Reports indicate most Wilkes County beekeepers have full supers of honey after a summer with a strong sourwood nectar flow.
This indicates the likelihood of a bumper sourwood honey crop, a prized variety produced most bountifully in the mountains of western North Carolina, northwestern South Carolina and north Georgia.
Sourwood is a light amber-colored honey often described as syrupy and spicy, something like buttery caramel and with a gingerbread-like aftertaste. It also is slow to crystalize.
Rain and other weather factors impact nectar flow in sourwood blossoms, so availability of the honey varies from year to year. Another variable is that weather can differ in different parts of Wilkes.
Sourwood trees bloomed unusually early this year, starting in early June at lower elevations. The blossoms are in their final stages at the highest elevations in Wilkes, so bees are still gathering the sourwood nectar there.
Honey bees will fly as far as three miles from the hive to collect nectar, so bees raised at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Wilkes can gather nectar from the flowers of sourwood trees and other plants at higher elevations when the same plant species within their reach at lower elevations have stopped blooming.
Wilkes has three honey seasons, including sourwood in years when it’s made. There’s only one honey season in most counties farther east.
Beekeepers generally let their bees keep any honey made from late summer and fall flowering plants to help them get through the winter, plus colonies should have been treated for varroa mites by then.
Wilkes had a bountiful spring honey crop this year, but it was another year with little honey made from the flowers of yellow poplar trees.
Spring freezes killed poplar blooms in 2017 and 2018, but the culprit this year wasn’t so clear.
This year was the fifth in a row that yellow poplar trees in Wilkes and other parts of western North Carolina were afflicted with yellow poplar weevils. These native insects feed on leaves of yellow poplars and certain other trees species and supposedly won’t kill the trees.
When a jar of honey is labeled “sourwood,” how can you know how much of the honey, if any, was actually made from sourwood nectar?
The late Dr. John T. Ambrose, state apiculturist from 1975 to 2000 and professor of entomology at North Carolina State University, prepared uniform standards for honey in 2010 to answer that question.
The N.C. State Beekeepers Association approved and uses the standards but hasn’t been able to get state government to incorporate them with rules and procedures governing food safety.
The standards say a product must be made by bees from plant nectar and have no additives or adulteration to be sold as honey. The country of origin must be identified.
The standards also say that to be marketed as honey from a specific floral source like sourwood, at least 51% of it must have been made from that source.
An increasing number of Wilkes beekeepers are sending honey samples to Texas A&M University for analysis to determine actual percentages of different plants represented in the samples.
Honey from Wilkes sent to Texas A&M for testing has been found to be over 80 % from sourwood nectar - and sometimes over 90% sourwood. Results of tests on this year’s honey should be known later this summer.
Last year’s sourwood honey crop was below average, which means very little was made from sourwood nectar. Wilkes had a good sourwood honey crop in 2015.
Keith Church, president of the Beekeepers of Wilkes, recommends retail prices of $10 per pound for spring wildflower honey and $12 per pound for sourwood. One pound equals 10.66 ounces of honey.
It’s best to buy from a beekeeper you know and trust, but otherwise look at the label on the container. Honey labeled as being from a local beekeeper, especially if the person is a state-certified beekeeper and/or certified honey producer, is more reliable.
The Beekeepers of Wilkes, a chapter of the N.C. State Beekeepers Association, meets at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month at the Wilkes Agricultural Center in Wilkesboro.