Beekeeper Explains How to Choose Honey

December 17, 2012 | The University

February 17, 2011

When shopping for honey, have you ever wondered what the difference is between one variety and another? Are there kinds that are better to use for cooking and others for eating?

Honey will taste like the plants the bees visit while foraging, according to New York City College of Technology’s (City Tech) Claire Stewart (hospitality management), who is also a beekeeper. “If bees live in an area where blueberries are grown, their honey will taste like blueberries,” she says. “True honey is natural and shouldn’t have anything added. If blueberry flavor is added, it’s not really blueberry honey.”

Stewart says she buys fruity honeys to use in tea. “For cooking I would use clover or wildflower honey because it does not have as strong a flavor,” she explains. “A distinct honey, like buckwheat, is rich and dark like molasses, so it’s good for baking.”

The general public will have the opportunity to try a variety of honeys at a free tasting class presented by Stewart, who has taught at City Tech as a lecturer since 2007. Offered through City Tech’s Division of Continuing Education, the class will take place on March 14, at 6 p.m., at 25 Chapel Street in Downtown Brooklyn. For more information, call 718.552.1170.

Stewart encourages consumers to buy from local, small producers. “Besides supporting the local economy, buying local ensures you are getting honey from a specific location,” she says. “Large honey producers accumulate honey from all over the globe (often China) and blend it to achieve a singular, predictable taste; every time you buy a certain brand you get the same flavor, but you have no idea where the product you are consuming actually came from.”

How does an accomplished teacher and chef who has worked at Gracie Mansion, The Rainbow Room and the Yale Club become interested in honey bees? Stewart says it happened during her childhood in Sacramento, CA. As she tells it, a family friend and beehive owner opened the top of his hive and let her take a glimpse of what was going on inside. “He showed me they were very unlikely to sting; that you could stand right next to 40,000 bees and not be stung. I was simply infatuated. I told myself that this was something I would do someday, and it stayed in the back of my mind.”

Years passed, and after earning a BA in English from Caldwell College, then an associate degree from the Culinary Institute of America and stints as an executive sous chef, chef poissonier and chef de partie in Oxford, England, she took a New Jersey Department of Agriculture beekeeping course in 2007 given by Rutgers University. Stewart said, “New Jersey is trying hard to increase the bee population, and the course was designed to attract first-time beekeepers. New York has a particularly strong beekeeping movement, and the New York City Beekeepers Association is very active.”

Stewart ordered her own bees that spring and started her hive with technical support from the Essex County Beekeepers Association. Her bees are kept on the grounds of the Durand-Hedden House in Maplewood, an historic house open to the public for tours and workshops. Her son, Lucio, helps out with the beekeeping duties.

In further explaining what attracted her to bees, Stewart noted that it was “their amazing work patterns and fascinating social structure. Each bee is born to work hard and to work for the common good of the hive.” And this, in many ways, is similar to what takes place in a professional kitchen environment.

“Classical kitchens are run through a brigade system which assigns each chef a very specific task in the preparation of a meal,” says Stewart, who teaches culinary arts and introduction to food and beverage management at City Tech. She assigns her culinary students to a brigade and they rotate through it during the semester in order to learn the different tasks.

“Bees run their own ultimate brigade system and kitchens work the same way,” explains Stewart. “You can’t be a selfish chef; your job is to serve the customer who is expecting an excellent meal. There is no room for drama. If you’ve seen a busy professional kitchen, you can see it is indeed like a busy beehive.”

For Stewart, beekeeping, while definitely fun, does have a downside — the very short bee life span. Even in the best of circumstances, half of all hives perish during the winter. The top of a hive can blow off and the bees will freeze or drown due to rain. Many bees are infected with mites and viruses that make them weak and, more importantly, make their offspring weak, unable to perform the functions that would keep the hive running. Mice and other animals may try to move into the hive for warmth.

“As winter approaches.” says Stewart,” bees seal up their hives with their own glue-like version of waterproof weather-stripping. They form a cluster, huddle together and beat their wings according to how much warmth they need to produce. They eat the honey stored in the hive and move as a group to another spot across the honeycomb once an area has been depleted.”

Asked if there are misconceptions about beekeeping, Stewart said a big one is that a lot of time is required to maintain a hive. She emphasizes that “a hive needs very little attention provided it’s set up well and in a good location. Bees know what to do without our help.

There is an initial outlay of cash, but it is not a hobby that requires continual investment.

And then, of course, you get the honey in the spring and sometimes also in the fall if the bees have enough for the winter!”

Clearly, Stewart is an enthusiastic proponent of beekeeping. She is even writing a thesis on the use of bees and honey in classic literature as she pursues a master’s degree in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. “I hope to have a hive on a City Tech roof someday so my students can see first-hand how honey is made,” she says.

New York City College of Technology (City Tech) of The City University of New York (CUNY) is the largest public college of technology in New York State. Located at 300 Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, the College enrolls more than 15,400 students in 62 baccalaureate, associate and specialized certificate programs. An additional 16,000 students annually enroll in continuing education and workforce development programs.

Originally published by Newswise.com