The bees please

Local beekeeper offers honey in a variety of different flavors

The sweet, sticky stuff you eat at home is probably clover honey, because your taste buds are dead.

The sweet, sticky stuff you eat at home is probably clover honey, because your taste buds are dead.

When his bees come flying home after a day’s foraging, Frank Lienert often knows exactly where they’ve been.

“If they’ve been in eucalyptus, I can smell it,” says Lienert, a commercial beekeeper with about 200 hives who has kept bees in and around Sacramento for nearly five decades. Eucalyptus trees produce nectar which, once processed into honey—an enzymatic transformation that begins in mid-flight—smells and tastes strongly of butterscotch. Some tasters, though, detect a medicinal quality in the variety, and eucalyptus honey is one fervently loved and hated. Buckwheat honey, meanwhile, is redolent of coffee and molasses. Alfalfa honey can taste faintly spicy. Lienert sells these and other single-variety honeys at the Sacramento Sunday farmers’ market. Corti Brothers and the Davis and Sacramento food co-ops also carry his brand.

But in the height of the summer blooms, the “wildflower honey” that accumulates in local beehives may be an indistinguishable blend of many nectars, collected as bees forage through local gardens and orchards. Honeybees, after all, will do business with just about any plant that flowers, including sage, citrus, cherry, cucumber, pumpkin, onion, blackberry, poison oak, star thistle, cotton, mustard, melon and manzanita.

Bees will also produce honey from almonds, and late this month thousands of beekeepers will be providing their hives to local growers, who pay up to $150 per box for pollination services. Almond honey, however, is notoriously bitter. Rarely if ever sold, it is usually left in the hives as the bees’ food source.

By lifting the hive, Lienert can determine by its weight how much honey the bees have amassed and how much surplus is available. In the best of years—not too cold in the winter, not too hot in the summer, and with plenty of rainfall—he may sell 200 pounds of surplus honey.

“Other years, I get zero,” he says, citing drought as a prime reason for low nectar flows and, in turn, low honey yields. In such seasons, bees produce so little honey that beekeepers cannot harvest any without compromising the health of their colonies. During winter cold spells, bees are particularly vulnerable to malnourishment and starvation, for the insects won’t fly at temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Thus, in the local climate, many hives depend for months upon honey accumulated in warmer months. The bees use the calories to feed themselves to generate heat and maintain the target hive temperature of 94 degrees.

To eat locally made, unfiltered honey—especially the hodgepodge “wildflower” blends—can be highly effective in curing sneezers of their allergies, say honey advocates. Honey contains allergenic pollens in tiny amounts.

Beekeepers also harvest flower pollen directly from the hives and sell it as a nutritional supplement. To gather the pollen, beekeepers place a fine mesh over the entrance to each hive. As bees squeeze through after their forays among local fields, much of the collected pollen rubs off of their legs. It falls into a tray below, and beekeepers like Jerry Becker in Lodi collect barrels of the powder each season. Becker sells much of his pollen into the energy-bar and health-foods industry. A smaller portion is sold retail at Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies. Here, customers will also find a tasting table and such honeys as Oregon raspberry, UC Davis wildflower, Montana knapweed, star thistle, cotton and eucalyptus.

“Most people stay away from the eucalyptus honey until we tell them that it tastes nothing like menthol,” says co-owner Pam Hill, who likens its prominent flavor to butterscotch.

Becker, who has 60 years of experience and more than 2,000 hives, thinks eucalyptus honey “tastes like cough drops.” He lets his bees have it and usually waits until March or April to begin harvesting honey to sell. The San Joaquin Valley citrus bloom is often the first to render a marketable product. Honey of sage, which blooms following particularly wet winters, also comes in the spring. “Alfalfa,” says Becker, “is pretty darn good.” He also enjoys mustard blossom honey, though he leaves most of it for his bees.

And among so much colorful and flavorful variety, Americans prefer the lightest, most nondescript honey there is.

“Generally, people like clover honey, because it tastes like nothing,” Becker explains.