Last winter, while Roger Sutherland’s bees huddled around their queens, sheltering them at a cozy 93 degrees, Sutherland read Honeybee Democracy, a book that reaffirmed his respect for the fuzzy fliers.
“Of the social insects, the honeybee is probably the highest social form,” says Sutherland, an 82-year-old retired biology professor, who has been keeping bees near Ann Arbor for 45 years with his wife, Mary. “We think we have a social order; I’m not sure.”
Beekeepers have a small society of their own; local clubs flourish all around the state. It’s a subculture that’s attracting an increasing number of fans seeking to raise their own bees or simply buy their golden sweetener from local bees and local pollen.
“I was reading a newspaper story about DDT [the pesticide],” Sutherland says of how he came to be a keeper. “It said that it may be killing off helpful insects and that you might want to consider raising bees. So I plunged right into it.”
Honeybees aren’t native to the Americas, explains Sutherland, past president of the Southeast Michigan Beekeepers Club. Early colonists brought them over from Europe as a sweetener source.
In the ensuing centuries, pollinating honeybees swept across the tree canopy that stretched from the East Coast to the Mississippi and became enablers of the emerging agriculture.
“Probably one-third of the food we put in our mouths is from pollinators,” Sutherland says. “Without them, we’d have no peaches or pears, apples or pumpkins.”
Terry Toland, president of the Michigan Beekeepers’ Association, keeps about 50 hives, along with a raspberry patch on his 10 acres in Dryden.
“I’m a farmer,” he says. “Honey is an agricultural product.”
He also enjoys the fruits of his labor. “My favorite recipe is to get a bowl of berries,” he says. “Mix the juice of two limes with a half cup of honey. Pour that over the berries and let it sit about two hours. Then serve that over angel-food cake or pound cake.” Another favorite: chicken wings brushed with honey after grilling.
The taste and color of honey is affected by a variety of factors. Some beekeepers harvest honey regularly, providing, for example, a light-colored springtime batch. Others, like Toland, let the honey accumulate, harvesting it in the fall for a darker, earthier blend. Pollen types, such as blueberry, lavender, and apple blossoms, also affect flavor.
Toland suggests asking local honey vendors at farmers markets about their process and whether they use pesticides.
Sutherland injects a note of caution.
“Many [honeys] labeled something are not as pure as they claim to be,” he says. “In Europe, it’s quite different. If you want to call it a single-source honey, it has to be sent to a lab and they look at the pollen grains. The pollen grain is like a fingerprint. Here, we get away with murder.”
That said, there are some dependable truths. Early-season honey is milder. Dark honeys, especially buckwheat, have more antioxidants.
Michigan is probably best known for its blueberry and star thistle honeys. Star thistle is an invasive species whose pollen produces a nice, light honey.
Gardeners wanting to create a hospitable environment for bees may want to include sedum and bee balm in their backyard beds,
Toland says. As bees arrive to collect the pollen, consider their low buzz a signal that it’s time to cook with a little local sweetener. Then, sit back and enjoy the sweet season, perhaps with Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” playing in the background: “She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey/Just like honey from the bee.”