While I was doing research for my new book, THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, I came upon milkweed honey. Hmm. I didn't think I'd ever seen that anywhere around here. And it turned out that all the information and photos I could rustle up on it, with one exception, were from Hungary.
Really? From one small country on the other side of the world? I wondered why Hungary had the corner on milkweed honey. I tried to see if I could somehow purchase some and have it sent here, but I had no luck with that.
|Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is highly attractive to many |
pollinators, including honey bees.
I talked with my go-to bee man, Jamie Walters, and he explained to me how any kind of flavored (called unifloral or varietal) honey earns the right to be labeled as a specific kind. He said you need approximately a 5-acre (or more) field of a single flower for the bees to forage in, for a honey to be considered a unifloral. Just how many large fields of milkweed have you seen lately? Exactly.
Further research told me that in order to bear a label of a specific honey flavor, only 51% of the honey in the container has to be that kind, so be aware of this when buying varietal honeys.
Jamie does know someone not that far from us who has a milkweed field, and this summer he's going to take his bees there so he can produce some milkweed honey. I plan to go with him when he takes them, so stay tuned for that adventure!
In the meantime, my childhood next-door neighbor and partner in crime, Kelly Gunderman Beahrs, private messaged me on Facebook, saying she knew someone who might be able to help in securing some of this Hungarian milkweed honey.
To make a long story short, I now have in my hands, a jar of it, which made a really roundabout trip to my house all the way from Hungary. (Hungary to U.K. to Texas to Ohio.) Now Kelly didn't have to do that, and her friend that helped didn't have to do that either, but I am ever so grateful that they did.
How does it taste?
Prior to my tasting it, I'd read that milkweed honey was considered to be one of the most fragrant honeys of all, keeping that fragrance for a long period of time. It is slower to form sugar crystals and the flavor is high on the list of preferred taste by many.
Since the elusive milkweed honey had come so highly touted, I wondered if I would be in for a letdown when I was finally able to taste it. Not at all. It is indeed highly fragrant, as are the flowers from which it is made. It has the usual taste of honey with a hint of something I can't quite put my finger on yet, and it also has a bit of a bite to it, though that's not offensive at all. I've read that it mellows somewhat, with age.
I'm a supertaster, so I might detect flavors that others may not, so if you have the occasion to taste some milkweed honey for yourself, and decide that it merely "tastes like honey," I would not doubt your opinion. In the end, I love it, as I do most honeys. I am indebted to Kelly and her crew for making it possible to try it firsthand.
The questions burning in my mind now are these:
- Why is Hungary seemingly the only country to produce milkweed honey commercially?
- Why don't we produce it in the U.S., since milkweed is a native North American plant?
Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) was introduced to Europe as an ornamental in 1629 and was first found in Hungary in 1736. It grows well in the Hungarian sandy soil and has established itself in those areas. (Great Hungarian plain, parts of Transdanubia, and county Bács-Kiskun.) It can have a long bloom time (June-September) in Hungary when the weather is hot and humid.
A drawback of milkweed, which is one reason beekeepers may stay away from utilizing it, is that the bloom, by its anatomical design, is known to occasionally trap a honey bee by the leg. Bee deaths or loss of legs can occur, although reports I read said that bee loss is very minimal.
Overall, milkweed is considered to be a good honey plant and one that many bees prefer, if given the choice. Growing milkweed for honey production can only be good for the monarchs, too.
|Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)|
- Just last year, a Canadian cooperative, The Cooperative Monark, located in Quebec, has begun producing milkweed honey commercially, thought to be the first on the North American continent: "Milkweed Honey: A First in America".
- A good article about the use of milkweed as a honey source can be found in Bee Culture: The Magazine of American Beekeeping, posted online on August 23, 2016: "Milkweeds As Honey Plants" by Connie Krochmal.