Honey Flavoured by the Flowers of Alberta
Honey is a favourite farmers’ market product and we’re happy to welcome Tracey Smith of Beanstalk Honey to the City Market Downtown. After learning more about her farm, it became quite clear that beekeeping is as complicated as keeping any kind of livestock, only there’s no such thing as a veterinarian for bees. Careful monitoring and disease control lead to the longevity of a bee farm.
We asked Tracey to give us the low down on the honey she makes and why it`s so different from other honeys.
What kinds of products do you make?
We produce honey primarily. During extraction from the hives, we separate honey from different floral sources so we can offer different types of honey: dandelion, clover, wildflower, etc.
Do you have a particular favourite?
All our honeys are great! My favourite is our dandelion honey, available in late June, because it has so much character. It has a strong flavour, somewhat like maple sugar. But the neatest part is It quickly crystallizes into a rock hard solid mass of great flavour. Then after a month or two in the cupboard it matures into the most amazingly rich, creamy textured honey you’ll ever have the delight of meeting. Some people are immediately repulsed by the strong flavour and its initial hard texture, but I love the taste and how dynamic it is once it’s in the container.
When did you start making honey?
I’ve been keeping bees for three years; Dan has been a beekeeper since he was 17. Last summer he bought the business he worked at when he was in high school because the beekeepers were retiring.
What makes your honey so different from other honeys?
Farmer’s Market honey is unique from grocery store honey because beekeepers selling their own honey generally do very little processing, which preserves its delicate floral flavours. We spin the honey out of the hive, let it sit for a few days in a tank to let the air bubbles and wax bits float to the top, and then bottle it from the bottom of the tank. That’s it, unless you head for our creamed honey. Our creamed honey has been heated slightly and stirred to ensure it does not form hard crystals. By doing this we get a smooth, creamy texture that’s great for spreading on toast or using in tea and coffee. It shouldn’t ever harden into a something you need to use a pick-ax on to get out of the container.
In contrast, grocery store honey has often been heated to high temperatures and filtered, which destroys the flavour and many of honey’s beneficial enzymes. Unless you’re buying a specialty honey in a grocery store, most grocery store honey is a mixture of different floral sources because it is processed in huge quantities, which results in a “muddier” flavour. Over and over we hear back from our customers how they’d only ever eaten grocery store honey before trying farmer’s market honey, and they can’t believe the difference in flavour and texture. Monofloral honey — honey that comes from a single type of plant blossoms — has a clarity of flavour that you’ll never find in grocery store honey.
Our honey is especially unique because we extract it in small batches to highlight the changes in floral flavours throughout the season. The characteristics of honey vary greatly based on which plants are blooming at the time. Each different nectar source confers different flavours and textures to the honey. By buying our honey, you can experience the changing plant blossoms through the spring, summer, and fall in the Edmonton area. Stop by our booth for a sample – it’s delicious!
Tell us about your farm.
My apiary is located at her family’s farm on the shore of North Cooking Lake, in Strathcona County. The farm has historically been a mixed cattle and hay farm and is still leased for those purposes. Three years ago I started a small organic vegetable farm on one acre. In the first summer I bought two hives to help pollinate my vegetables. Everybody wanted to buy the honey while I struggled to find a market for my vegetables. So last summer I did vegetables again but expanded on the honey by buying five more hives. Again, I struggled with the vegetables but my honey was flying out of my extracting room as fast as the bees could make it. I started selling honey at the Salisbury Farmers’ Market in late August, and in October I moved into the Downtown Market at City Hall. This summer I have stopped growing vegetables for market and have focused instead on beekeeping.
Last summer Dan bought a beekeeping operation near Pigeon Lake in which he had been a long-time employee. He runs many more hives than me and we have partnered together in both the production and marketing of our honeys. At Dan’s apiary they practise some really exemplary disease management techniques. They have also been breeding their own bees for nearly thirty years and practise an intensive form of management that results in healthier bees. They have never suffered the high losses beekeepers have been known to experience – this may be partly due to luck, but is probably due to their long-standing bee breeding efforts and close monitoring for diseases.
Tell us about hives – how big they get, the number of bees, the importance of a queen
Everyone has probably seen boxes of bees sitting out in fields. The bottom two boxes, called brood boxes, are where the bees raise their young and where the queen lives. On top of those boxes we place empty boxes, called honey supers, and the bees put all the excess nectar they collect up there.
There are three types of bees: worker bees, drone bees, and queens. All hives are made up of mostly worker bees, of which there can be over 100 000 bees by the end of the summer. They are always female. When worker bees are young they are called house bees — they stay in the hive, feeding larva and making wax. They also move fresh honey around in the hive and set up complex ventilation systems by fanning their wings. By moving the nectar around and fanning it, they evaporate water until the nectar has a moisture content that will prevent the honey from fermenting. As worker bees get older they become foragers, or field bees, and begin leaving the hive to collect pollen and nectar. There are a few drone bees in every hive, they are all males. Here’s an interesting fact — drone bees cannot sting because they do not have stingers. They do not do much work in the hive but instead mate with queens.
There is usually only one queen in each hive, which means it’s very important we don’t accidentally squish her when we open the hive! She lays all the eggs and keeps the hive functioning as a cohesive unit through the pheromones she releases. Although worker bees only live a few weeks, a queen bee typically lives for three years but can live even longer!
Our regular customers are great. It’s wonderful seeing the same faces every few weeks, learning how people use honey and why they like buying ours. We’re looking forward to meeting lots of new people this summer. We enjoy the positive feedback we receive every week from people who have bought our honey and are delighted at its great taste and uniqueness.
On which days will you be at the City Market Downtown?
We’ll be at the City Market every Saturday. My sister Becky has joined our ranks as our front-liner at the markets this summer.