In 1982, the garden and orchard behind Judy and Lloyd Schmaltz’s Clarkston home was missing one thing: a beehive. They bought one white hive to sit near the fruit trees.
Judy fell in the love with the bees, and that one hive grew to 100 scattered about their property and the backyards of friends and neighbors. The couple became the proprietors of the Jodi Bee Honey Farm.
Each spring, Judy checks on the hives. She repopulates the colonies that didn’t survive the winter with new bees, and splits the thriving colonies into two hives. By the time spring is in full bloom, the bees are busy pollinating apple trees in the family’s orchard, as well as all manner of flower and vegetable gardens from Clarkston to Ortonville.
Come August, the Schmaltzes pull the honey off the hives, leaving 100 pounds for the bees to winter on. In an average year, they collect 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of honey (each hive produces as much as 150 pounds). She stores the golden liquid in pails and mixes up batches of creamed honey, honey fruit dips, and honey butter.
While the Schmaltzes tend to their bees north of Detroit, in the southern Michigan community of Palmyra (near Adrian), Debbie Wines tends 50 hives. She checks her charges regularly, making sure the queen is laying eggs, seeing if the babies are being fed, and monitoring whether they’re storing enough honey for her to harvest. In July, she collects the light, pale spring honey and blocks of honeycomb that she’ll pack into 1-pound boxes for sale.
Then, for the remainder of the summer, she watches nature’s colorful parade as bees fly into their hives with blue, purple, and yellow pollen powdering their feet, a rainbow reflection of the nearby goldenrod, apple trees, and pumpkin plants.
Around Labor Day, Wines gathers a second harvest, pulling 50-to-70 pound boxes out of the hives and transferring the honey to tanks. She’ll use the bounty to make lip balm, honey candy, and whipped honey with blackberry, apple, or lemon. Even when she’s covered head to toe in honey, Wines loves the extraction season “because of how it smells.”
The sweetness and fragrance help. “People don’t realize how much work beekeeping is, or how beneficial it is,” Wines says. Indeed. Bees pollinate an estimated 30 percent of our food supply, experts say.
“Michigan is a very important state in producing fruits,” says Zachary Huang, a Michigan State University assistant professor of entomology who studies bees. Our state’s fruit production depends on the 65,000 honeybee colonies in the state, he says.
Given the critical service they perform, the current danger facing bees across the country has observers nervous. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), or the mysterious disappearance of adult bees and abandonment of babies, is claiming colonies across the country. In Michigan, a deadly combination of CCD, harsh winter weather, pests, and disease kills many bees. Two decades ago, the Schmaltzes considered it a bad winter when they lost 10 percent of their hives. Now they’re relieved to keep the loss to 50 percent.
This past winter, only two of Waterford beekeeper Kevin Tuttle’s 18 hives survived. Even under the best of circumstances, beekeeping is expensive and it’s often hard to make a profit. Tuttle considers it a dying art. “You don’t see a lot of beekeepers around anymore,” he says. And not just anybody can start a hive. “It takes a very special personality,” he says, “to work with a million bees around you at any moment.”
Typically, beekeepers harvest their rich amber crop in summer and early fall, but some never stop scooping honey. Waterford beekeeper Kevin Tuttle collects honey every two weeks to get the most variety from his hives. “I like to have apple-blossom honey in the spring,” he says, “instead of mixing it together as multi-varietal honey.”
The characteristics of honey — whether it’s light or dark, how it tastes, and whether it has an aftertaste — depend on which flowers the bees pollinated. In Michigan, those variables produce a kitchen cupboard full of sweet options.
Clover honey: Light, sweet, widely available, good for baking.
Star thistle honey: Light but tangy. Jodi Bee Honey Farm offers star thistle honey. “It produces one of the best honeys, flavor-wise,” Judy Schmaltz says.
Blueberry honey: A variety unique to New England and Michigan. Dark amber and full-flavored with a blueberry aftertaste.
Wildflower honey: Collected from various wildflowers in an area. It can range from light to dark, tangy to rich tasting.
Allergy relief: A teaspoon of raw, local honey a day is said to be equivalent to an allergy shot. Natural enzymes in the honey act as immunization against ambient local pollen. “If you have spring allergies, and you consume spring honey that’s harvested from those flowers, you don’t have an allergic reaction,” says beekeeper Kevin Tuttle.
Sore throat/cough balm: A 2007 Pennsylvania State University study found that a teaspoon of buckwheat honey was more effective than a dose of cough medicine.
Immunity booster: Propolis, a substance that bees produce to sterilize their hives, is said to strengthen the immune system. It has the same properties as an antibiotic, says Tuttle, who started keeping bees to collect propolis.
Where to Buy
Check metro Detroit gourmet markets, health-food stores, groceries, and farmers markets for locally produced honey products. Online sources include:
Browse local groceries and farmers markets for Michigan honeys and specialty-flavor varieties to help make your recipes golden delicious.
Strawberry Honey Butter
1 pint strawberries, hulled
3 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
• In a food processor/blender, purée the strawberries and force the purée through a fine sieve into a saucepan. Add the honey and the lemon juice and boil the mixture, stirring, for 3 minutes, or until thickened. Cool strawberry mixture to room temperature. In a bowl, cream together the butter and the strawberry mixture. Let the butter stand, covered, in a cool place for 1 hour to allow the flavors to develop. Serve the butter with croissants or toast.
Feta With Pepper Honey
2-1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns
1 pound feta
1/3 cup honey
• With a mortar and pestle (or using the bottom of a heavy skillet), coarsely crack peppercorns. Pat feta dry and place on a platter. In a measuring cup, stir together pepper and honey and pour over feta.
Serve with crackers for an hors d’oeuvre (serves 16-20). As a dessert, present as thinly sliced single-serving portions (serves 8-10). Recipes: epicurious.com.