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Beekeeping It Real

ReZoNation Farm found a few surprises
when they sent their honey to be tested.

December 6, 2016

Community Spotlight

As part of the education and marketing goals outlined in a recently completed USDA Local Food Promotion Program grant, ReZoNation Farm submitted several honey samples for testing to learn more about what our honey bees were harvesting throughout the seasons. The samples underwent a professional pollen analysis to determine the true nectar origins of the honey. This is the same testing used by enforcement agencies to uncover adulteration and illegal importation of honey from countries such as China that by law is not allowed to send honey to the United States for economic and health safety reasons.

Aside from a desire to learn more about the nectar and pollen resources in southern Arizona and the interaction of honey bees with the food resources around them, we wanted to be able to provide accurate information to our customers. Testing like this also provides solid confirmation that the honey behind our label is authentic, and harvested in the Sonoran Desert just minutes from where it’s distributed.

Four honey samples were harvested from ReZoNation Farm apiaries, located west of Tucson in Avra Valley and just south of Tucson at the San Xavier Coop Farm. One additional honey sample originated from Dos Manos Apiaries in the Catalina area.

Four jars of local honey underwent professional testing.

Four jars of local honey underwent professional testing.

In all samples except one, most of the pollen found was mesquite – approximately 75%-80%. These samples of honey were produced during spring and early summer. Since most of the pollen found in these honey samples were from a single plant species (more than 45%) they could be labeled and classified as a “unifloral” mesquite varietal honey.

One tasty honey sample produced between fall and early spring stood out. It was dominated by a plentiful mix of wildflower pollen types (20 in total) with the most pollen coming from a single group of low lying wildflowers in the Phacelia family – about 40%. Since the primary pollen in this honey sample was less than the accepted 45% threshold it would be labeled and classified as a “multifloral” wildflower honey. This is my favorite honey due to its complex herb and citrus overtones that linger. Our wildflower honey also takes much longer to solidify into the characteristic creamy texture of some catclaw or mesquite honeys which can start to crystalize within days of jarring. In comparison to our mesquite honey we haven’t harvested a significant amount of wildflower honey, but we are adjusting our management plans in the coming years to see if an early crop of wildflower honey will be possible.

What do these results mean?

From a beekeeper perspective, this was very eye-opening. The tests revealed a greater diversity of flowers and nectar during our southern Arizona “wet season” compared to the dry season which is dominated by mesquite blooms. This exercise also demonstrated how honey bees – a strategic social superorganism – quickly reorganize their workflow to target the most energy-rich nectar sources while largely ignoring less energy-yielding plants. Nectars are complex mixtures of water, yeasts, bacteria, and various sugars, some more digestible in a pollinator’s metabolism than others. If it weren’t for the reliable blooming mesquite trees during periods of low rainfall, we’re not sure how sustainable beekeeping in our area would be.

Other mysteries surfaced in these results implying there are complicated hive dynamics that also affect whether or not pollen ends up in the honey harvest. Palo verde, which blooms profusely and reliably at roughly the same time as Mesquite, appeared to be ignored by honey bees. Even though we have witnessed significant foraging of its yellow flowers palo verde pollen only appeared in the Dos Manos Catalina sample at a very low 3% level. We have seen other nectar/pollen sources being used by honey bees that do not show up in these test results. We speculate it’s because their bloom density may be low, and the bloom time may be brief. Ironwood, wolfberry, crownbeard, desert broom, and stone fruit trees fall into this category. Other pollen rich plants like burro bush, tamarisk, or the acacias (excluding catclaw) tend to produce copious amounts of pollen but very little nectar. Since almost nothing goes to waste in a bee hive they are useful for raising honey bee larva (babies).

Photo by T. Beth Kinsey

Photo by T. Beth Kinsey

Honey bees eat pancakes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (sort of), and they like way more syrup on their pancakes than we do. Pollen represents the protein filled pancake batter needed to make things like wing muscles, wax glands, and legs with pollen baskets and taste buds. The maple syrup running over the sides of that pancake is the nectar-fuel needed to keep those parts running so the hive machine can continue buzzing along.

We assume that the nectar and pollen coming from some plants may be used up as quickly as it’s harvested just to keep up with day-to-day hive maintenance, leaving nothing left over to store in the beeswax honey pantry. These maintenance activities includes replacing older bees. During the spring and summer bees have a lifespan as short as 20 days because they work ten times harder than “winter bees” to fill up the collective pantry with honey and pollen gathered over 20-30 square miles. Winter bees might live more than 200 days, and will use those savings to start the year off strong by converting it into a fresh crop of babies.

Of final interest was that different honey colors didn’t result from different nectar or pollen types. We were expecting more variation between the dark honey samples vs. the light-colored honey samples, but they all tested as mesquite honey. Note the photo where all samples except “#2B” were classified as mesquite honey. The Dos Manos sample didn’t make it into the photo, but was most similar in color to the sample labeled “#2A”. Dr. Vaughn Bryant, the head of the palynology lab responsible for the results of the tests, could not give any specific reason for the color difference, and noted that honey samples with similar pollen profiles can differ in color and color is not a reliable indicator of the honey type. You can see the actual test results compiled by Dr. Bryant at our website here.

ReZoNation Farm is a honey bee farm owned and operated by Jaime and Kara de Zubeldia, whose experience with honey bees goes back as far as 1989. ReZoNation Farm has worked with local strains of honey bees since 2008, and since that time has been active in encouraging the selection of gentle honey bees by training over 375 people in beekeeping techniques. ReZoNation Farm expects to stabilize at a 500-1000 hive operation by 2021 with queens and commercial pollination added as additional products and services.

ReZoNation Farm has worked with the USDA, Sonoran Permaculture Guild, and the San Xavier Coop Farm on the Tohono O’odham Nation to increase beekeeping education and honey production on tribal lands, and is moving into its 9th year of beekeeper training with special emphasis on the husbandry challenges faced in the southwest. ReZoNation Farm provides honey locally through the Food Conspiracy Coop on 4th Avenue, and the San Xavier Coop Farm store under its own label.

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