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Honey honey, how you thrill us

It’s succulent and sweet, dripping golden from the spoon. Its viscosity causes it to move in slow motion and its natural colors sparkle in the sun. It both brightens the palate and strengthens the body.

There is nothing quite like honey, the result of natural processes and hard labor on the part of busy bees everywhere. Although a small part of the agricultural industry overall, honey plays a valuable role in nutrition, according to Andy Hemken, owner of Hemken Honey Co., which commercially produces honey from 530 hives near Big Bend and helped install and maintains the observation beehive at the Milwaukee County Zoo. 

“Honey is a natural sweetener that easily absorbs into the bloodstream,” says Hemken, also the former president of the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association. “Athletes can use honey before, during and after competitions because it’s a pure carbohydrate that doesn’t take time for the body to digest.”

In addition, honey is a natural sweetener and emulsifier, acting as an effective thickening agent for sauces and dressings. It is a natural cough suppressant and humectant, meaning that it attracts and maintains moisture, which makes it a go-to ingredient for many skin care products. 

Bees produce honey as they extract nectar from flowers, which they inject with enzymes to break it down into simple sugars that are stored in the cells of the honeycomb. The pollination of the flowers is actually a happy byproduct of their efforts, according to the National Honey Board, a trade organization based in Firestone, Colorado.

Once in the comb, rapid fanning by the bees’ wings causes much of the nectar’s liquid to evaporate, which leads to honey’s viscous texture. The honey is kept and stored as food for the bee colony, although beekeepers, known as apiarists, also harvest and sell it as an agricultural product. 

In the end, the small amounts of pollen that find their way into the honey are most often filtered out as the honey is heated and refined to remove impurities. Honey may eventually change color, and its aroma and flavor may fade, but as a food product it can last for decades.

Until recently, Wisconsin was among the top 10 honey producing states. The state fell to 15th place in 2014 after a brutal winter destroyed a significant number of hives along with native vegetation on which the bees depended, according to a National Agricultural Statistics Service report.

Wisconsin honey production fell 21.2 percent to $664 million compared to 2013, the report said. It was the largest decline since 1999, when production declined more than 30 percent, but was the first time Wisconsin dropped out of the top 10.

An estimated 55 percent of the state’s hives were wiped out between October 2013 and April 2014, according to a state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection study. A continued loss of forage area also has affected production by the state’s honey colonies, which now number roughly 53,000, a decline of 10 percent in 2014.

Unbridled use of pesticides also has taken its toll on bee populations, both in Wisconsin and the rest of the country, Hemken says.

“The bees are dying,” says Hemken, who notes that nationwide bees pollinate an estimated $19 billion worth of crops each year in the process of gathering nectar. “This is a serious problem.”

Hemken and other apiarists sell bee packages, each generally consisting of one queen and 6,000 worker bees, to other growers in an attempt to slow the bee population’s decline. Last year he sold more than 1,000 such packages, and he knows beekeepers who sell many more.

Wisconsin beekeepers also are working more diligently with owners of prairies, orchards and, in Hemken’s case, several pumpkin patches to maintain pollination relationships that aren’t threatened by pesticide usage that could be fatal to the bees. 

Focusing bee populations on specific varieties of blossoms also helps cultivate the varietal nature of honey, Hemken says.

There are about 300 varietal honey types in the United States, according to Hemken. “Southeast Wisconsin is a good spot for honeybees because there are so many flowers.”

Hemken’s favorite is honey produced from the blossoms of the tupelo tree, native to southern Georgia and the Florida Panhandle. The resulting honey is almost white or lightly amber, with a mild favor and pleasant aroma. Unlike some other honeys, tupelo honey doesn’t granulate.

“Buckwheat honey also is really good and has a strong, individualized taste,” Hemken adds. However, “it’s hard to find locally produced buckwheat honey.”

Other popular types include alfalfa honey, which is light both in color and flavor; avocado honey, with a dark color and rich, buttery taste; blueberry honey, imbued with a natural blueberry flavor; clover honey, which comes in a variety of flavors and colors based on the type of clover the bees visited; and orange blossom honey, which boasts the distinctive flavor and aroma of its namesake flower.

The most often seen type, wildflower honey, is really a catchall for honey made by bees that have foraged far and wide, grabbing whatever nectar they could find from whatever flowers they came across.

“My bees are rascals and they go everywhere,” Hemken says. “Wildflower honey is generally the result.”

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