Appalachia’s sweetest tradition: Honey
by Candace Nelson
one of man’s first most widespread sweeteners
For more than 10,000 years, humans have prized this saccharine sauce for its medical, religious, and culinary uses. The sweet relationship between humans and honey predates that of potatoes, butter, and even tea.
And it’s a meaningful relationship, too; its impact is evident by its prevalence across the globe – honey has been depicted in cave paintings and inside Egyptian tombs as an offering in the afterlife.
But before it sat on counters in clear plastic squeeze-top bears, honey first oozed from wild bees’ nests that had been cracked open. When these wild nests were discovered through opportunistic hunting, honey gatherers protected and guarded them against other societies of people.
It wasn’t long before the demand for honey surpassed the supply available, and people began creating spaces in old logs or cylinders made of clay to mimic the homes to attract honey bees to set up their hives. These early forms of beekeeping helped blaze the path for market trade and modern beekeeping methods.
Like one Pennsylvania minister, early apiarists innovated new techniques that worked to preserve the colonies of bees while harvesting the honey as beekeeping made its way to America. Considered the father of modern beekeeping, Lorenzo Langstroth revolutionized the hobby by inventing the moveable frame hive in 1852. It is still in use today by hobby beekeepers.
Magical Mountain Sweets
Beekeeping became widespread on mountain farms by the mid-20th century to maintain a supply of sweetener for a family. In Appalachia, the most common types are sourwood, linn, and locust.
“Beekeepers also collect poplar, wildflower, clover, and buckwheat, with buckwheat being the most distinctive of Appalachian honey,” writes Mark F. Sohn in his book Appalachia Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes.
“Buckwheat honey is collected in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, while linn honey of the basswood tree is favored in eastern Kentucky. Further south in Western North Carolina and northern Georgia, sourwood honey is popular.”
Honey has subsequently played a prominent role in Appalachian food. From being spread on top of homemade biscuits or stirred into hot tea, honey has complemented many meals and drinks – whether it’s for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Sohn listed honey as one of the most iconic foods associated with Appalachia in his book, likely in part due to its continued prominence in the mountains. Cane sugar grows in frost-free climate zones – but not in the mountains of Appalachia. That is one reason honey and other sweeteners like sorghum and maple syrup continue to be favored in cooler climates like Appalachia.
One might put a twist on the traditional honey by infusing pears, resulting in pear honey that adds a fruity flavor to biscuits, cakes, or toast.
The Future is Bright
Bees, and subsequently beekeeping, have been declining for many years due to pesticides, loss of habitat, and pollution.
Years of industry affected the natural landscape across the region. But there are organizations, like the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, who are working to reverse the trend, strengthen the relationship with bees and help benefit the land. The organization is looking for a return to the mountains blanketed with thick forest while educating beekeepers on the trade and offering them support for an economic opportunity.
“We help our partners produce honey (and income) in the ‘greenest’ possible way. Since 2016, we have helped more than a hundred partners get started in beekeeping for profit,” the website reads.
The program, a project of the nonprofit Appalachian Headwaters, offers a five-week beekeeping class, mentors, 2-6 hives, a full-sized bee colony, hive boxes, smoker, veil, and hive tool. It also helps beekeepers extract, bottle, market, and distribute their honey. In turn, the beekeepers earn a sustainable income.
Honey bees and humans have had a tumultuous relationship since the beginning – with man disregarding the colonies in search of the honey; to man encouraging honey bees to set up in makeshift homes; to man respecting the colonies of honey bees by harvesting the honey without disturbing them; to man working to transform the land to support honey bees,
Honey bees are crucial to our future. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, one in every three bites of food in the country depends on pollinators like honey bees.
That equates to honey bees pollinating approximately $15 billion worth of crops each year, including more than 130 fruits and vegetables. They are a crucial part of the American food system because they make so many crops possible, and that contributes to food diversity, security, and profitability.
And they’re crucial to Appalachia. I, for one, don’t want to know a place without a fresh-baked biscuit topped with local honey.