It’s one thing to see honey on supermarket shelves or in favorite snacks and confections, but to taste it fresh from the hive is quite another.
I did just that during last month’s Honey Editors Summit, hosted in Chicago by the National Honey Board. The group, which supports honey education and research, took a half-dozen editors of food and beverage publications to sites around the city to illustrate how honey is used in bread, beer, snacks, dairy products, and of course, candy.
None of that would’ve mattered, though, if we didn’t have some context. We had to see the bees in action, so we did.
The Honey Board took us to Patchwork Farms in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, where friends Katie Williams and Molly Medhurst grow tomatoes, squash, salad greens, herbs and variety of other vegetables on a lot off of West Chicago Avenue. The farm is also home to two hives maintained by the Chicago Honey Co-op. Its director, Michael Thompson, met us there and happily showed us the bees at work.
Suited up in protective pullovers and gloves, we watched Thompson unstack boxes of removable wooden frames. They were covered with bees focused only on building honeycomb ⎼ they didn’t even notice when we passed the frames between one another.
On one of the frames, Thompson gently nudged a flat tool underneath a beeswax cap to reveal translucent honey. Made with nectar from white sweet clover and basswood, the sweet, floral honey was the best I’ve ever had. Knowing I saw the bees that produced it made the experience even better.
Given its sweetness, variety and natural origin, it’s no surprise chefs, bakers, brewers, retailers and manufacturers turn to honey to round out flavor profiles and product formulations. More than 575 million pounds made up the U.S. honey market last year, and 172 million, or about 30 percent, went to food processors, according to data provided by the National Honey Board.
Snacks, nutrition bars and granola accounted for 10.2 million pounds, while the candy sector used about 200,000 pounds, whether it was for chocolate, fillings or hard candies.
However, 2.66 million active bee colonies in the United States produced just 157 million pounds of honey in 2015, meaning this honey-loving country must import roughly two-thirds of its supply from places such as Vietnam, Argentina, India, Brazil and Ukraine.
It’s likely demand for honey will continue to increase, especially with greater concern for “clean” ingredients and less interest in processed sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup. And honey, with its higher price point, can make products more “premium.”
But it’s not all milk and honey. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), or the sudden disappearance of worker bees from a hive, remains a concern, although the number of hives lost from CCD has dropped in recent years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.
Nonetheless, some food manufacturers that tout their use of honey are contributing part of their products’ proceeds to honey bee research. After seeing them myself, I understand why.