys and different crystal textures are in demand! In Quebec, we’d never dream of buying a jar of honey that’s already crystallized; it’s simply not part of our consumer habits. Some people even throw them away.

I know: as you read these lines, you’ll probably find yourself just as strange as everyone else, no matter which side of the ocean you’re on!

Back to my churned honey. It is mixed slowly and often to control the formation of crystals. Eventually, the crystals will be so fine that the result is a creamy honey, not too runny, not too granulated. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Another interesting fact is that the crystals form from impurities in the honey. Remember those little particles that give honey its personality? Well, they’re also responsible for crystallization. This means that artisanal honey, which contains more particles, is generally more inclined to crystallize than its commercial counterpart. The speed of crystallization also depends on the type of nectar used. Some honeys form crystals within 6 months, while others take 2 years to change shape.

How to Use Crystallized Honey

All this to say that if your honey crystallizes, please don’t throw it away! Here are a few tips on how to use your “old” honey (although some crystallize within 24 hours, especially in Europe, where that’s the goal):

1. Heat It Up.

This is THE trick: a few seconds in the microwave and poof! Liquid again. A bain-marie is preferable, since microwaves are too hot and can spoil the delicate flavours of your honey. If it’s a plastic bear bottle, I guess we don’t really care, but I’d still be sad to lose my little taste of linden because I overdid it in the microwave.

2. Use in Recipes.

Don’t like crystals? Fine, cook them. You can replace sugar in almost any recipe with honey. I’ve read to use only 3/4 of the amount since honey is sweeter, but experiment!

3. Drink It as an Herbal Tea.

That’s my thing! Crystallized honey becomes tea honey. Sore throats and minor coughs are no problem. When I laugh too much for too long (can you really laugh too much?), I spend an hour coughing. Laughter loosens mucus! A spoonful of honey or a honey drink later, I’m ready for the next laugh: thanks, honey! When I have a cold, I make myself a mint, juniper and citrus tea, with lots of honey. Dried plants aren’t your thing? So why not a cup of hot water with honey and a few drops of essential oils? Bonus: eucalyptus clears the nose in record time!

4. Learn How to Eat Crystallized Honey.

Vous êtes du type beurre de peanuts croquant? Pourquoi ne pas essayer le miel croquant? Réveillez votre côté européen! Points bonus si vous mettez le miel sur une baguette!

Photo: Nadin Sh

Want to Try?

As Evelyne so aptly put it: you don’t keep beehives to make honey. We raise bees out of passion, for the headache of colony growth and survival. We keep hives out of curiosity, to observe, and honey is the bonus that comes with this strange “pet” animal.

A bit like a garden, really, isn’t it?

A Few Tips Before Getting Started

However, I thought of you and asked for advice for someone who would like to have a beehive. And it was: take a course! Although the internet is full of resources, nothing beats a course to get you started. After all, bees are living animals that need to be looked after.

Abeille à miel

Another valuable piece of advice, this time for the environment: make sure you have a diverse, rich and healthy environment before installing your hives. Honey bees are not native to North America, and their presence in large numbers can put a lot of pressure on other nectarivorous insects in the area. If you’re in the city and the only flowers are on your balcony, perhaps you should enrich your environment before installing a hive, otherwise many of our native species could starve to death.

(I came this close to telling you to stop mowing your lawn, but I’ve talked enough about that this summer, so I won’t do it again… oops!) At Miel Tonic, they’re keen not to harm the native pollinators that share the ecosystem with their colonies. That’s why they have several small beekeepers located in different places, not 20 hives on the same plot of land. As you can see from the photos in the article, the hives I opened with them are two in number, located in a farm garden. The other colonies are scattered around the region in the same way, with total respect for the environment and local species.

What a Great Experience!

Beekeeping is a vast and complex world, just like gardening. In this article, I’ve talked more about honey than honeybees per se. There are already several articles on native bees on the blog, but if you’d like to know more about the honey bee (which is a species apart with a unique lifestyle), let me know in the comments and I can once again flirt with the boundaries of the gardening subject for you!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

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