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Exploring Bees and Honey at the State Fair

I foster a years-long ritual at the Minnesota State Fair. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with anything that's deep fried, on-a-stick, or makes you throw up the more you ride it – which is not to say I don't also go for such dalliances. But I’ve grown into a few adult-onset educational adventures as well. I’ve found myself checking out the animal barns (although the lamb wearing the “which cut is this” t-shirt last year firmly reinforced my inability to eat that particular animal … baaaa), visiting the Fine Arts building, and buying beautiful locally produced wools for my 2-year old knitting obsession. And each year, I simply must buy honey at the state fair. I adore honey in all its different flavors and colors. I love eating it, stirring it into hot tea, and cooking with it. And I love the idea that it comes from the local producers here in Minnesota and not some mass producer that homogenizes and flattens out the flavor. This year, I decided to dig a little deeper to learn more about the bee keeping and honey making process.

Lots of us know that we have many beekeepers and honey producers in the state of Minnesota, but did you know that Minnesota is one of the top 6 honey producing states in America? Our bees crank out more than 13 million pounds of honey annually! I had no idea. During my first visit to the fair this year, I attended a couple of bee/honey-related seminars, along with a couple of cooking demos, and I capped off my visit with my annual taste testing and selection of honey to bring home. The most interesting presentation, in my opinion, was that of Gary S. Reuter, a scientist from the University of Minnesota – catch him at the ECO Experience building if you can. The end result of this whole endeavor was that I found myself completely fascinated by bees. My knowledge was considerably more basic than I thought, but our fair makes the whole vague matter that much more accessible. But bee warned (sorry); once you hear all of the intriguing facts and figures around bee keeping and honey production, you too may find yourself with a new obsession - and a delicious one at that.

Because of my developing interest in our local food systems, I was astounded to learn that more than 1/3 of our American food supply depends on the efforts of pollinating insects, the largest portion of which is honey bees. Think about it: all that pollination happens on the backs of honey bees going about their nectar collecting business. And not just the more obvious fruits and veggies, but coffee, chocolate, nuts, and crops such as the clover, alfalfa, and hay produced to feed grazing animals. In fact, the state of California needs more than a million colonies just to pollinate almond trees; due to many factors – including the recent-onset of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – they only have about half of that, so the remainder are trucked in to do their duty and move on. This was another interesting tidbit: something like two-thirds of the nation’s bee colonies go mobile in order to help facilitate the pollination process. The bees start in Florida to get the citrus crops going and then truck up the eastern seaboard – stopping to pollinate particular crops along the way – to Maine where they work on blueberries. The scope of their work is amazing.

Like many other issues that affect our agriculture system, the health and well being of bee colonies has become a hot button topic, and for good reason. The combined effects of pesticides, disease and the somewhat inexplicable CCD have put a strain on the bee population. A mono-cropped agricultural system doesn’t help. So, if you care about locally available produce and other products, do what you can to support the bee keeping industry. Become a bee keeper! Buy honey! Or try one of these ideas:

While I'm back on the subject of honey, I also want to mention some of its health benefits, including treatments for allergies, burns, and wound and throat care.

After my state fair education - sampling several different kinds of honey and picking up a new version to try (dark wildflower honey from Ellingson’s in Odessa MN for $5.75) - I was ready to get down to the business of food. In addition to recipes provided by the fair’s presenters, I found a few others that got me going. Try them out and let us know what you think!

I owe the details here to: Bee Lines newsletter available at the Ag/Hort building; the presentation by Gary S. Reuter from the U of M’s Bee Lab; the American Beekeeping Federation; and wikipedia.com.

Tracy Morgan is a Twin Cities foodie and the owner of Segnavia Creative, a marketing services consulting company located in St. Paul, MN. She is a regular contributor to Simple, Good, and Tasty.

This post was proudly submitted to Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday.

Comments

Nice overview of bees and their importance. Mn has had a long history of beekeeping here and we are in the top 5 honey producing states.

Ponder this about our nations honeybees though.

Roughly 1500 Industrial Beekeepers in the USA manage about 50-60% of the bees. This is similar to the poultry,hogs and dairy feedlot industry where ownership is concentrated with a small number of operations.

In the wild honeybee hive would be naturally spaced 1/2 mile apart and stay in their hives all winter even in climates like MN,

In Feedlot beekeeping 10's of thousands of colonies are staged in huge holding yards in CA from Nov to Jan awaiting the Feb/March almond bloom.

These unnatural concentrations encourage Feedlot beeks to feed antibiotics to their bees in case of a bacterial outbreak and the whole lot is wiped out (just like livestock confinement operations)) As normally this would be the low point of their population this is not in synch with the demands of almond pollination where large populations of workers are needed.

These bees are fed HFCS or sugar syrup and soy flour as nectar and pollen substitutes to stimulate the bees and make them think its spring so the queen will lay eggs and get the hive populated.

Perhaps the problems with CCD etc, has to do with the idea that we're pollinating a huge monocrop of Asian nut trees blooming in mid winter in North America. Anyone see a problem with this scenario?

My take home point is support local beekeepers who keep their bees in MN year around. There are probably close to 1000 of these smaller beeks in MN. Avoid feedlot honey mostly sold in large grocery chains and instead buy local raw honey from your local beekeeper(s) at farmers markets and coops etc.

Vote for sustainable agriculture with your grocery bill each week!

Thanks so much for your comments Brian, and a big ol' YIKES to the thought of bees being fed HFCS (amongst the other issues you've raised). Your advice to keep it local, buy it raw and buy from local resources will help those of us just learning about bees and honey to choose well. Thanks again!

Tracy, where at the Fair can we buy honey? Which building? Thanks!

Thanks for weighing in and continuing our education, Brian. You raise excellent points, and your attention to detail and to nature's balance helps make Ames Farm honey one of our consistent favorites. Educating ourselves and others is a great way to make sure we understand the difference between products that claim to be the same, and really helps us support sustainable businesses and practices. We are lucky to have you.

That's incredible information, Brian. Thank you for bringing it to light. I usually support local honey producers, but now I ALWAYS will!

Dana, you can buy - and mostly importantly, sample with wild abandon - at the Agriculture/Horticulture building. There is an entire "spoke" of the building dedicated to bees and honey. Check it out!

A new "debate" at the NYTimes on what is known about the bee disappearance.

http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/02/saving-bees-what-we-kn...

Thanks for the link, Jerry. So much great information there, much to read, watch and absorb.

Thanks for the great info! I'm going to use it for part of our homeschool lesson on pollinators.

Hi Pollen, very glad to be of use to you! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. 

Any info on honey's impact on blood sugar? I see so much conflicting info on why honey is a better sweetener than sugar and if a diabetic should have honey or none at all. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Hi Katie,

Thanks for your note! Here are a couple of articles I found useful on the topic:

http://yourtotalhealth.ivillage.com/is-honey-okay-you-have-diabetes.html, describing honey as a nutritive sweetener (meaning it has some nutritional value - and calories).

http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=96, which says that honey has been proven to be a good choice for type 2 diabetics. It also describes several of honey's health benefits, which sugar doesn't have.

I hope this is helpful!

-Lee

Great post! Honey bees are one of the most well-known, popular and economically beneficial insects. For thousands of years, man has plundered honey bee colonies to get honey, bee larvae and beeswax. Now, honey bees are commonly kept in artificial hives throughout the United States. Although many people make a living from bees, most beekeepers are hobbyists who have only a few hives and who simply enjoy working with these fascinating insects.

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