Among the greatest beneficiaries of Virginia’s natural splendor is the western honeybee, which was first introduced to the New World in 1622 to help Jamestown colonists improve their crop cultivation. Nearly 400 years later, the species is still busy producing unique honeys that are coveted by local consumers.
The process begins each spring when foraging honeybees collect nectar from flowering plants and use the syrup to produce honey in their hives. The nectar source determines the honey’s flavor, and the wide range of honey varieties produced in Virginia are a product of the state’s floral diversity.
“There are a lot of nectar sources out there. Every plant is going to have a different concentration of sugars and flavors, so each will produce a honey with its own unique tastes and colors,” said Keith Tignor, state apiarist for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “And because bees are generalist pollinators, they’re usually visiting multiple plant species and are likely to bring back lots of different nectars to combine in the hive.”
Tignor said beekeepers manage their harvests to determine whether their honeys will have a plant-specific flavor or a culmination of flavors from several different plants. To influence their colonies’ pollination practices, beekeepers often place their hives in locations where certain plants are in full bloom. This encourages bees to feed on that plant’s nectar.
“Once that plant’s bloom is over, beekeepers will take the honey that was produced during that time, extract it and bottle it,” Tignor said. “They’ll label their honey things like clover, thistle, and tulip poplar because that’s where most of the nectar came from that’s in that jar of honey.”
Buckwheat, clover, and wildflower are among the most common honey varieties produced in Virginia though the commonwealth is known for its production of sourwood honey. Named after the species of trees that are found in southern and western parts of the state, its nectar is available to honeybees in June and July.
The honey, revered for its sweet, buttery taste resembling caramel, typically makes its way to consumers in early August.
“It’s what we call ‘the Cadillac of the honeys,” said Glenn Clayton, who produces sourwood and wildflower honey at Hungry Hill Farm in Nelson County. “You have all kinds of honey, but sourwood has its own special flavor.”
Bob Wellemeyer, a Rappahannock County beekeeper who produces goldenrod and wildflower honey at Windsong Apiaries, noted locally produced honey is becoming popular with consumers for culinary and medicinal purposes.
Honey is a trendy yeast source and ingredient at Virginia breweries, distilleries, and meaderies as well. Darker honey varieties are sometimes favored for their nutritional value.
Raw honey is finding increased applications in medical settings because of its wound-healing properties.
“The thing you’ve got to remember about honey is that it’s pretty much perfect in the hive,” Wellemeyer said. “The honey that smaller producers are selling is strained, not filtered, and still has all the pollen grains and particles that make it the product people want to buy. Raw honey is one thing smaller producers can offer that the big packing companies can’t.”