In Praise of City Honey

I’ll say unreservedly that the honey that Mrs. Pastry and I harvested from our Chicago rooftop hives was the best I’d ever tasted. Not because it was fresh, not because it was ours, but because it had a character unlike any honey I’d eaten before. No, that’s not because it was made from sugars collected from street corner trash cans or city dumpsters (though that’s been known to happen), it’s because it was made from an extremely wide variety of flower nectars. Allow me to explain.

Bees can be very single-minded creatures. When they find a nectar source they’ll exploit it until it’s gone. Foragers go out searching for something good to eat, and when they find it come back to the hive and tell other foragers about their discovery. More bees go out, flying in a perfectly straight “bee line” to the nectar supply. If that supply is a large clover field or a flowering tupelo forest, the hive will end up making a honey comprised mostly of that particular nectar. These are so-called “single pollen” honeys, and while they are nothing like “single pollen” they’re close enough for jazz. Or the FDA.

The trouble with honeys that are drawn primarily from a single nectar source is that they can be a little, oh…one-dimensional. But put a hive of bees in a large city and their nectar-foraging habits are thwarted. There aren’t any big flower fields or apple orchards to exploit. Yet what a city lacks in volume it makes up for in sheer variety. City streets, gardens and even window boxes are loaded with ornamental plants brought in from all over the world. Bees gather some nectar from here, some from there, and it all goes in to the same big honey pot. Harvested and spread on toast, the result is delicious.

Our honey was the palest of pale yellows, an indication that much of the nectar came from the linden trees that the City of Chicago planted after Dutch elm disease ravaged its streets in the 70’s. But beyond that it’s anyone’s guess what went into it. We finished the last of it a couple of years ago with great ceremony, for we shall not see its like again.

18 thoughts on “In Praise of City Honey”

  1. I’ve been hearing about chestnut honey a lot lately. I’ve never tasted it, but foodies seem to almost be revering it. Have you had it and is this so (and could it beat sourwood – real sourwood – honey)?

    1. I have and don’t care much for it honestly. Sourwood honey is another matter. Haven’t tasted any of that in years!

      Thanks for the memories!

      – Joe

  2. My own personal favorite is gallberry honey – gathered from a native shrub that flowers here in late spring. A little dark and mysterious, I actually prefer it to the better known and much more expensive tupelo honey, which is also native here. And yes, Joe, that song is one of my favorites!

    There’s a great local city honey source near me in Pensacola – East Hill Honey Company sells a lot of varieties of local honey. I also pick up a lot from a local guy who drives down to the beach on weekends with the back end of his truck loaded with whatever his bees are making at the moment. It’s interesting to see how the honey changes over the course of spring and summer as new sources become available.

    1. I envy you, Cynthia. It’d be fun to try those. I’ve never heard of gallberry…the honey or the flower. I’d be curious!


      – Joe

      1. Remind me later this summer, when the new honey crop starts to come in, and I can send you some. Right now, all they have available is their wildflower honey.

  3. The kids and I did a homeschool unit on bees last year, and as part of that we tasted about 15 different honeys, local and internet-ordered. Our favorite, hands-down, was the “Urban honey” made on the rooftops of Salt Lake City. It had an indescribable character to it, which I will attempt to describe anyway, as…smoky? It did remind me of city streets, which sounds awful, but it was delicious.

    Sourwood was another favorite, and my husband also loved the surprising and molasses-y “forest honey”–the kind that bees make from ant-excretions (?) called honeydew, if I recall correctly.

    It all made us kind of wish we could keep bees, but with 6 kids it didn’t seem like the *best* of ideas… 🙂

    1. Hey there’s never a bad time to keep bees, Marilyn. I agree that adding 120,000 or so new members to the family might be a bit of a challenge at the moment. But there’ll still be bees later on in your life. It’s a great hobby for…someday. Consider it!

      Thanks, Marilyn!

      – Joe

  4. I talked a few years ago to a bee keeper in London, who told me exactly the same thing. He said that bees on London roofs do well for two reasons, firstly, the sheer variety of flowers available in any direction, in short distance and secondly, flying over from the height of a rooftop makes it easy for them to spot flowering plants and reach them. His honeys were, like yours, wonderfully complex and rich and delicious!

    1. Hey Kavey!

      Another nice thing about the height is that you don’t lose bees to traffic. As I mentioned, bees fly everywhere in straight lines. If there’s a street or (worse) a highway between the hive and their nectar source many, many of the bees will be killed in collisions with cars. Keeping them up off the ground prevent this. Even out in the country I know beekeepers who keep their hives close to garages or barns with the front entrances facing the walls. That forces the bees to fly up and over the building before the can go anywhere else. A nice way to keep them out of the paths of humans too!

      Thanks Kavey!

      – Joe

  5. I’d read about the red honey, and remembered it when I read your previous post about how to keep the beekeeper at bay 😉

    I think it’s pretty cool to have kept bees, I think it could be a very interesting hobby.
    What about having your own greenhouse (closed system) with it’s own honeybees for pollination (I’ve read about that)
    Then you know exactly what is in the honey… just not how much.
    I imagine there wouldn’t be enough nectar in a greenhouse to feed a hive AND a beekeeper however 🙁

    1. Hey Kitty!

      Sadly no, unless you had a greenhouse as big as a football stadium you’d never have enough flowers to keep the bees occupied. I should put up a few stats on what it takes to produce honey, they’re really amazing. Thanks for the idea, Kitty!

      – Joe

      1. Yeah, I figured as much, which is why i wondered why it’s suggested if you have a bigger greenhouse(IE not the spare room sized glass disappointment) that you should have bees for pollinators. My brain thus came to the conclusion that that would really only work fairly as a closed system for both the bees and gardener/beekeeper if the greenhouse was both massive and more on an industrial scale.

        1. Yes a greenhouse might keep a few bees busy for half an hour or so, but that’s about it. Probably a better strategy is to make your grounds as bee-friendly as you can so as to attract them (lots of planted flowers and such)…then allow them entrance where you can. It’s the best suggestion I’ve got!



          1. Don’t have any greenhouse at the moment unfortunately, but eventually. I’ll ponder other methods of pollination, the easiest of which seems to just be leave the darn thing open and let nature take care of it. I just ran across the “closed” idea because some tout that it leads to healthier plants blah blah due to being in control of the system and less likely to get spider mites etc.

          2. I can see that…also a longer growing season I’d expect. Let me know how it goes!

            – Joe

  6. Where I live in NC, there is blueberry honey. 🙂 It is dark in color. I got a quart jar from a beekeeper for $10.00.

    1. Suh-weet! Literally. I love trying all those different honeys. Even after ten years or so being out of beekeeping I’m still fascinated by it all!

      – Joe

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