Saturday, September 15, 2018

Honey at the Spencer Fair

A stand showing some of the honey entries at this year's Spencer Fair. (Photo: Ellen Perry)

Every year at the Spencer Fair, the Worcester County (Massachusetts) Beekeepers Association puts on an educational display that includes candle-rolling and an observation hive  the latter basically a couple of hive frames covered with honeybees and encased in glass so that people can see the insects at work. The observation hive is extremely popular with children, who focus intently on locating the queen bee and almost always shout with delight when they find her. (This year, she was marked with a red dot on her back, which made her a lot easier to find and also indicated that she was born in 2018.) The children were mesmerized by the hive right up until somebody delivered a couple of two-week-old baby goats to a nearby display, at which point they drifted  or, in some cases, raced  away.

The Worcester County Beekeepers also run a number of competitions at the fair for local beekeepers. There are prizes for best baked goods made with honey, best articles made of beeswax, and best beekeeping photographs. Understandably, though, honey is the center of attention, and there are various different competitions just for that, including for best cut comb and best full depth hive frame of honey. But most beekeepers submit two one-pound jars to compete in a category determined by color: your honey might be light, amber, dark or one of several shades between.

Believe it or not, in this particular competition, taste doesn’t factor much into the judges’ selection. It’s not that all honey tastes alike: anybody who has ever had the chance to taste a buckwheat honey side-by-side with a clover honey knows that that is categorically not true. But there isn’t really an agreed-upon standard for the taste of honey and, at any rate, it seems only fair not to emphasize it: fair prizes go to beekeepers and, with rare exceptions, they’re not the ones who deserve credit for a honey’s flavor. That rightly goes to the honeybees, who scouted the nectar and did most of the work to gather it. For the most part, then, beekeepers can only really screw up what honeybees already achieved to perfection. So Worcester County judges do, in fact, taste the honey, but are inclined to give a perfect score (30/30) for flavor as long as the beekeeper hasn’t seriously compromised the product.

A hive frame with capped honey towards the top. The queen is visible up there, identifiable by a red dot. (Photo: Ellen Perry)

If they’re not focusing on taste, what are the judges looking for when they score a jar of honey? Most importantly, density  which is to say, moisture content. If the moisture doesn’t fall within a certain range (for the Worcester Beekeepers that’s 15.5% to 18.6% water), the entry is simply disqualified. This is because excessively moist honey can ferment and spoil if it’s stored for very long. By contrast, honey with the right moisture content will stay good on your shelf for a long, long time.

For your average, everyday beekeeper (that’s me), it’s not difficult to achieve honey with the right moisture content: you just have to wait until the worker bees in their hive “cap off” (that is, cover with wax) the honeycomb: that’s a sign that they think it’s ready for long-term storage. If they haven’t done that, it means they believe there’s still too much moisture in the honey  and, frankly, they should know. For fair judges  and hardcore beekeepers  who want more precision, there’s a device called a refractometer to establish a precise measurement of moisture content. (For a sense of what one looks like and how it works, check here.)

A judge's score card. (Photo: Ellen Perry)

There are other categories on the judges’ scorecard  categories to measure the cleanliness of the honey itself, the container appearance, and any crystallization  which, to be fair, probably is the fault of the honeybees because it’s related to their nectar source. (Crystallization is measured with the help of another device called a polariscope.) If your honey crystallizes, though, here’s what you do: put the jar into a saucepan of water and bring the water to a gentle boil. As you heat the jar, the crystals will disappear and your honey will return to its former self.

That’s about it, except that Worcester County judges do subtract points if your honey has foam on the top or if it contains too many air bubbles. Foam comes from filling your jars too quickly during extraction. And bubbles? Well, I decided at the last minute not to enter the honey competition this year because I extracted from my own hives just two days before the fair, and it’s a process that uses centrifugal force: you spin the honey off the frames at high speed. After that, it takes a few days for the resulting air bubbles to settle down. So I had to make do with a second-place ribbon in baking, a third-place ribbon in photography, and the $3 in prize money that arrived in my mail just yesterday.

Ellen Perry eats, cooks, and keeps bees in central Massachusetts. She teaches classical archaeology at the College of the Holy Cross and is the author of The Aesthetics of Emulation in the Visual Arts of Ancient Rome, the co-editor of Roman Artists, Patrons, and Public Consumption, and has written a number of articles on Roman art and architectural space.

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