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Local beekeepers are getting ready for the sweet success of honey season

Kirsten Harrington I Correspondent

With spring’s arrival, beekeepers are preparing for the nectar flow that will send their bees buzzing happily into honey production.

As more people plant a few rows of fruits or vegetables to stretch those ever-shrinking grocery dollars, local bees will be busier than ever. Even the White House is on board the honeybee train, with first lady Michelle Obama’s beehive proudly displayed on the South Lawn.

Honey and the furry insects that produce it have long held man’s fascination. Caves of our prehistoric ancestors depict art of beehives and honey-gathering expeditions. The transition from honey hunting in the wild to organized beekeeping began at least 4,000 years ago in India. Honey was valued as a food source, for its medicinal properties, and played an important role in Indian myths and religious rituals. One such ritual included slathering the bride-to-be with honey during the wedding ceremony to ensure fertility.

Today, honey continues to be popular for its flavor, versatility in cooking, and soothing and healing properties. And of course, the fascination with these organized nectar-loving creatures continues.

Local beekeepers have a passion for bees

Spokane beekeeper Dean Dupree started raising bees about six years ago. Dupree’s interest in honey began with bread making. “I use about 2/3 of a cup of honey in each batch, and I make bread every week,” he said, adding that he had a good friend who was a beekeeper.

A self-starter and back-to-nature kind of guy, Dupree has raised chickens, turkeys and enjoys gardening. “I can figure this bee thing out on my own,” he thought. So he bought some used equipment from a retiring beekeeper, and some bees from Tate’s Honey Farm.

Dupree’s three hives produce between 15 to 30 gallons of honey per year. He uses the honey to make bread, granola and honey butter spreads for backpacking. What he doesn’t consume he sells to friends and co-workers and uses the money to buy new supplies. “The bees seem to last two to three years, and one hive didn’t make it through the winter,” he said, explaining the need to purchase more bees.

“I like getting in touch with their world, learning about the bees themselves,” Dupree explained when asked what he likes about keeping bees. “They’re not anything like we would expect, they’re not aggressive,” he added. Even when Dupree is robbing the bees of their honey, the 50,000 bees in the hive are not flying around in an agitated cloud as we might expect. They simply crawl down inside the box, like ants.

Wally Plowman of Spokane Valley, has been keeping bees since 1953. What started as a neighborly gesture when Plowman removed a swarm of bees from someone’s yard evolved into a business producing 4 to 5 tons of honey per season. He started out by reading up on bees and working with other local beekeepers.

“Beekeepers are a lot of fun. We help each other out,” he said.

When Colony Collapse Disorder hit Plowman’s hives three years ago, his production plummeted. Last year his bees produced only 2,400 pounds of honey. He needs to get back up to 12,000 pounds per year to meet the demand of the three stores he supplies.

“I like making the woodenware in the winter,” said Plowman, referring to the wooden hive bodies and other beekeeping equipment. Plowman, who earned an industrial arts minor in college, found designing his own beekeeping equipment to be right up his alley. And as a former teacher, Plowman found beekeeping a relaxing enterprise.

“Beekeeping is diametrically opposite teaching school” he said. “No one bothers you when you are working with bees. “We used to can with honey instead of sugar. It was healthier for the kids and has a better flavor,” Plowman added. Honey also keeps bread moist, a point well noted by Plowman’s son, Gary, who regularly bakes bread for his family using his dad’s honey.

Pollination

Bees do more than just make honey for us to enjoy. As they travel from blossom to blossom in search of nectar, bees carry pollen from one plant to the next, thereby pollinating the flowers.

Farmers in Green Bluff depend on bees to pollinate apricot, cherry, peach and apple trees. Sometimes, Jerry Tate, owner of Tate’s Honey Farm in Spokane Valley, is called in to give Mother Nature a boost.

“We rent the bees to orchards right after the trees bloom,” he said. Tate brings in one to two colonies per acre so his bees can pollinate the fruit trees. He leaves the bees for four to five days, and then picks them up again. Timing is everything in providing bees for pollination, Tate said. If he brings the bees in too early – before the fruit trees have blossomed – the bees will fly farther away from the orchard in search of flowers.

In addition to providing pollination services to local orchards, Tate’s Honey Farm supplies everything from bees to honey and all of the equipment local beekeepers need.

“We’ve increased our bee sales by 10 percent over last year,” Tate said. He attributes this increase to people’s renewed interest in gardening and raising their own food, including honey.

Honey is healing

The use of honey for medicinal purposes dates back to the early civilizations of the Sumerians and the Egyptians. Clay tablets from around 2,000 B.C. describe the Sumerians’ use of honey mixed with grease as a salve for pierced earlobes and surgical incisions. Honey, mixed with various herbs, also was used to treat routine cuts and scrapes.

In “Letters from the Hive,” Stephen Buchmann recounts the numerous medicinal concoctions prepared by the ancient Egyptians. The healing formulas were written on papyrus and discovered in Egyptian tombs. “Out of 700 formulas, 147 call for honey as one of the principal healing agents,” Buchmann writes. As early as 1,550 B.C. Egyptian healers recognized honey as a natural antibacterial agent, and used it to treat eye infections, skin disorders, and burns. Egyptian physicians also recognized the anti-inflammatory properties of honey, recommending that sprains be rubbed with honey daily until the patient recovered.

Prior to the advent of antibiotics in the 1940s, honey was commonly used to treat skin wounds. Its high sugar content absorbs moisture, making it hard for bacteria to survive. Many honeys contain hydrogen peroxide and act as a natural disinfectant.

“One of the most powerful antibacterial honeys is manuka from New Zealand,” Buchmann writes. Manuka honey is used to treat stomach ulcers, and is also an ingredient in honey-impregnated bandages.

A Dutch company called HoneySoft makes bandages for burn patients containing a modern healing agent and high-grade honey. The honey-impregnated dressings don’t stick to the skin, and have been effective in preventing infection. In Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, honey-impregnated bandages are used in many state and private hospitals.

Honey varietals

If you are thinking that all honey tastes the same, think again.

“One of the things I love about honey is that it has terroir: Its flavor reflects the blossoming flowers of the specific region in which it was produced. Some honeys are thick, dark and brooding; others are light in color and bright on the tongue,” Heidi Swanson writes in “Super Natural Cooking.” Swanson added that a honey that might pair well with an artisan cheese could be very different from a honey used in baking.

There are hundreds of varieties of honey in the United States. As a general rule, the darker the honey, the stronger the flavor. For example, orange blossom honey, with its light, delicate taste, is suited for baking honey cakes. Darker, bolder buckwheat honey often is spread on bread, or baked into whole-grain desserts.

The best way to learn the subtleties of honey is to start tasting. Experiment, try different pairings and take notes. Talk to honey producers at the farmers market, who are familiar with the nuances of different varieties. Swanson suggests looking for raw, unfiltered, unprocessed honey, and if you’re after the health benefits, “be aware that darker honeys contain higher levels of antioxidants.”

Cooking with honey

Honey should always be stored at room temperature. Refrigeration will speed up the natural process of crystallization in which liquid honey turns solid. If this happens to your honey, simply set it in warm water, or microwave it for 10 to 20 seconds at a time, stirring frequently until the honey liquefies.

There are some guidelines to keep in mind when baking with honey. Its high sugar content makes it a powerful sweetener, so don’t overdo it. Start by replacing the refined sugar in a given recipe with half the amount of honey. Because honey contains water, you will need to reduce the liquid in your recipe by ¼ cup for each cup of honey used.

The National Honey Board recommends adding ½ teaspoon of baking soda to your recipe for each cup of honey used, and reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees to prevent over-browning. The baking soda helps to neutralize the honey’s acidity. When measuring honey, coat the measuring cup with nonstick cooking spray or vegetable oil before adding the honey. The honey will slide right out.

While we think most often of using honey in baking, it is also delicious used in salad dressings, marinades, dipping sauces, or drizzled over fresh fruit, artisan cheeses or ice cream. Try a spoonful of darker, more robust honey in your favorite barbecue sauce recipe, or stir some orange blossom honey into your hot tea. Make some honey butter by mixing 2 sticks of softened butter with 1 cup of honey and a ½ teaspoon of salt. Beat until smooth and then refrigerate.

Here are a few other recipes to try at home.

Honey Nut Granola

Courtesy of Dean Dupree, Spokane

7 ½ cups rolled oats, divided

1/2 cup wheat bran

3/4 cup fine shredded coconut (unsweetened)

2 cups chopped nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts)

1 ½ cups honey

½ cup olive oil

Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Measure 6 cups of rolled oats and spread in shallow layers on baking sheets. Toast the oats in the oven for about 30 minutes, until you see a slight change in color. (Be careful not to burn them.)

While oats are toasting, mix remaining 1 ½ cups oats, wheat bran, coconut and nuts in a large bowl. Add the toasted oats. Combine honey and olive oil and pour over dry ingredients. Mix thoroughly until all dry ingredients are covered. Spread the mixture onto baking sheets and bake for 45 minutes or until the desired color is reached.

Remove from oven and when completely cool, store in airtight containers.

Yield: about 12 one-cup servings.

Honey Lemon Squares

From the National Honey Board, www.honey.com

½ cup butter or margarine, softened

¼ cup confectioners’ sugar

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon flour, divided

¾ cup honey

½ cup lemon zest

3 eggs

1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

½ teaspoon baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add 1 cup flour and mix until combined. Press the mixture evenly into the bottom of a 9-inch square pan. Bake for 20 minutes, or until lightly browned. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients until thoroughly blended. Pour over the baked crust and bake 20 minutes more, until the filling has set. Cool in the pan and cut into squares to serve.

Yield: 12 servings.

Berry Striped Pops

From “Robbing the Bees,” by Holley Bishop

2 cups strawberries

¾ cup honey, divided

6 kiwifruit, peeled and sliced

2 cups peaches, peeled and pitted

12 3-ounce paper cups or popsicle molds

12 popsicle sticks

In a blender or food processor, puree the strawberries with ¼ cup of the honey. Divide mixture evenly among the 12 cups or molds. Freeze until firm, about 30 minutes. When the strawberry layer is firm, puree the kiwifruit with another ¼ cup of the honey and pour kiwifruit puree into the molds. Insert a popsicle stick and freeze until firm, about 30 minutes.

Puree the peaches and the remaining ¼ cup of honey and pour peach puree into the molds. Freeze until firm and ready to serve.

Yield: 12 pops.

Buzzman’s Zesty Honey Chicken Tenders

From “Letters from the Hive,” by Stephen Buchmann

½ to 1 cup clover or wildflower honey

¼ to ½ cup water

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

Freshly grated zest from ½ orange

¼ teaspoon powdered cumin

1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano, crushed, then powdered using your fingers

2 to 4 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed

Salt and pepper to taste

½ diced fresh jalapeño pepper, optional

2 pounds chicken breast, skinned, boned and cut into narrow strips, ½ to 1 inch wide

Mix all of the ingredients, except the chicken strips, until smooth. Reserve ¼ cup marinade in a small bowl for later use. Pour remaining marinade into a large zip-top plastic bag. Add the chicken strips to the bag and seal. Shake thoroughly and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour prior to cooking; overnight is better.

Remove chicken strips and discard marinade. Cook the chicken on the barbecue or over medium heat on the stove until done, adding reserved marinade to the chicken as required to keep it moist.

Serve over rice or with your favorite vegetables.

Yield: 8 servings.

Kirsten Harrington can be reached at kharrington67@earthlink.net or visit her Web site at www.chefonthego.net.
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