Midwestern Producer Stumbles Toward Seasonal Flavors
“We speak of ‘honey’ as if it is one thing, but honey is really a category of foods made by bees using plants of all kinds. There are as many honeys as there are fruits, and they are just as diverse.”
—Rowan Jacobsen, American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of our Woods, Waters and Fields
My curiosity about regional honey began nearly a year ago when I first cracked the spine of Rowan Jacobsen’s book American Terroir. In the book, the author explains the variety of colors and flavors that can be found in American monofloral honey. The most famous American honey is tupelo honey (you have Van Morrison to thank for that), which is made from the nectar of the briefly blooming Nyssa ogeche trees of Florida and Georgia.
I began to wonder if Nebraska or Iowa had its own monofloral honey, or at the very least, honey harvested at different points in the season. Could Midwestern bees produce honey worthy of a love song?
I spent the next few months checking the supermarket aisle looking for local monofloral honey. I made phone calls to large and small honey producers and beehive enthusiasts in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. I thought about all the local honey I’d hauled home from farmers markets over the years and couldn’t recall any honey identified as monofloral, single varietal or even distinct by season. Finally, early this spring, Gayle Duda, owner and operator of Duda Farm Honey based in Ponca Hills, Nebraska, answered the phone. I asked her the same question I’d been asking for months: Do you have single varietal or monofloral honey? She was one of 15 beekeepers I asked and the only one to say, “Yes. Yes, well sort of.” It was good enough for me.
Honey, baby, from the bee…
Attempting to describe the typical behavior of a bee is like trying to describe the typical behavior of a child; circumstance greatly influences the temperament of both. Few people understand that more than Michael Bush, operator of Bush Farms, where he manages about 200 hives. His interest lies less in honey production and more in bee mannerisms. He’s been keeping bees for more than 40 years and sells nucleuses to other beekeepers in the region. A nucleus contains everything a beekeeper needs to build a thriving bee colony within a hive—a brood (basically bee babies), eggs, larva, honey and bee bread, which is simply honey or pollen intended as a food source for the bees.
Nebraska and Iowa have bold seasons and extreme weather, which from a honey perspective means everything is blooming or nothing is blooming. That single condition can make it difficult for bees to create honey from a single floral source, but it’s not impossible and it doesn’t mean regional honey lovers have to go without variety—the mystery lies in the harvesting technique and weather.
Most regional honey is sold under the generic description of wildflower honey, due to the aforementioned weather conditions and the way bees go about collecting pollen.
“Bees don’t know property lines. It’s a safe bet to assume they regularly travel one mile. If times are tough, they will go two miles. If times are really tough they will go farther. The farther out they fly, the more honey they burn as fuel. Bees will aggressively forage within a 1.5-mile radius,” says Michael.
For years, Gayle and whatever family and friends she could wrangle together would bring in the honey once per year, extract it from the hives, combine it, save what she wanted and sell the rest. As far as she was concerned, it was all honey from the same farm. How different could it be?
“Frankly, it never really occurred to us to do it any other way. It just never occurred to us that there could be that much difference in one season, in one place,” Gayle says as she lines up short, squat glass jars of honey on a patio table in the center of her sparsely furnished honey house.
Then in 2013, Dr. Marion Ellis, the former professor of entomology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and some graduate students visited Gayle’s farm and her beehives.
“As he visited the hives he would open them up and say, ‘Oh, this is linden honey.’ I said, ‘I love linden honey,’ and he said, ‘Well, then, you ought to harvest it.’” For Gayle and her family, this incident was the beginning of viewing the hives through a different lens. It was also one of the most productive years the farm had ever seen.
Gayle, along with family and friends, harvested 1,000 pounds of honey from 10 hives that year. In early summer they took off the linden honey, a light-colored, fresh-tasting honey, and kept it separate from subsequent harvests. Honeybees are drawn to the fragrant white flower clusters of the linden tree, which is native to Nebraska but common in many other parts of the United States and the world. Honey derived from linden blossoms is prized in other states and countries but is largely unrecognized here. Hopefully, as the desire for specialized honey and regional delicacies increase, local monofloral honey from native trees like the linden will become more widely available.
The Dudas harvested again in early August and called it Midsummer Honey. The bees kept producing, so they harvested a third time after Labor Day and named it Late Summer Honey. While the only true monofloral honey collected was linden honey, the others held a distinct seasonal differentiation, which set the Duda family on a new path of discovery.
All the Tea in China…
After such a successful and interesting year in 2013, the Duda family spent the winter planning their approach for the beginning of the honey flow, which typically starts in June. They created labeling systems; two hives in three separate places on the farm and two separate places off the farm. They planned multiple harvests and intended to keep each geographic region separate; but honey is an agricultural product and, like farming, success or failure is impacted by luck and weather.
In early June 2014, just when all the blossoms tart themselves up and begin their seasonal flirtation with the bees, one devastating hailstorm after the next pummeled the blossoms of flowers, shrubs and trees.
“We were all set to go, we had all of these bees and we were so excited, then we had the worst hailstorms ever. It beat all the flowers off of everything, and those flowers they don’t come back. They are done. The bees had nothing to do,” Gayle’s voice softened, she took a deep breath and lingered on the vowels of her words. “It was a long summer. A really long summer,” she paused, “and then it flooded.”
All was not lost, however, and like seasoned farmers they brushed themselves off and hoped for the best. The year turned around, and before the frost killed off what remained of summer, they were able to pull 500 pounds of honey in a single harvest. The storms dashed their hopes of a multi-season taste exploration, but they were still pleasantly surprised by what they discovered.
They harvested all the honey in 2014 solely during the month of August, but they still grouped it by geographic location. Its visual and taste profiles were as varied as all the tea in China.
One month after my initial conversation with Gayle, I walked into the sparsely furnished dark-brown cabin she calls the honey house. The surrounding cornfields were still barren from last season’s harvest, and the grass was wet with rain and just beginning to green. Gayle, a petite, plainspoken woman wearing a faded jean jacket, instructed me to pull a chair up to the patio table. Each jar atop the table held honey slightly different in color from light to dark like grades of maple syrup.
With tiny plastic spoons in hand, I waited as Gayle loosened the lids from one jar and then another. I was finally going to discover if Nebraska honey could have distinct tasting notes based on geographic location and floral variety. First Gayle and her daughter, Ruth, offered a sample of their favorite honey, a linden, which was harvested in early summer 2013. It was the lightest in color of the morning’s selection, with a floral, crisp flavor. Next, honey from the hives placed near the Honey House, which was light in color and overwhelmingly saccharine—like the cheap Rieslings I drank in my 20s to acquire a taste for wine. My children would’ve loved it, but I was looking for something more sophisticated and distinct. Third on the tasting tour was honey from the hives in a walnut grove. The contrast in flavor and color between the walnut grove honey and the previous honeys was stark. It was darker in color, more full-bodied honey. It had sweet, earthy undertones with a slightly bitter finish that I personally loved, but it could have limited appeal to a broader audience. Even still, the walnut grove honey confirmed my suspicion that creating distinct honey flavors would be to our benefit from a taste and geographic interest perspective. Next was honey from hives placed in Hummel Park. It was the most complex honey we sampled, it had a richness that balanced the sweetness not found in the other honey I tasted that day. We all agreed it was a favorite. Honey from hives by the Dudas’ cornfield had a bright, sharp, slightly harsh finish. The final honey came from an apple orchard, and it was the darkest of all we tried that day. Given that the trees were devastated by hail that year, we all agreed that although the hives were in an apple orchard, the honey was probably not created by the bees’ love affair with apple blossoms, instead they must have found another floral source to befriend.
Now that the 2015 honey flow is upon them, Gayle and her family are ready for another year of exploring this sweet elixir on their farm. Although keeping the honey separate means harvesting takes a bit more time and attention to detail, the Dudas say they plan to keep at it. After all, crafting a love song doesn’t happen overnight.
How to Enjoy
Duda Farm Honey is served as an accompaniment on the meat and cheese boards at the French Bulldog, or you can order it yourself by contacting Duda Honey Farm at 402.451.2717 or DudaFarmHoney@yahoo.com.
Summer Miller is a freelance food writer and author who lives with her husband and two children in Elkhorn, Nebraska. Her writing has appeared in Grit, Saveur and Every Day with Rachael Ray. In May 2015 her first book, New Prairie Kitchen: Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Chefs, Farmers, and Artisans of the Great Plains, was published by Agate and heralded by Oprah Winfrey’s private chef as “more than a cookbook—it’s a love letter to the heartland.”