Two Million Blossoms in a Jar: In Search of the Perfect Honey

by Kirsten Traynor (Fellow 2018/2019)

I eat my peas with honey
I’ve done it all my life
It makes the peas taste funny
But it keeps them on the knife!

Ogden Nash

“Honey, fresh from the hive,” Rick said, handing me a hunk. I pulled up my veil and popped it into my mouth. The comb was still warm and the flavor exploded across my papillae. It tasted sharp, stealing my breath, a cacophony of flowers vying for attention, filling my nostrils. As my teeth sunk into the soft wax, silken honey spilling across my tongue, the flavor mellowed into a gentle river of vanilla tinged with lemon, but more floral, as if a bouquet bloomed inside me.

It had only been a few months since Rick had moved the hives to the farm where I was living after finishing my BA, and this was my very first taste of honey still warm from the hive. It did not take much more than that to awaken in me an almost addictive fascination with honey – and to transform a young literary scholar into a biologist.

While Western cultures shy away from eating insects, they have a soft spot for honey. Germans are overachievers in this realm, consuming 1.1 kg per person annually or just over two jars per year. They put Americans to shame, who in the 1990s consumed a measly 225 g per person, though that almost doubled to 410 g by 2016. Judging by the collection of eight jars on my countertop at the Wissenschaftskolleg, plus the three empties I have already recycled, I am a bizarre outlier. The little sugar tin that came with my apartment sees use only when company visits. I have not yet stooped to eating my peas with honey, as Nash suggests, but honey sweetens my tea, coffee, and yogurt. I apply earthy, darker honeys for glazing meats and whip the light, floral honeys into salad dressing. During flu season, I mince ginger and store it in acacia honey—a Berlin specialty—dissolving a spoonful into a cup of hot water whenever my throat starts to tickle.

Bees sup on over two million blossoms to make a single pound of honey. They zip through the air, picking up an electrostatic charge. When they land on a blossom to collect dilute nectar, pollen grains stick to their hairy bodies. On a single foraging trip, they will visit up to 50 flowers of the same species. If they visited an apple blossom, they will stick with apple blossoms, never straying toward a wanton dandelion—a trait scientists have dubbed floral fidelity. Nectar has up to 80% moisture, while honey must be below 17.8% moisture or it will ferment.

During transport and processing, the bees add special enzymes that break the complex sugars of nectar down into the two simple sugars, fructose and glucose. Honey is a supersaturated sugar solution. In the warmth of the hive, the bees are able to create a shelf-stable product that holds more calories than a solution should normally be allowed to contain—an energy-dense larder that lets the bees survive the winter dearth in cold climates. According to a 1497 record, a group of fur traders took the bees as a Vorbild (role model), transporting 2.5 tons of honey as a concentrated energy source on an expedition to Siberia.

Nature’s first sweetener comes in a wide variety of hues and flavors, from water white to molasses black. The two specialties of Berlin are acacia honey, also known as black locust, collected from Robinia pseudoacacia, and linden honey, often sold as basswood in the States and lime in the UK, which the bees make from several Tilia species. Just like olive oil and wine, honey is influenced by the terroir, the soil and surrounding landscape that subtly change the nectar’s properties. Wildflower is the generic term slapped on jars when beekeepers don’t know what their bees have been foraging on or there is a plethora blooming simultaneously.

Last summer I harvested a beautiful, red-tinged, late spring honey that had undertones of smoky and velvety tulip poplar mixed with the light floral vanilla of acacia. Low in moisture, the thick honey unfolded gently on the tongue, releasing a complex and exotic bouquet. Everyone has their own preferred palette, but if all you have ever tasted is the generic clover honey dished up on supermarket shelves, you are missing out on a diverse world of flavors.

Avocado honey is buttery and rich, melting on the tongue. Heather honey is almost metallic and astringent, an acquired taste. True lavender honey, made high up in the scraggly mountains of Provence and not from the lower lands where they predominantly grow lavandin, explodes in the mouth, releasing aromatic esters that invigorate. The longer I’ve been tasting honey, the more I appreciate the darker honeys, especially Waldhonig, made not from nectar but honeydew, a sticky sweet sap aphids excrete in fir forests.

If kept in a sealed container, honey typically does not spoil. Sealed jars of honey found in King Tut’s tomb were still edible. Yet, my training in biology and my research in the field have opened my eyes to the dangers that apiculture is facing. Pollution, shrinking of habitat, industrial beekeeping, but most of all: the fatal effects of the global spreading of the verroa mite. There is so much at stake, as thousands of plants – among them many of our most common groceries – depend on pollination. And who would even want to imagine a world without honey!

In Jonathan Swift’s The Battle of the Books, Aesop notes that the bees fill their "hives with honey and wax, thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light”. Spooning into a jar of honey on the short days of winter, I remember last year’s flowers and know that spring will return soon. When the days warm up, my bees will fly out again. As I taste honey, I am transported to an apiary, abuzz with bee traffic. I stand next to a hive and watch the nectar-laden ladies struggling home, weighed down from smelling too many flowers.