Sunday, May 25, 2014

Bees and Honey Wine

New Jersey’s first license to make mead (honey wine), to Sergio Moutela for his Melovino honey meadery.

Mead is probably the world’s oldest fermented beverage.

Makers of mead - commercial and home-brewers - talk about honey and treat it the way winemakers talk about grapes.

If your purchase of honey is off the supermarkey shelf, you may be getting a blend and it may even contain some corn syrup. Like maple syrup, the quality and sources can vary widely.

The honey, like the grape, changes the wine. Orange-blossom honey has citrusy notes. Clover honey is more floral. Wildflower honey varies with the seasons and the area where it is gathered. Buckwheat honey is dark and earthy.

Of course, all of this depends on bees. While mead may be rare in New Jersey, it isn't endangered. Bees aren't on any endangered lists either, but their populations are certainlt threatened in many areas of the country including NJ.

New Jersey's 20,000 bee colonies are part of a $7 million honey bee industry for the state. They are alos a key element in the successful production of nearly $200 million worth of fruits and vegetables annually.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is what has threatened bees for two decades. CCD is still largely a mystery and causes the dying off of bee colonies for no clear reason.

The Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium is the lead research agency on CCD. Samplings of pollen from hives around the state last year found 20 different pesticides that may be factors in CCD.

Beekeepers began reporting devastating mortality rates of 30 percent to 90 percent starting in 2006. 

Domesticated bees are around two thirds of the total bee population in the world, the rest are wild. Butterflies pollinate too, and other insects, and hummingbirds, even bats in some places.

Drought will reduce the amount of wild food bees need to survive and storms can wipe out colonies. Bee colonies are pretty resilient and can recover from these single disasters. But CCD is long-term and unrecoverable.

Back to honey and mead...

Honey is way sweeter than wine (about 85% sugar by volume versus about 16% for grapes) but don't assume that mead is all sweet like a dessert wine. The amount of water used and fermentation can produce sweet, semi-sweet or dry mead.

The calories are comparable to wines. Dry meads are the same calorie count as dry white wines and sweeter meads have about as many calories as port wines.

So what is killing off the bees?  Pesticides are high on the list. Neonicotinoids—“neonics” for short— are sprayed on lots of fruits, vegetables and ornamentals and that makes the plants poisonous to insects eating the leaves, pollen and nectar.

The other possibility is disease. Although sub-lethal doses of pesticide won't kill the bees, it wil interfere with the bees’ immune systems and make them vulnerable to pests and disease. They can also damage the bees’ ability to navigate back to the hive.

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