Bees, Conservation & Otherworldy Honey

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In the well-kept hives tended by beekeeper Fred Merriam in Georgia, every bee has a job to do. Credit Stephen B. Morton for The New York Times

Kim Severson last caught my attention about a year ago. She covers food culture for the New York Times, and this is the fifth time we have found a story of hers a perfect fit for our platform’s themes. Food intersecting with conservation is always welcome, and honey specifically is on my mind these days. Honey bees? Always of interest. During our transition from India back to Costa Rica over the last two years we spent much of our time in Atlanta. The honey in this story was available in the farmer’s market we shopped at, and we occasionally indulged. I am gratified to learn more about it here:

On the Trail of Tupelo Honey, Liquid Gold From the Swamps

Hurricanes, blights and encroaching development have cut into the harvest in Florida and Georgia, but a small cadre of beekeepers still fiercely pursues this lucrative prize.

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Tupelo trees, which produce small, nectar-filled light green and white flowers for two weeks each spring, rise out of swamps in the Altamaha River Basin in southeastern Georgia. Credit Stephen B. Morton for The New York Times

ODUM, Ga. — The most expensive honey in America starts in these mucky Southern swamps, where white Ogeechee tupelo trees twist up out of water so dark you can’t tell if that was an alligator or a snake that just broke the surface.

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Tupelo honey fresh from the comb has a distinctive light green tint. Credit Stephen B. Morton for The New York Times

For two precious weeks each spring in this slice of southeastern Georgia and in the Florida Panhandle, tupelo trees bloom with pale, fragile flowers that look like pompoms for tiny cheerleaders. Beekeepers tuck their hives along the banks, or occasionally float them out into the water on rafts. Then the bees get to work, making honey that looks and tastes like no other.

Good tupelo will glow with a light green tint, especially when it’s fresh from the comb and bathed in sunlight. The first taste is of cinnamon with a tingle of anise. That gives way to a whisper of jasmine and something citrusy — tangerine rind, maybe? The honey is so soft, light and buttery that the only logical move is to chase it with another spoonful.

“I love it, but it’s not something I can afford to use regularly,” said Kelly Fields, whom the James Beard Foundation recently named the year’s Outstanding Pastry Chef for work at her New Orleans restaurant, Willa Jean. “The real stuff is so sacred down here that if I ever got my hands on some, I’d probably keep it at home.”

Beekeepers who chase the tupelo bloom are a fiercely competitive and vanishing breed. All told, there are probably fewer than 200 beekeepers producing the honey in any notable quantities in Florida and Georgia, wholesale buyers and agricultural officials estimate. That doesn’t include hundreds of other beekeepers who might secrete a few hives along the riverbanks.

The honey-gathering season just ended, and it was a bad one, at least in Florida. In October, Hurricane Michael, the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the contiguous United States in 26 years, made landfall in the heart of tupelo country. Wooden bee boxes were smashed into kindling or blown away. Trees were bent and stripped of their leaves. Blooms started five months early, if they came at all…

Read the whole story here.

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