Health from the Hive

Therapeutic health benefits of unprocessed honey gain presence in the North Country


Story and photos by Eva Mizer

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When bee keepers want to access their hives, they use tin smokers to desensitize the bees.

A large green pickup truck drives down one of the back roads of Beekmantown, N.Y.  It slows, turning into a gravel driveway. About 50 feet from the road, a small clearing dotted with large white boxes has been cut away from the surrounding woods. The truck stops, and two men step out and start to unload tin smokers and tubs of a substance with the look and consistency of peanut butter. Michael Palmer, a tall man with glasses and long graying hair, starts lighting the fires in the tin smokers while his assistant Kork, a quirky man with a perfectly curled handlebar mustache, checks the weight of each of the white boxes. The time comes, and after a few puffs of smoke into a box, Palmer opens the lid to greet hundreds of bees starting to stir from the long winter months. Palmer is a beekeeper, head of French Hill Apiaries, and an advocate for the benefits of natural raw honey.

Apitherapy is the use of natural bee products such as raw honey, royal jelly, pollen, propolis, beeswax, and bee venom to heal various ailments and promote good health. Although the exact origin of apitherapy is unknown, the use of honey and other bee products to treat ailments has been linked to various cultures and times in ancient Egypt, Greece, and China as far back as 4,000 B.C. In modern times, bee products are most widely used for food and as an added sweetener, but they are gaining presence in the medicine cabinet as treatment for a variety of ailments including infections and allergies.

“So you can expose yourself to low doses of pollen… to slowly build up a resistance.”

When honey is produced, bees gather nectar and pollen from surrounding fields from various flowering trees, shrubs, and bushes. When they bring it back to the hive, the honey is produced and sealed in individual capsules, which together make up the honeycomb. Since the bees use local flowers, each variety of honey is particular to a certain area and a certain hive. Depending on the two mile radius around each hive, North Country honey can have pollen from various flora such as apple trees, dandelions, and goldenrods.

Many have speculated that since honey is only made from pollen from local plants, it might be used as an aid in acclimation and reduction of allergies. Chris Lowe of Cornell University was raised with bees. “My grandparents had bees, and they had 3,000 colonies at their peak,” Lowe recalls. Although most of their honey was sold for food consumption and not medicinal use, her grandparents were firm believers in apitherapy. “They believed that honey and bee pollen were good at warding off allergies that people would get in the neighborhood,” she says. “So you can expose yourself to low doses of pollen, which the bees collect, and honey, which has some of the same compounds in it which are bothering you, to slowly build up a resistance.”

“Enzymes are the unsung heroes of nutrition.”

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In winter, bees feed off the honey they have stored in their hive.

Along with allergy relief, raw honey is said to contain small amounts of a variety of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants which vary depending on floral variety. In the world of sports, athletes look to honey for workout recovery. A study at the University of Memphis Exercise and Sports Nutrition Library found honey to be one of the most effective forms of carbohydrate gels to ingest just before and after exercise. This means that as a pre-and-post-workout supplement, honey promotes muscle and glycogen (carbohydrates stored in muscles) restoration as well as sustaining favorable blood sugar levels for at least two hours after exercising. The most important aspect of honey, however, is the long-revered enzymes found in raw honey.

“The most important thing in raw honey is the enzymes,” Todd Hardie, co-founder of Honey Gardens, says. “Enzymes are the unsung heroes of nutrition. They keep you moving, support body health, and help support the immune system, which is a really big concern in this day and age because peoples' immune systems are being compromised by environment and poor diet, among other things.”

Much of the honey sold in stores does not hold the benefits of natural raw honey. In the 1960s, honey producers began processing their honey in such a way that would allow honey to last longer on shelves of supermarkets without crystallizing. Although this honey was more aesthetically pleasing, the process came at a cost. “When you heat it that much, you chemically alter the sugars and the enzymes which gave it flavor and all of its special properties, like warding off allergies. Basically, it changed the honey into a characterless sugar syrup,” Lowe adds, laughing.

The problem with crystallization, however, was not really an issue of honey spoiling but of misconceptions by consumers. “If you don't know a lot about honey, you think that when it's crystallized, it's spoiled,” Lowe explains. “It's not spoiled. It's just crystallized, which can happen to anything containing sugar.”

“Imports from China have damaged or destroyed industries all across the country, and honey production was one that was hit hard and early."

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When the honey supplies of bee colonies run low, bee keepers will give protein and sugar suppliments to help sustain the bees until the flowers bloom.

Adding to the woes of local raw honey producers, international apiaries, specifically honey imports from China, decreased the value and quality of honey on the market. “The price of honey was just collapsing,” says Pete Borst, a retired bee inspector and current technician of the Cohen Lab at Cornell University. “Imports from China have damaged or destroyed industries all across the country, and honey production was one that was hit hard and early.” In the 1980s, wholesale honey sold for roughly $.35 a pound, far below the minimal of $.80 or $.90 a pound which local producers would need to stay in business.

However, batches of honey from China were later found to contain contaminants such as antibiotics. “In the past couple years, these have been sent back which has caused the cost of local honey to go way up,” Borst explains. “The price of wholesale honey is good now—we’re at about $1.20 or $1.30 a pound.” Although the increase in the price of domestic honey helped support local apiaries, competition with nationally-owned honey producers to be cost effective was still a challenge.

To compete with the national and international producers while still maintaining the natural raw aspects of the honey, many apiaries and hobbyists used system of filters and low-heat methods to combat crystallization. “My grandparents would warm the honey up to body temperature (98-99 degrees fahrenheit), which made it runny. Then they purified it by pouring it through a cylinder filled with a special type of beach sand,” Lowe explains. “This process would filter the honey, taking out anything that could act as a crystallization nucleus. This became the alternate way to keep honey from crystallizing honey on the shelf while preserving its enzymes and unique properties.”

“Honey doesn’t need to be touched. It is perfect just how the bees made it.”

Even with a high saturation of processed honey from China and the United States in the market, the demand for local raw and unprocessed honey is on the rise in the North Country. “I have a lot more people coming in and asking if we have raw honey,” says Carol Czaja, ringing up customers at the North Country Food Co-op of Plattsburgh. “They’ve been reading about how it helps with allergies and the other health benefits, and some people use it for folk remedies like adding honey and apple cider vinegar together as a general digestive aid.”

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Although small alone, a strong colony numbering in the tens of thousands can produce up to 150 pounds of honey a season.

The growing popularity of raw honey in the North Country can also be seen in the source of the honey as the number of hobbyists and new start-ups of apiaries expand. “Before, bee clubs were not youth-friendly because you would go to the meetings and it would be full of old men swapping bear-hunting stories,” Palmer explains. “Now with the internet, it’s easy for people to join, connect with each other, and find any information they want.” Another aspect of the increase, sometimes quoted as rising from about 30 members to 150, is an environmental one. “People would hear about the colony collapse disorder and were concerned for the bees,” Palmer says, lifting another box lid to demonstrate a dead colony. “I think a large part of it was that people wanted to help do their part to help save the bees.”

After all of the boxes are opened for the bees to be inspected for good health and given appropriate food supplements, Palmer and Kork close each box carefully. As Kork starts to pack the supplies back into the truck to head to the next hive site two miles away, Palmer takes out a notebook to record the state of each hive and health of each colony. Although he will eventually harvest the honey from his hives to sell to larger apiaries come July, the only honey he will sell to his own customer base is honeycomb. Because honeycomb honey is not process, filtered, or changed in any way, it is as pure and unprocessed as possible. “Honey doesn’t need to be touched,” explains Palmer, “it is perfect just how the bees made it.”

Do you have any recipes using raw honey? Share them with us!

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