Why Honey?

The phrase, “the blossom has two fruits” started floating around my head in 2012. I was deep in product development for what would become V Smiley Preserves in 2013 and I was constantly thinking about how to explain the conceptual connection between fruit growing, honeybee rearing and honey collection. Nothing made this clearer than standing in the Tonnemaker Family Orchard in Royal City, Washington as the Aprium (apricot plum hybrid) trees stood in full bloom and the only sound in the orchard was honeybees, millions of them, working the fruit blossoms. Just a few months later, I picked up boxes of those apriums from Tonnemaker’s stand in Seattle and combined them with strawberries and blackberry honey from the previous blackberry season. In Washington, where so many berries are grown in the Skagit Valley just north of Seattle, blackberry honey became the primary honey I worked with in the preserves. The flavor of that honey was fruity, sweet, almost sugary and tasted a long way away from the classic honey flavor that comes from honeybees interacting primarily with clover blossoms. I didn’t want that clover flavor because at the time I was still in the process of shaking free from this idea that honey is “too strong a flavor for preserves”. That’s an idea you read over and over in most preserving books and while I was 90% ready to defy the jam book authors and teachers, I still felt a responsibility to find a honey that was as local and neutral tasting as I could so that the fruit remained the star of the preserve.

My expectations for honey had to change when I moved the preserves business to Vermont. Here, there is almost no single-varietal or single-source honey (ie, no alfalfa honey or japanese knotweed honey). Instead, it’s “wildflower honey”. There is 1, occasionally 2 extractions a year and the honey that is extracted varies wildly year to year in both quantity and taste, all depending on environmental factors. Last year was dry and the forage for bees was comparatively little as flowers came and went fast so it was alfalfa (deep rooted and able to withstand dry conditions) along with japanese knotweed (planted along river banks here) that comprised the bulk of the forage for honeybees.

I buy my honey from Kirk Webster. I’ll tell you more about his beekeeping practices below and what makes his honey so exceptional to work with for preserves. When Kirk says, “there is a crop [of honey] out there" it means the year has not been bad. He said the phrase this year and he said it last year. The crop this year is at least 30% bigger than last year. In this beekeeping business, you take nothing for granted.

I make jam with honey because I love its taste. Honey is under-represented in preserves. In cookbooks, we read that honey disrupts jam’s clarity of flavor or that honey is a flavor usable like a spice. Here’s the thing. Sugar has a taste too, but it’s a taste we’re so used to that we don’t notice its flavor anymore. Honey is a powerful preservative and sweetener that comes from near-by and is intrinsically linked to the fruit-growing process. Conceptually, I like that as a pollinator the honeybee provides everything we need to make fruit preserves.

This dreamy concept of fruit and aromatics grown nearby and then preserved with honey from down the road started to reach the apex of its potential when V Smiley Preserves moved to Vermont and I started working with Kirk Webster’s honey. His approach to keeping bees has changed over time from controversial to industry leading. If you are interested in treatment free beekeeping, then you probably know about Kirk Webster.

I consider it an honor to work with Kirk’s honey. His patient, attentive and generous approach to agriculture and the environment is radical and inspiring and has changed how I interpret the land I live on, what I observe when I drive down the road, and in the jam kitchen, his honey season effects my preserving season. Last year with the smaller crop of honey, I chose to curtail marmalade production because it is so honey intensive and the priority for V Smiley Preserves is preserving fruit from nearby. Every year I worry there won’t be enough honey to get all the jam made. There is of course dynamism to the sugar market, but I love cleaving our fruit work to the life of the bees in Addison County Vermont.

Below you will find an excerpt from Kirk Webster and his writing on the innovative techniques he developed to contend with the increasingly difficult work of beekeeping. If you want to learn more, visit his website.

“For the entire time I have been a full time beekeeper, this fascinating industry and pastime has been in a state of constant change—brought on by the arrival of tracheal and varroa mites. We all experienced losses and setbacks due to these pests, but in the end we need to learn from them, and let them show us how our apiaries are unbalanced or poorly adapted. From the tracheal mites I learned how to rapidly propagate a new generation of resistant stock, and have tested nucs for sale in the spring. These methods have now proven to be nearly essential for overcoming the varroa problem as well. In 1998, I began gradually withdrawing mite treatments from the apiary, and no treatments of any kind have been used since April 2002. This process was very costly at times, but not nearly so costly as continuous treatment has turned out to be for the industry as a whole. Both bees and beekeepers have been terribly degraded by the continuous use of miticides and other drugs. Untreated bees and varroa mites, living together over many generations, are essential for selecting good breeding stock and fostering a creative co-evolution. New research in microbiology is showing that—wherever we take the trouble to look—microorganisms play a far greater role in regulating all living systems than we had any idea of previously; and that indiscriminately killing the micro flora and fauna of any system is a grave mistake. This, together with my own experience, training and observations of many other apiaries has convinced me that only beekeeping based, one way or another, on total non-treatment will provide bees that are truly healthy, resilient, and well adapted to their environment in the future.” - Kirk Webster