Why Is Sourwood Honey So Unique?

By The Beekeeper /

We’ve had several customer inquiries asking the question: Why is sourwood honey so unique? Our lady aviators at KillerBeesHoney.com experience two honey flows in the Appalachian Mountains. Red maple kicks off the brood rearing season around March 5th. Bees primarily source it for its pollen, which is rich in protein, yet produces very little nectar. The nectar flow begins in earnest with black gum, holly, dandelion and black locust blooming the first half of May. Raspberry, persimmon and tulip poplar bloom later in the month. This is also the time when many wildflowers begin to blossom. The 210 different pollen markers in our wildflower honey reflect this wide variety of flora.

Towards the end of May and the beginning of June, tulip poplar, ladino, white and sweet clover, basswood and linden begin to bloom. Ever efficient, honeybees will travel the least distance to the greatest nectar source. We have an abundance of tulip polar trees (a misnomer – it’s actually a magnolia) surrounding our apiary. A single, stunningly large orange tulip poplar blossom can produce a full tablespoon of nectar. A prodigious honey producer, a young 20ft tulip poplar tree can yield eight pounds of nectar, which the bees reduce to four pounds of honey. When this tree is blooming, it is very unlikely the bees will forage other plants.

The sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) begins to flower the third week of June with blooms only lasting for three weeks. Its lovely white, bell shaped floret is also an abundant nectar producer. But unlike the dark, bold mineral rich taste of the tulip poplar; the sourwood bears a uniquely aromatic, floral honey. Its ultra light, amber color betrays a soft anise and spice flavor that makes it one of the most distinctive honeys in the world. Sourwood honey’s flavor is so remarkable; it has won three out of the last six Apimonda world champion honey contests and is highly coveted by food connoisseurs throughout the world.

Unfortunately, the sourwood tree is an inconsistent honey producer. Lower then normal rainfall and temperatures can affect its short efflorescing. Land development is also dramatically reducing the once impressive stands of the sourwood tree. Some help is coming with the reclamation of mining areas in Kentucky and West Virginia, but this is in a nascent stage.

We are fortunate to live in the Pisgah National Forest. Our bees fly straight up into large stands of sourwood trees. These trees have survived here undisturbed for over a hundred years, resulting in four or five pronged sourwood trees that reach up to 100 feet high with three-foot diameter trunks. Our temperate mountainous elevation combined with a yearly average of 96 inches of rainfall guarantee a high yield of some of the purest, most exquisite honeys in the world.

Most beekeepers extract wildflower honey from their hives before the sourwood trees bloom, then replace the empty supers (where bees store their honey) days before the sourwood nectar flow. KillerBeesHoney.com does not follow this method. We let the bees collect the spring nectar for themselves. Only when they have stored enough honey for the year do we extract the surplus wildflower honey for our customers. Consequently, partially filled late spring supers tend to contain mostly tulip poplar nectar. The bees naturally mix this darkish red liquid with the ultra light amber sourwood nectar. The result is our Big Red honey. The above photo is of the two samples we sent for pollen analysis to Dr. Bryant at Texas A&M. Despite the red color of the left sample, it actually had more sourwood True Nectar Value (TNV) then the “pure” sourwood to its right. Both our Big Red and Blonde (nee: Amber) have the rich, floral and balanced structure of sourwood, but the Big Red has a more forward, medium bodied flavor resulting from the mineral rich nectar of the tulip poplar.

Whether it’s our raw, organically extracted Blonde sourwood or Big Red sourwood honeys, rest assured the girls get the final say on how they blend their nectars. After all, they’ve been doing it since hooking up with flowers. Why interfere with perfection?

 


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