We sat lazily in the predawn light on our screened in porch, half way between sleep and fully awake, sipping on coffee. Slowly, the rising sun wrapped the coastline in its warm shell pink embrace. It reached out with affection to kiss us on our cheeks. The low putter of an engine signaled the coming of a shrimp boat down the gentle Apalachicola River, headed out to the gulf for work. As the boat came into view, we spied a salty dog with leathered skin, wearing a baseball cap, sitting at the helm drinking his own morning fortification from a ceramic mug. Each day of our visit began the same way, sublime and peaceful in its natural rhythm.
A ways up river, the natural rhythm continued, though to a different beat. There, the cadence was abuzz, the activity slightly faster. For in the swamp sections of the Apalachicola River, during the springtime of late April to early May, the White Swamp Gum Tree blooms. That meant that, while we were there, hard-working beekeepers were moving their hives onto elevated platforms (usually 16’ feet or more high) along the river’s edge or floating them on barges up into the swamp areas for the bees to consume that sweet nectar deep in the groves of trees also known as the Tupelo Tree. While we lazed away on vacation, these people and their bees were making honey; they were creating their own magic.
Harvesting Tupelo Honey
Mining for this sweet gold is arduous and expensive work for the beekeeper. The Tupelo Tree, so named by the Muskogee Indian Nation meaning Swamp Tree, blooms for only three to four weeks each spring. For the honey to be classified as certified Tupelo Honey it must be raw and unfiltered as well as at least 51% pure.
What does that mean for the beekeepers who harvest Tupelo honey? Well, just prior to the White Tupelo tree blooming, the Black Tupelo, the Willow, and the Ti-Ti will bloom. The bees need the nectar from these trees to build their hive strength and stores. However, very little of those nectars can be in Certified Tupelo Honey. Thus, in the very days before the White Tupelo comes into bloom, the beekeeper must work quickly to strip the combs of all its stores so that what they collect from the hives thereafter comes strictly from the flowers of the White Tupelo.
Even then, the beekeeper’s work continues. Every minute of every day during that short period is crucial for the honeybees. The beekeeper hopes for good weather because a few days of rain can cut the bloom time and production, or wipe it out all together.
To add to that work and trepidation, on the heels of the trees’ blooming season, the Galberry comes into bloom. And though the Galberry makes a tasty honey, it is one that will crystallize, so Tupelo honey must be harvested quickly after Tupelo blooming. It is all a matter of timing. As you can imagine, the production requires lots of expensive equipment, labor and structures, along with years of experience and careful study to achieve this perfection.
The Added Threat to Tupelo Honey
Biologists estimate that it takes two million tupelo tree flowers to produce one pound of honey. And one honeybee produces about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. That’s a hell of a lot of honeybees and Tupelo trees required for producing the honey.
Throw into that mix the fact that fewer people are going into the beekeeping business and we see the beginning of a big decrease in production. Add to that, encroaching development (including dredging the swamp and damming the river) and the increased use of insecticides, and we are now realizing the endangered nature of this precious commodity.
From Hard Work to Reward: Living the Sweet Life
Nevertheless, dedicated beekeepers continue their work to bring us this prized honey. And that hard work pays off in one of the sweetest, yet delicate honeys you’ll ever taste. It is bottled magic! Certified Tupelo Honey is so perfect in its fructose to glucose ratio that it will never crystallize. As well, because of that balance, even diabetics can consume it in small amounts. And finally, because it is raw and unfiltered, its live enzymes, pollen, and nutrients remain intact, including several B-vitamins, ascorbic acid (a.k.a. Vitamin C), and amino acids, making it a healthy food to consume.
I’m grateful to these beekeepers, like the Lanier and Watkins families, for their hard work and dedication. They taught me much on this last trip to Florida. Namely this: La Dolce Vita, the Sweet Life, like this fine Tupelo honey, comes with a great deal of hard work, moments of trepidation, careful planning, and even risk. But when you find it, or better yet create the circumstances for it to occur, it’s capable of nourishing you, body and soul. The Sweet Life means living life to its fullest. And living a rich life doesn’t mean there’s no work involved. It simply means that the reward is so much sweeter when you at last reap the harvest. So, give love, live loved, live sweetly. Enjoy the nectar this life has to offer. It only blooms for a very short time.