Hundreds of beekeepers gather in Burlington

When it comes to marketing their renowned product for optimal value, beekeepers have some catching up to do. Unlike their wine- and cheesemaking counterparts, who have spent years coming up with elaborate verbiage, they’re missing a vocabulary for their distinctive flavors wax foundation embossing machine.
They’re working on it, though. When pressed, they can come up with words like “fruity,” “buttery,” or “smoky” to describe the taste of honey varieties. And they got ample encouragement Wednesday from Vermont author Rowan Jacobsen, a pre-eminent exponent of the “terroir” concept, which he said could aptly — and profitably — be applied to honey. Jacobsen’s receptive audience, at the Davis Center at the University of Vermont, comprised hundreds of beekeepers attending the annual conference of the Eastern Apicultural Society of North America. Registrants exceeded 600. They came from all over the country and beyond to hear expert speakers, learn hands-on techniques, and swap experiences in the wake of the crisis, known as CCD or colony collapse disorder, that afflicted American apiaries in 2006 and from which the industry has been gradually recovering.
Jacobsen wrote about colony collapse disorder in “Fruitless Fall” (2009), but it was his next book, “American Terroir” (2010) that informed his talk to the beekeepers. “Terroir,” a French word that Jacobsen translates as “taste of place,” is the notion that soil, weather, ecology and a range of other factors influence the unique flavor of a food grown or produced in a particular locale.
“In Europe,” Jacobsen said, “terroir is a big deal.” A $300 bottle of French Burgundy comes with a story grounded in a particular vineyard, as does a hunk of genuine Roquefort cheese that’s aged only in certain caves in southern France. He talked about how terroir finds expression in coffee, chocolate, salmon and oysters before finally getting around to honey, which he suggested might be the best example of all.
“Every single honey is different and expresses what’s going on in the landscape at a particular time and place,” he said. “It will change from year to year, from spot to spot, from season to season ... There’s no other food I know that varies so much and always tastes good.”

He was preaching to the choir, but many of his listeners have yet to make “terroir” part of their sales plans. This is, after all, a nation where much of the real honey — and even the fake honey — is sold in little plastic bears, perhaps a symptom of what Jacobsen calls the current “era of creeping placelessness.” He suggested that genuine local honey might better be sold in beautiful jars, accompanied by stories of where it comes from.
Six Vermont beekeepers represented in a display this week at City Market Co-op have yet to take this tack. Most of their offerings, which range in price from $5.20 to $13.18 per pound, can be found in plain jars, and the most expensive, remarkably, is in a plastic bear. The jars don’t come with “terroir” stories, although one label has a short essay declaring that the honey contains no “miticides, antibiotics or other medications.”
Mystery hive disorder Varroa mites, a parastic insect that triggers viruses damaging to bees, are among the factors adduced to explain colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon — in which worker bees disappear from hives — that’s still not fully understood. Other causes include pesticides, bad nutrition (from poor foraging, as in drought conditions), pesticides, and a disease called nosema — all playing on an apian immune system that’s believed to be less robust than several generations ago.
Bee losses have declined in each of the last three years, according to entomologist Dewey Caron, who gave a presentation Tuesday titled “Keeping Bees Alive.” Losses in the spring of 2012 amounted to 22 percent, according to a national survey, the lowest in six years. Bee die-offs have occurred periodically over the last two centuries, Caron said, so CCD isn’t without precedent. (In 1915, for example, colonies in Portland, Ore., were beset by something called “disappearing disease.”)
Mites turned up here and there during a collective inspection of hives set up on UVM’s central green Tuesday afternoon. For each of six colonies, an expert removed frames from hives and helped spectators trying to find the queen. Willing participants then got to practice picking up the queen and marking her with a “paint pen,” which looks like a Magic Marker. Participants were asked to wear veils, but the hive exploration was all bare-handed. Stings were few, thanks to the judicious use of hand-held smokers (cans containing smoldering brush, with bellows).

“It’s your attitude, basically,” said Robert Wellemeyer, a bee inspector from Virginia, when asked why there weren’t more stings. He wasn’t even wearing a veil as he lifted out frames of bees and picked up drones for others to examine. “People have to learn how to handle themselves around bees.”
Earlier Tuesday, a session on urban beekeeping focused on Detroit, where there are 350 hives (up from a dozen a decade ago) — on roofs, porches, behind garages, on school grounds. “There’s a lot of open land,” said the presenter, Rich Wieske. “Makes great forage.”
Honeybees have a flying radius of up to 3 miles, so it can be difficult to peg a given hive’s honey to a single variety of plant — blueberry, say — much less to organic ones. Keepers of the bees
Many of the beekeepers in attendance are “sideliners” — people with day jobs who tend hives in their spare time. They seem to be a down-to-earth lot. On the other hand, said Bill Mares of Burlington, outgoing president of the Vermont Beekeepers Society, “Beekeepers are like lawyers. You get six people together and they’ll have seven opinions.”
That apparently applies even when they’re asked to characterize themselves.
“They have a sense of inquiry,” Mares said, when asked to describe his fellow enthusiasts. “That’s necessary, because every year has a different set of challenges. You can’t get away with mere repetition.”
By contrast, Larry Connor, who had lectured on “Rearing Quality Queens,” said merely that beekeepers are “a cross-section of humanity.”
Kim Flottum, of Bee Culture Magazine, offered another generalization: “outdoors enthusiasts, observant, care for the environment, most are over 50, most are male, most live in the country.”
Wieske got a good laugh during his presentation when he showed a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles: one “labeled farmers” and the other labeled “crazy people,” with an arrow, labeled “beekeepers,” pointing at the intersection.
On the ground floor of the Davis Center Wednesday morning, Michael Palmer, a prominent Vermont beekeeper from St. Albans, was arranging the competitive show. With him was Michael Young, of Northern Ireland, who would be helping with the taste test. Young explained that the entries would be checked for jar cleanliness, clarity, water content, smell. He opened a jar and sniffed.
“Citrus smell,” he said.
Young admitted he’s partial to heather honey produced in his homeland of project for us comb foundation mill..
“You can smell the peat,” he said. “It’s the caviar of honey.”
Most American beekeepers don’t talk like that — not yet, anyway. Mares acknowledged that they have to work on their taste vocabulary. He thinks they can draw some inspiration from the slow food movement.
What can they say to the average American who’s used to buying honey off the supermarket shelf in a little plastic bear?
“Take some time to taste,” Mares said. “You can’t live with a bumper-sticker appetite.”

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