It used to be that just about the only choice you had when purchasing honey was whether to buy it in a glass jar or a chubby plastic bear. But today, things are different.
Now, buying honey is a little like purchasing fine wine, says David Westervelt, assistant chef of apiary inspection for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Like wines, honeys come in varietals from boutique producers. And each has its own special flavor and bouquet.
While commercial producers are commonly designated as ones keeping more than 200 hives and produce much of what you see in supermarkets, there are hobbyists or backyard beekeepers who provide niche products.
There are about 2,000 of these small producers statewide, according to Westervelt.
These are people like Rigoberto De La Portilla, a computer tech who keeps hives in the Flagami area near Miami International Airport.
If people worry about where honey comes from and they want to save the bees, I tell them to grow their own, says De La Portilla, who harvests wildflower honey from his half-dozen hives.
Maria and Leo Gosser founded the Broward Beekeepers Association about seven years ago with four members. Today it boasts 70.
Living in a designated agricultural area in Parkland, the Gossers can keep eight hives next to their chickens, turkeys, sheep and peacocks.
Leo also keeps about five hives in a community apiary thats much like a community garden set up through the beekeepers association.
The couple gathers honey from their hives to use themselves, to offer to friends or to sell at the Parkland farmers market.
Since Ive existed, Ive been eating honey, says Maria, who grew up in Israel. Today she reaches for the honey jar when making everything from cakes and cookies to marinades and salad dressings.
You can do a lot with it, she says.
Leo has been pouring honey on his pancakes since he was a child on a farm in Ohio where he helped his father keep bees.
The Gossers, like most small producers, work under Floridas cottage food law that applies to anyone who makes less than $15,000 in gross annual sales. According to the regulations, the beekeeper himself must sell his product directly to the customer. There can be no middleman.
So when you buy local honeys at farmers markets and stands, chances are you are dealing with the producer himself.
And this, like all honey sold in Florida, has to conform to the state standard: Anything labeled honey must be a natural food product resulting from the harvest of nectar by honeybees and the natural activities of the honeybees in processing the nectar.
In other words, if a product is labeled honey it has to come from the comb just as the bees made it, says Westervelt, who lives in Gainesville but was recently in Davie to teach beekeeping seminars.
To understand why good honey is a gift from nature, you have to understand bees. During the last two weeks of a worker bees short life, she flies through the neighborhood gathering nectar. Flowers produce nectar in order to attract the bees, which then pollinate the flowers. Its a win-win situation.
A honey bee will gather only about 1/16 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. A beehive typically produces 40 to 60 pounds of surplus honey a year. And bees may travel as far as 55,000 miles and visit more than two million flowers to accumulate enough nectar to make one pound of honey, according to the National Honey Board.
So to fill a hive it takes a lot of bees making a lot of trips, says Westervelt.
The bees gather the nectar into their honey stomachs. Here they add enzymes to it. When they return to the hive, the nectar is passed to two or three more bees, each adding more enzymes. When its ready, its deposited into a network of honeycombs that make up the hive.
This newly created honey has a lot of water content that can harbor yeast that ferments and spoils the honey. To remove water and concentrate the sugars, the worker bees fan the honey with their wings. When the moisture content falls to about 18 percent, the sugar in the honey is considered ripe.
Thats when the bees, using wax their bodies produce, cap off each cell in the comb. Stored this way, honey will last indefinitely, says Leo Gosser, noting that it has been found intact in archaeological digs in Israel.
Some beekeepers gather the honey by cutting the comb and selling it in chunks as the Gossers do. They can manually squeeze the comb to extract the liquid gold. Or they can remove the wax caps and place the comb in a centrifuge that removes the honey.
If the comb is left intact, the beekeeper can return it to the hive to be refilled with honey and save the worker bees from having to create new comb. And thats a big savings, because the energy required to make 1 pound of comb requires the bees to consume 4 pounds of honey. After all, honey is food for the bees too.
Being a beekeeper is basically providing a home or a box for the bees to do their work, says Leo, a retired pharmaceutical researcher.
This time of year, beekeepers often get whats called a honey run as Brazilian pepper comes into bloom.
A honey run is when theres so much nectar available from one plant source that the bees can create surplus for the beekeeper to harvest and sell as a monofloral honey.
Depending on whats in bloom throughout the year, South Floridas honey connoisseurs may find sea grape honey, mangrove honey, orange blossom honey, yellow shower tree honey, chinaberry honey, sabal palm honey or palmetto honey.
Palmetto honey is one of the best honeys in South Florida, says Westervelt, who describes it as mild.
Perhaps the most common locally produced boutique honey is wildflower, made from anything and everything thats in bloom. Research shows that people with pollen allergies can benefit from eating it because the unfiltered raw honey has bits of local pollen in it that can help the immune system fight the allergens.
Maria can attest to this. After moving to Florida she was suffering, but after taking two tablespoons of honey every morning for three months, she says her allergies cleared up.
But honey is more than medicine. She also puts it over ice cream, fruit salad and cheesecake and spreads it on bread with peanut butter or on toast with cinnamon and butter.
She uses it to make a simple, gelatin-thickened fresh blueberry jam that she serves over cheesecake, on ice cream or with white cheese for dessert. She also spreads the jam atop a cookie base and bakes it to form a pleasing morsel.
This time of year she likes to stuff apples with a mixture of oatmeal, butter, cinnamon and honey, of course. She bakes the apples and serves them with the pan juices spooned over top.
Shes convinced of the goodness of honey.
You gain weight from eating hamburgers and french fries, not this food. Look at us, and we eat very well, she says.
Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at email@example.com.