European honeybees were brought to America in the 1600’s to provide honey and to pollinate a newly introduced animal forage called clover. Since then the honeybee has become an essential link in our food production chain, pollinating more than 80 commercial crops.
This process of cross-pollination is vital to many plants, enabling them to reproduce and produce seeds and fruit. Many commercial crops need pollination. This is especially true of Vermont's fine apple crop. Other Vermont crops that benefit from pollination include blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, pumpkins, squash and cucumbers.
As you drive the gravel of Vermont's country roads and enjoy the scenic beauty of the many lush pastures which dot our countryside, keep in mind that many of these fields that feed Vermont's dairy herds also provide a significant portion of the "bee pasture" so vital to the state's honey bee industry. Keep in mind too, that Vermont bees work within village and city limits to provide honey and pollination to Vermont's "urban" beekeepers.
Vermont's honey is produced from wildflowers and forage feeds for cattle where use of chemicals is rare. These floral sources from which this honey comes is more various than wine grapes. The honey is a pure product produced by small beekeepers taking pride in their product.
Vermont has long been known for its innovative beekeepers and sweet pastures. The 1868 U.S. agriculture survey showed Vermont as being, as it is now, the leading honey producing state in New England with 12,000 to 15,000 hives producing from 400,000 to 1,000,000 pounds of honey annually. Because of the types of plants that grow in Vermont's sweet soils, our honey is characteristically mild flavored and light colored. But beyond flavor and color, Vermont honey is a tradition worthy of great pride and praise.
It is interesting to notice how in Vermont the wants of the bee are met from early spring till late autumn. Field work for the honeybees begins in April when, if the weather cooperates, you will see them probing into the silky catkins on Pussy Willow bushes and Swamp Alders. Maple Syrup producers have only recently pulled their taps from the Sugar Maple trees, when the bees are beginning to visit the small flower of these trees and their soft maple cousins.
The first heavy nectar flow of the spring comes with the Dandelion bloom, which can be as high as 60 pounds. Most of these spring honeys are left in the hive to fuel the rebuilding of hive populations which have declined drastically during the winter months. The same is true of the flow from Vermont's Apple trees, though pure Apple Honey, in the rare year when the beekeeper can extract a little, is exquisite; it has the delicate taste and scent of the Apple flowers themselves.
The early summer flow starts with Black Locust trees. Their drooping clusters of white flowers don't produce every year, but when they do they hum with bees, and yield a water white honey of heavy body and mild flavor. Beehives in some locales can also put in a sizable crop of honey at this time from both Wild Blackberry and Raspberry bushes. It is a superior honey and, like locust, very light-colored.
The main event for many beekeepers begins in mid-June with the onset of the clover flow. For about two weeks various species of clover grown as feed for dairy cows flower and, especially in hot, humid days of early summer, produce tremendous quantities of nectar. Hives on platform scales have shown 12 pound gains in a single day as the bee yard roars with activity. It is the clovers and their close relatives in the legume family of plants that have turned Vermont into a land of milk and honey, and clover honey, so rich and smooth, is a special favorite.
Probably the most identifiable clover is White Dutch. Most people have seen bees working in its small, low growing flowers on their lawns or in pastures. Alsike, the queen of clovers, is a major component of good hay. Tallish, with large white heads tinged with pink, it thrives in sweet clay soils like those found in the Champlain Valley. Some beekeepers have estimated that an acre of Alsike will produce 500 pounds of honey in a good season. The nectar of red clover, the state flower, is ironically not available to honeybees. Their tongues are too short to reach the nectar at the base of the flowers. Bee breeders have actually been trying for years to develop a long tongued honeybee that can work red clover, as bumblebees can. The frenzy of the clover flow has usually subsided in the bee yard by the Fourth of July, when the first cut of hay is down and in the barns, and by this time the better part of a hive's surplus may have been made.
Honey from the beautiful Basswood tree is next. A six-to-ten day flow in early July (again, not to be depended upon every year) produces a fine honey, light colored and slightly minty. The purple flowers of Alfalfa, the world's most widespread forage crop, grown on farms everywhere in Vermont, can attract bees in July if conditions are right, and if farmers don't cut and bail it before it blooms. Many Wild flowers, Vetch, Milkweed, Sumac, and several Mint varieties, round out the summer crop and lend a bit of piquancy to it.
Autumn & Winter
As summer winds down, thick stands of goldenrod and aster appear in just about every corner of the state to signal an end to the summer. This is one of a typical year's biggest flows, but because fall honey is often a bit darker and stronger flavored than earlier honeys, most beekeepers leave it in the hive. It's going to be about six months before the bees will be able to dine out in field and forest again, and each hive will need from 60 to 90 pounds of honey stores to make it through the winter.
So ends a chronicle of one honey season. The average honey crop in Vermont is about 50 to 60 pounds (five gallons per hive). Many small beekeepers prefer to remove and extract parts of the crop periodically, as various specialty honeys appear in the hive. The larger commercial operators, who keep their bees in the heavily farmed valleys where the clovers predominate, generally remove the crop all at once and call it "clover honey". Beekeepers in higher elevations often blend their honey in the same way and refer to it as "wildflower honey". It is characteristically a darker amber color and more robust tasting than the clover. We, the members of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, one of the oldest agricultural groups in Vermont, take a great deal of pride in the honey we harvest. It has rightfully come to be known as a gourmet product.
Often overlooked by the public is the honey bee's greatest contribution to agriculture, namely their pollination service. The body of the bee is covered with very small branched hairs, that readily accumulate pollen grains as the bee flies from flower to flower gathering nectar. With each new flower visited, some pollen is inadvertently dropped off, and some is picked up. The bees then carry the nectar and pollen back to the hives to feed their young. Pollen is the bees' source of protein as nectar supplies their carbohydrates.
Many people, honey lovers among them, are unclear as to what honey is and how it is made. Simply stated, honey is a concentrated solution of simple sugars, mostly fructose and glucose manufactured by honeybees from the nectar of flowers. The foraging honeybee draws nectar up from the host flower's nectar glands and stores it temporarily in her honey crop. During the return flight to the hive, she adds enzymes to the nectar that begin to break down the nectar's sucrose into simpler sugars.
Customarily, once bees in a hive have been alerted to a new honey source through several different and distinct dances, the foraging bees will "work" that source until it's exhausted. Then they will move on to another flower.
Once home, the field bee gives these contents to the hive bees, who store them in the cells of the colony's wax combs. At this point the un-ripened honey has a water content of between 50 and 75 percent, and would spoil if left as is. The honey must be protected from deterioration to be of use to a hive of bees, which may store it for months or even years before it needs to use the honey. So the bees quickly reduce the moisture to less than 18 percent by fanning their wings to circulate air throughout the hive.
When the proper honey density has been reached by this process of evaporation, the bees seal the finished product in cells with a wax capping and the job is done. Honey supplies the carbohydrate (energy) portion of the bees diet. Pollen, also collected from the flower, and stored like honey, provides the bees with protein.