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The Floral Fingerprint of Our Honey

When "Texas A&M University" appeared in the FROM column of my inbox last week, I couldn’t open that email fast enough! No, I’m not going back to school – but this email DID promise some really interesting learnings!!


Attached were the results of our VERY FIRST EVER pollen analysis for our 2020 Florida Orange Blossom honey crop! This is *hopefully* the first of many to come. You should have seen our faces as I eagerly scanned down the list of pollen sources, reading them aloud to Jon. Some sources were expected, such as (duh) ORANGE BLOSSOM! But we also had some surprises, like Willow (9%!!!!) and Grape (I thought they were self-pollinating) and Rose!


Why is a pollen analysis so important? Well, for us it’s more of a geeky, fun-to-know, value-added thing. But in recent years it has become a hot topic within the broader honey industry. The pollen content of honey provides a “floral fingerprint” of the honey. It tells the unique story of where the honey came from - what flowers the bees visited and what part of the world those flowers were in. Without pollen present, a honey cannot be called RAW. Without pollen present, it’s impossible to determine a honey’s source.


Foraging bees use their saliva to stick millions of pollen spores together into tiny sacs they carry on their legs.

Some of you may remember the big “HONEY ISN’T HONEY” craze of 2011 in the US? It began when Food Safety News published their findings from a pollen analysis performed on 60 different honeys from various retailers - farm markets, grocery, drug, health food and big box stores across 10 states. The study found that with the exception of local farm market and health food store purchases, the majority of samples had not even a trace of pollen.


A fact that, by itself, is ordinarily benign – it’s no secret that US customers tend to desire “polished” products off the shelf and retailers don’t like losing money on “unsaleables”. Pasteurization and high pressure filtration of honey is an answer to both: it produces a beautifully clear, consistently colored honey with an indefinite shelf life. Win-win.


However, the article’s timing in the global context proved much more scandalous, purporting that ultra-filtration was a method that unethical packers used to “clean” [Chinese] honey they were illegally importing – in essence, Honey Laundering. No, those of you who know me – I did NOT make that up. It’s a thing. Google it.


What’s more, Groeb Farms – one of the packers interviewed in this article – was brought up on Federal charges a year later for this very crime in an undercover sting operation dubbed…..HoneyGate. STILL NOT MAKING THIS UP.


Be that as it may, some good did come of it. It raised consumer awareness about the quality differences in raw versus pasteurized honey, and the importance of responsible sourcing. Retailers added “country(s) of origin” to their labels and sought to add “raw” and “organic” honey to their product selection.


Almost 10 years later, our honey customers are still quite discerning – asking “is your honey actually RAW”? and, “How local is ‘LOCAL’?”


I’d like to say that honey imports have dropped significantly but actually the reverse is true. Of slight consolation is the fact that a small portion of those imports are good quality honeys that simply can’t be produced in America. Like Manuka honey, made from the tea tree bushes indigenous to New Zealand; or organic honey that almost exclusively comes from Brazilian rain forests.


Which brings me back to HOW COOL a pollen analysis is. Think of all the different plants IN THE WORLD that produce flowers – from trees, bushes, vines, shrubs, crops and cultivated flower varieties; the straggler weeds in ditches and cracks of concrete – almost 90% of ALL plant species need the help of pollinators to transfer their pollen!


One of our honey bees on a dianthus bloom in my garden.

Not all of those blooms are even compatible with honey bee physiology. (Take BEE BALM, for example. My first intentional plant purchase for our bees. Turns out they have zero use for it. But we now have a ton of hummingbirds so it’s cool.) Teaching moment: plants with “Pollinator friendly” labels on them don’t necessarily mean “honey bee friendly”. Yes, even if the label has a honey bee on it.


So it’s a REALLY GOOD THING the honey bee is just ONE of approximately 200,000 species of “Native Pollinators” worldwide to take on the task of pollinating all those plants! That number even includes some birds and small mammals – not just flying insects!


Across many industries, we tend to observe and analyze data with a focus on the “big rocks” – the main contributors driving the production or sales or trend, etc. For instance, most beekeepers can list off with confidence the biggest nectar contributors for their bees (no analysis necessary). At the top of this list will no doubt be clover, followed by star thistle, knapweed, basswood, autumn olive or something of the like.


I guess my point is, I’ve always been a bit dismissive of minor nectar sources because they’re too small to “move the needle” on our overall honey production. But after seeing this list, I’m humbly reminded that even the minor nectar sources add up to comprise a hefty sum – in the case of our orange blossom harvest, it was HALF!


I’m sure there’s an underdog parallel that can be drawn from this insight but I’ll spare you for now. In the meantime, check out the OB analysis in our new “Varietals” section of the website and stay tuned for the West Michigan Wildflower results, most likely to be posted sometime in early August.

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