"The first golden rule of honey is to get to know your beekeeper." So says Kim Flottum, author of multiple books on beekeeping, honey-making and gardening for pollinators.
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If you goWhat: Honey Bee Weekend
When: Sept. 7-9
Where: Morton Arboretum, 4100 Route 53, Lisle
Details: Activities include seminars, tastings and hikes related to bees and honey
Cost: Varies by event
Info: mortonarb.org or (630) 968-0074
Flottum will offer two presentations, "Growing a Pollinator Garden," Saturday and "Honey Brunch 'n' Learn" Sunday. The first provides food for thought for those wanting a bee-friendly garden; the second gives food for the stomach for those who want to taste honey paired with complementary edibles such as fruit and cheese.
Flottum recommends a good relationship with a local beekeeper, typically found at a farmers market or local farm stand, if you want to obtain truly delicious honey.
"Honey bought in the store is good honey, but it's been heated and filtered," he says.
The excessive processing in store-bought products breaks down the complex mix of aromatics, flavors, water and enzymes that comprise a tasty honey.
There are different varietals of honey, each expressing the unique combination of flowers from which the bees took their nectar. Flottum notes that if he "puts his bees in a 500-acre orange grove," for example, he'll get a delicious orange blossom honey. To obtain specific flavors, beekeepers will put their bee hive boxes in areas where specific plants are flowering. At the Morton Arboretum, honey made from linden trees is popular.
The best honey, Flottum says, is that which is closest to the bees' own product. Bees convert nectar, which is roughly 80 percent water and 20 percent solids, into honey that has an inverse water-to-solid ratio by fanning the liquid to evaporate the water and mixing with enzymes that help make the honey stable. The beekeeper's job is mainly to keep the bees healthy -- not an insignificant task given the many threats such as pesticide use and habitat loss.
Herein lies an opportunity for home gardeners to make their gardens more bee-friendly. "Plant lists are easy to obtain," Flottum says of typical prescriptions for pollinator gardens, "but you have to make efficient use of your space."
He recommends planting in "three dimensions," taking into account the various heights and blooming times of different bee-attracting plants. It's not "just a row of marigolds," he says, but advises thinking in terms of blossoming trees, shrubs and flowers for season-long attraction.
Among the exhibits and products offered at the arboretum's Honey Expo this weekend are wines and other foods and drinks made of honey. Mead, a honey-based wine, is the perhaps the oldest fermented beverage in the world, according to Greg Fischer, apiarist and owner of Wild Blossom Meadery and Winery.
Fischer, who says his is the only meadery in Illinois, asserts that mead is "becoming much more mainstream." Everyone thinks mead is sweet, he explains, but "mead can be dry or sweet." Fischer maintains hives on Michigan Avenue atop the Marriott Hotel, in the Ogden Dunes, in the Kankakee dunes, and in the Beverly area of Chicago. Each has a different flavor: the Beverly honey is more amber, the Kankakee honey is darker and more intense.
Mead is often made with mixtures of honey wine fermented with fruit, called melomel. Typical fruited meads include strawberry, raspberry and apple cinnamon. Fischer even makes a honey wine made with hot chili peppers, called capsumel.
Fischer makes a good case for drinking mead. To create one bottle of mead, bees will pollinate one to two million flowers, each of which goes on to produce 10 to 20 million seeds. So in the interest of sustainability and a greener earth, consider drinking more mead!
In days of yore, only kings and aristocrats could afford mead. Lore had it that the queen would bear more sons if she drank mead, hence every castle had its meadmaker to promote more heirs. Tradition also said that a bride and groom should drink mead for one lunar cycle -- hence the term "honeymoon."
Both Fischer and Flottum agree that honey is perhaps the one food that will never go bad. The enzymes present in honey thwart microorganisms that might otherwise cause food to degrade. While Flottum cautions that "forever" is too strong a word for honey's shelf life, he does note that honey in jars from the ancient pyramids have been found virtually preserved.
The arboretum's Honey Bee Weekend offers classes, samples, demonstrations, competitions, hikes past the arboretum beehives, and lots of activities for kids. Visit the arboretum website, mortonarb.org, for details and prices.
• Cathy Maloney is a writer for the Morton Arboretum.