Honey and bees
To make mead, one must use honey, which is made by honeybees. Bees make honey from nectar they collect from flowers. Bees and flowery plants and have a symbiotic relationship; bees need the nectar from flowers to make honey and flowers need bees (and other creatures) to pollinate them. Bees visit flowers to collect nectar, but along the way the pick up and distribute pollen from each flower. This pollen provides some of the protein in a bee’s diet. Plants make colorful, attractive flowers to entice the bees. The bees that do the collecting are called worker bees and are always female. These worker bees can collect and carry 50-75 milligrams of nectar at a time, or 90% of their own body weight. The bees store nectar in a sac on their bodies and begin turning it into honey when it comes into contact with particular enzymes in the sac. The bee takes a little nectar for its own nutrition, too.
Once back at the hive, the bee regurgitates the nectar and the hive bees continue fashioning it into honey, which involves ingesting and regurgitating it, adding necessary enzymes while removing excess water. Honey is stable when its moisture level drops to about 20%, at which point bees seal or cap the honeycombs.
Bees work predominantly in the summer, collecting as much nectar and making as much honey as possible. In the winter months, rather than die off or become dormant, they tend to keep moving, generating heat keep to their swarm alive by swarming around their queen. In these cold months, those their stores of honey are essential for feeding the hive. When it is time to begin collecting honey again in the spring, bees rapidly consume those reserve stores, as well as any of the earliest nectar collected from spring blossoms, like fruit (apple trees). Therefore, it isn’t typical for bees to make honey from blossoms like apple or cherry because the bees consume that nectar as quickly as they collect it.
The colony size varies according to the season, but at its largest in the summer, a bee colony can have as many as 80,000 female worker bees, 20,000 male drones, and of course, one queen. These numbers dwindle significantly in the colder month when there isn’t as much work to be done. To make one pound of honey, it takes about 20,000 trips per bee, or 4 million stops at flower blossoms. The average colony of European honey bees (a popular type in the US) makes 70 pounds of honey per year. It is estimated that 400 million pounds of honey are produced by bees worldwide each year. Hobby beekeepers (apiarists) have 50% of the bee colonies in the US and account for 40% of honey production, each keeping 25 or fewer hives. The rest of the honey is produced by professional pollinators who often bring colonies of bees to orchards and farms to pollinate; some of these pollinators are small and others are very large.
From Nectar to Honey
Bees make honey from nectar, but what is nectar? It varies flower to flower, but nectar is generally made of water (50% to 90%) and sucrose, with just a little fructose. The amount of water in the nectar collected will affect the honey a bee produces. Honey collected earlier in production season is lighter in color and milder in aroma-with a lower wild yeast count-than what is collected later. These variables matter to a meadmaker who may choose specific honey to ferment a particular mead. Honey taken from the same colonies year to year can differ depending on the nectar the bees collect as well as the moisture and wild yeast present due to weather, rainfall amounts, temperature, and humidity.
Grades of honey in the US range from A to D with grades A and B having no more than 18.6% moisture and less growth of wild yeast and bacteria, which makes them more ideal for mead making than lower grades, which can have high levels of moisture and yeast/bacteria. Honey fermentation can occur when its moisture level is at or above 19%, so a meadmaker does not want to choose a honey rich in moisture and wild yeast because it may ferment spontaneously on its own (and while wild fermentation fun, it should occur because the meadmaker chooses it and not because of inferior honey).
Types of Bees
Apis Mellifera Ligustica: The Italian Bee. The most commonly-kept bee in the US.This bee is striped yellow, gentle, and productive
Apis Mellifera Carnica: Carniolan or Austrian Bee. Also fairly popular in US. This bee is docile and fairly easy to keep, and winters better than Italian bees, with origins in Bulgaria and Romania.
Apis Mellifera Mellifera: Northern European Bee. Also known as “the dark bee” because of its dark appearance without bands. Also cold tolerance due to Alpine region origins.
Below is a list of the most common honey varieties available to us in western NC. We incorporate these into our meads according to their availability.
Sourwood Honey: Sourwood trees flourish across the Southeastern US, but they thrive especially well in western North Carolina and northern Georgia. Blooming in the summer, these trees provide bees with nectar that becomes a particularly earthy, brown, fragrant, and memorable honey.
Tulip Poplar Honey: Honey that comes from these trees tends to be dark amber in color and a bit musty-yet-buttery in flavor. This variety is common throughout North Carolina.
Gallberry/Inkberry Honey: The gallberry bush grows in the sandy soil of Eastern NC. This evergreen bush (closely related to Holly) provides nectar which bees transform into a mild, floral-yet-fruity honey.
WIldflower Honey: This honey is made from bees collecting nectar from various flowers, so the aroma and flavor varies according to the season and region. In western North Carolina, our wildflower honey can often be comprised of tulip poplar, black locust, black gum, wild blackberry, persimmon, and clover.
Tree Honey: The tree honey we use comes largely from Tennessee beekeepers near Knoxville. This honey has a piney aroma and is light in flavor.
Clover Honey: Collected from clover. This honey is lighter in flavor and may include crimson, white, and red.
Orange Blossom Honey: The orange blossom honey we sometimes ferment comes from Florida. Orange blossom honey tends to be light in flavor and quite aromatic.
Blackberry Honey: A complex honey with a bold nose.
Sage Honey: Light and delicate in flavor and aroma
Tupelo Honey. This honey typically comes from white tupelo and is memorable for its complex bouquet.
Schramm, Ken. The Complete Meadmaker. 2003
Crane, Eva. The Archaeology of Beekeeping. 1983.
Otto, Stella. The Backyard Orchardist. 1993.