Bees are in trouble, their population ravaged by herbicides, pesticides and the disappearance of pollinating plants.
But you sure wouldn't know it while perusing grocery stores, cheese shops and farmers markets for the sweet nectar they produce: honey.
Not much more than a decade ago, those plastic-bear squeeze bottles didn't have much competition. Now, honeys and honey-based products proliferate across the culinary landscape. And artisanal producers — especially local ones — are thriving.
Honey output from Minnesota producers with five or more colonies totaled 6.96 million pounds in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than our share of the 157 million pounds harvested nationally.
The local offerings include not-so-plain honeys sourced from certain plants and regions — Bare Honey founder Dustin Vanasse calls them "floweroirs" — but also infused into everything from marshmallows to local confections.
Honey used in Mademoiselle Miel's popular bonbons often emanates from hives on the St. Paul store's rooftop, although owner Susan Brown — who also keeps hives above the city's Union Depot — is expanding her hive collection to rural locales, as well. "It's a lot more work keeping them on the roof," Brown said, "because we have to carry stuff up and down a ladder. We don't have to worry about bears, but do have a lot of climbing."
It turns out that having bees in both the city and the country expands the flavor profiles that honey-mongers can offer, said Jacob Kulju, proprietor of Skinny Jake's Fat Honey. He started with several rooftop and backyard hives in the metro area — including, appropriately, atop the Food Building in northeast Minneapolis — but has moved to a farm in Taylors Falls, Minn.
"In the early part of spring with so many apple and crabapple trees, the city is like a big orchard, and we get an early influx of fruit-tree nectar," he said. "But after that there's such a wide variety [of pollinators]. Out here it's primarily clover, fruit trees and basswood."
And you can taste the differences: "Urban honey is generally more floral, gentler, more aromatic. Rural honey, especially from clover, sometimes gets a little bite, a little zing and tang, with more of a single flavor," Kulju said.
Even more specifically, honey from different terrains and topographies can vary markedly.
Brian Fredericksen, owner of Ames Farm, said the nectar from his home base in Watertown, Minn., "will taste different than what we get down in Jordan, where [the soil is] more sandy." Vanasse said he gets "very different honey" depending on whether his bees forage in river basins vs. prairies.
Spreading the wealth
Veterans such as Fredericksen, who started in 1994 on a farm he bought from University of Minnesota apple guru David Bedford that included two beehives, and relative newbies such as Brown quickly learn that this is farming, with all the attendant foibles.
"Like farmers, we don't know the yield from year to year," said Brown, who in plentiful years augments her honey-infused sweets with about 50 bottles for her best customers. "And there's kind of an interesting phenomenon anecdotally of city bees and country bees doing the opposite. If one does well in a given year, the other is slow."
And then there's the local climate. The honey-producing season fortuitously coincides with farmers market season, but the bees are relatively dormant during our long winters. That has prompted Fredericksen and his bees to winter in Texas since 2014 — he recently bought a 34-acre goat farm to serve as a base — and Vanasse to truck bees down to Florida. "We have bees that travel and bees that stay put," he said.
While local operators expand, the offerings from other states and countries have grown in popularity, as well. Among them: acacia, chestnut and milliflori (a thousand flowers) from Italy, orange-blossom honey from Spain and honeysuckle and lavender honey from France, the country that inspired the name for Brown's business (translated as "Miss Honey").
"French food is so traditional and natural and flavorful," she said, "that I wanted to pay tribute to that."
Not surprisingly, many local purveyors came to be hive mavens because of a love of food and cooking.
Brown, an avid baker, always used honey rather than processed sugar as a sweetener, eventually buying 5-gallon buckets from farmers.
"I decided if I was using that much, I should start being a beekeeper," she said. "Sometimes life just opens things up."
Kulju's wife grew up in a honey household — her father was a beekeeper — so when they got married and bought a house, he found himself in an unusual spot: "I suddenly had to find some honey to buy."
Serendipity intervened: The Minneapolis City Council made it legal to keep bees beginning in 2012, and Kulju bought two hives.
"I'm good friends with the owners of Blue Door Pub, and we were hanging out in the backyard," he said. "They said, 'How much do you make?' and I said, 'How much do you want?' I saw an opportunity, got a loan and bought 20 or 30 hives in 2013 and became a business."
Vanasse tapped into his extensive restaurant work to explore the effects of not only different pollinators ("such distinctive nectars for those flowers") but also other ingredients that might create stellar infusions. Now his Bare product line includes honeys containing vanilla beans and cinnamon alongside hot cocoa and chai latte mixers.
And, of course, there are honeycombs, but Ames Farm likely rules the roost on that front, with perennial State Fair blue ribbons for its annual production of 8,000 edible combs.
Meanwhile, Brown tapped into her combs, painstakingly working to perfect a chocolate concoction, which eventually led to her famous honey bonbons.
"I was really focused on French pastries with honey or maple," she said, "and I got to the point where chocolate had to happen. Because honey is so sweet, I decided the shell [for bonbons] had to be 100 percent [dark chocolate] as a contrast. It's a beautiful spot when you can find that place where it's sweet but not too sweet."
In the kitchen, honey is a great substitute for sugar and artificial sweeteners. But its uses are many and varied:
On its own: Honey is a fabulous addition to an appetizer platter with cheeses (from Parmiggiano-Romano to baked Camembert or Brie), figs or other fruits and nuts. It's also swell drizzled over ice cream, pancakes/waffles, fruit salads, flatbreads and pastries; putting the honey container in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes makes it pour like water.
Dressed up: Few foods can punch up a marinade, sauce or salad dressing like honey. Its interplay with spicy, acidic and/or savory ingredients is harmony incarnate, and easy to manage (just add more of whatever). An example is today's Honey Joe recipe.
Beverages: Honey can punch up lemonade, coffee, tea, spritzers, fizzes and all manners of cocktails. Be sure to add the honey at the very end, and slowly stir until it's dissolved. Or make a syrup, equal parts honey and boiling water; this can keep in the fridge, covered, for up to two weeks.
Desserts: It's little wonder that so many popular desserts feature honey (think baklava), including some of the best Holiday Cookie Contest recipes. Still, as beekeeper and chocolatier Susan Brown notes, honey's sweetness often is best paired with sharper flavors, such as tart fruits and dark chocolate. But that doesn't mean eschewing the likes of pineapple or mascarpone; taste as you go.
Makes one 8- or 9-inch shortbread.
Note: Serve this as part of an appetizer plate or as a savory after-dinner treat. Adapted from a recipe by Melissa Clark of the New York Times.
• 2 c. flour
• 2/3 c. sugar
• 1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary
• 1 tsp. plus 1 pinch kosher salt
• 1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted cold butter, cut into 1-in. chunks
• 1 to 2 tsp. rosemary, chestnut or other dark, full-flavored honey
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a food processor, pulse together flour, sugar, rosemary and salt. Add butter and honey and pulse to fine crumbs. Pulse a few more times until some crumbs start to come together, but don't over-process. Dough should not be smooth.
Press dough into an ungreased 8- or 9-inch-square baking pan or 9-inch pie pan. Prick dough all over with a fork. Bake until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes for 9-inch pan, 45 to 50 minutes for 8-inch. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Cut into squares, bars or wedges while still warm. Let cool before serving.
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: Adapted from a recipe by Beth Dooley.
• 2 tsp. honey
• 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
• 1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 large fennel bulb
• 1 small onion
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a small bowl, whisk together the honey and lemon juice, then whisk in 1/4 cup olive oil in a slow, steady stream.
Using a sharp knife, shave the fennel bulb and onion into very thin slices. Toss the onion and fennel together with enough of the vinaigrette to lightly coat, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Arrange on a large platter or individual serving plates.
Honey Lemon Bars
Makes 12 bars.
Note: Honey gives these tried-and-true bars a slightly different flavor. From the National Honey Board.
• 1 c. flour
• 1/4 c. powdered sugar
• 3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) butter, cut up
• 3/4 c. honey
• 3 eggs
• 2 tbsp. flour
• 3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
• Zest from 1 lemon
• 1/2 tsp. baking powder
• 1/4 tsp. salt
To prepare the crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In small bowl, combine flour and powdered sugar; mix well. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Press mixture into lightly greased 8- by 8-inch baking pan. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from oven.
To prepare the filling: In large bowl, whisk together the honey and eggs. Add flour, lemon juice, lemon zest, baking powder and salt; whisk until well blended.
Pour over baked crust. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, or until filling is set. Cool completely on wire rack. Cut into 12 bars.
Note: A new twist on an old picnic staple. From the National Honey Board.
• 1/4 c. chopped onions
• 1/4 c. chopped celery
• 1/4 c. grated carrots
• 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
• 1 lb. ground turkey or ground beef
• 1/2 c. tomato paste
• 1/4 c. honey
• 3 tbsp. water
• 1 tbsp. vinegar
• 2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
• 1 1/2 tsp. chili powder
• Salt and pepper, to taste
• 4 hamburger buns
In a large pan over medium heat, sauté onions, celery and carrots in oil until soft. Stir in turkey or ground beef; cook 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until meat is browned and crumbly. Stir in tomato paste, honey, water, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and chili powder. Simmer, covered, for 3 to 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Divide mixture evenly among the four hamburger buns to serve.
Bill Ward is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.