I wonder just how much honey one person can safely eat and not be bored with it. I have in front of me a cup of pure, raw tupelo honey, taken fresh from some of Don Smiley’s honeycombs at Smiley Apiaries in Wewahitchka. "Wewa" (as the locals affectionately call it) was brought into the spotlight in the 1997 movie "Ulee's Gold," about a beekeeper and his family (more on that later).
I watched Smiley scrape off the cap (the top layer of wax the bees make on a comb once the honey is ready), and it’s this cap of beeswax mixed with pure tupelo honey that I keep going back to. Each bite is liquid gold. I close my eyes and taste the flower – tupelo – that the bees used to make this honey. The floral scent – a hint of rose, some herby, earthy taste, pure sweetness and not a hint of bitterness – and taste literally melt down my throat, and I am left with chewy honeycomb that I enjoy like a bit of gum, chewing it long after the final drops of honey have disappeared.
I am in Northwest Florida, in the slip of a spot where beekeepers harvest the only pure tupelo honey on Earth. I want to say the tupelo honey “is made,” but “is gathered” is a better way to put it. Men like Don Smiley, Ben Lanier ("Ulee's Gold" was filmed with the help of the Lanier family), Jim Rish and Donald Watkins are some of the great beekeepers of the region. Most of them, along with the women in their lives, have learned the art of tupelo honey-gathering from previous generations. For these beekeepers, a good season makes or breaks the year.
Tradition of Honey Harvesting
The area’s history of honey harvesting goes back for generations. Smiley figures the earliest beekeeper in the area was a man named S.S. Alderman, who set up his apiary in the late 1800s. By all accounts, those hives would have traveled to the tupelo trees solely by waterways, and the finished product would have been shipped out via water, too. Those early beekeepers built the tupelo reputation that is upheld today.
Smiley learned the art of handling bees (he got his first in 1989) from a “mean old cuss” named Broward Nixon, a guy Smiley figures needed help more than he wanted to pass his skills on. In the end, beekeeping became Smiley’s career. But as a late entrant into the beekeeping world, he’s an exception to the rule. The Laniers go back three generations, and the Rish family goes back four – all to the same period of time Alderman was setting up his operation.
What Makes Tupelo Honey Unique?
The difference in tupelo honey is immediately noticeable by sight; there’s a greenish cast to the honey, which may come from the blossom itself. It looks more like a spiky green ball than a flower.
You can taste the difference in the composition and the flavor, that smooth floral taste without even the slightest hint of bitterness. Here are some more tupelo facts:
- Tupelo honey does not granulate.
- Tupelo honey has a high fructose content.
- Tupelo honey has a low sucrose content (some diabetics can tolerate it).
- Tupelo honey has to be at least 51 percent tupelo to be labeled as such. Beekeepers in Northwest Florida send their honey out to be analyzed and its contents certified.
- Tupelo honey does not get heated; it’s honey in its raw state. You will see black flecks in the honey, evidence of all that hard work and pollen the bees have put into the product. (Note: Children under the age of 1 should not consume honey; see Honey Facts at honey.com/nhb/about-honey/frequently-asked-questions/.)
- Tupelo honey is harvested from clean, empty hives moved to areas where white tupelo trees are blooming, often along rivers and swampy areas. Some bee yards can be reached only by water. The keepers have a close eye on the blooms and the weather, as heavy rains can flood bee yards and destroy the hives.
Tupelo Honey Festival
The Wewahitchka Tupelo Honey Festival, celebrated every year on the third Saturday of May, is a charming festival centered around the honey season, with plenty of honey, crafts vendors, a gazebo with all the honey facts you could imagine (and some great honey lemonade), music to enjoy and plenty of food to keep you happy for the day.
The festival takes place right as the beekeepers are about at the end of the harvest, although by the third Saturday in May, many of them have already been working long days and still have more hives to harvest. But they have enough of the current season’s crop to fill the tables of their stands over and over, with jars as small as two ounces to gallon jugs of the honey and everything in between – including honey with the comb, my new favorite.
As I wander the area under the enormous, moss-draped oak trees, I see few people walk by any of the tables without stopping to chat with the sellers, get a taste of the honey (from a spoon or a drop right onto their finger) and, finally, make a purchase – usually of more than one jar. It seems like every time I turn around, the beekeepers are heading back to their honey houses for more honey to replace the purchased store on their tables.
If you can't make it to the festival, don't worry. You can reach the vendors by phone or email for shipments of tupelo honey all year long ... or at least until supplies run out.
George Watkins, Apalachicola – Watkins’ honey can be purchased in local supermarkets and at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, 261 Seventh St. Go for the honey, stay for the incredible information you can glean from a visit.