Honey laced with lead and antibiotics! Jars of honey containing absolutely no pollen at all! For honey lovers, the news lately hasn’t been good. The most recent headlines suggest that as much as three-fourths of the honey on grocery store shelves shouldn’t technically be called honey. While these revelations are disturbing to consumers of Sue Bee or Hannaford brand honey, it is also an impetus to seek and purchase honey from local beekeepers. Luckily, if you’re looking for local honey, Maine is a great place to live.
“There are lots of small (honey producers) and the quality is excellent,” says Erin MacGregor-Forbes, 41, of Portland, president of the Maine State Beekeepers Association.
She points out that natural food stores and farmers markets around the state carry honey from local beekeepers. In addition, honey from one of Maine’s biggest producers, Swan’s in Albion, can be found beside the now-suspect brands on grocery store shelves.
“There’s no excuse not to buy local honey,” says MacGregor-Forbes, whose honey business is called Overland Apiaries (at overlandhoney.com).
According to MacGregor-Forbes, news about tainted honey products has increased the demand for local honey in Maine, a market that was already strong. A new, all-things-honey store, the Honey Exchange, opened up on Stevens Avenue in Portland this fall to help beekeepers get started in business, and also to educate the public about the local market.
“Most beekeepers don’t have any problem selling their honey,” she says. “In fact there’s more demand than supply right now.”
Besides avoiding heavy metals in your honey jar, many natural health advocates say choosing and consuming raw honey can strengthen the immune system, heal wounds and fight infections. The holistically inclined also theorize that if you consume honey containing pollen from local flowers, your allergies will go away.
But even without added health benefits, MacGregor-Forbes believes that once consumers taste local honey – which varies greatly in taste depending on its source – it is difficult to go back to commercially produced honey that has been blended and heated to prevent crystallization.
“It’s like the difference between buying different, fine wines and buying the same old boxed wine every time,” she says.
MacGregor-Forbes has been beekeeping for nine years. She and her husband Scott started beekeeping together, but soon she’d stolen his hobby from him.
“Now he’s my maintenance department,” she says.
In 2006, three years after she began beekeeping, MacGregor-Forbes completed the training to become a Master Beekeeper. This means she has passed written and laboratory exams that test everything from how she would treat various bee diseases to how she would deal with an irate neighbor whose garden has become a haven for bees. A certified Master Beekeeper is qualified to represent the beekeeping industry to the public and the press, and also able to educate other beekeepers. She is one of four Master Beekeepers in Maine.
MacGregor-Forbes holds formal classes for beginning beekeepers several times a year. She says the demand for education for beekeeping is 10 times what it was five years ago. She attributes it to the local food and urban farming movements. For city or suburban dwellers looking to do some small-scale urban farming, beekeeping makes sense, MacGregor-Forbes says.
“You can live in an apartment and keep bees on the roof,” she says. “There are startup costs, but it’s nothing like trying to fit a chicken coop into your yard.”
MacGregor-Forbes has about 100 colonies of bees in four different locations, along with her backyard operation in Portland. A colony of bees contains anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 bees, depending on the time of year. A safe habitat for beekeeping is any place away from bears, but close enough to tend on a regular basis. Her other locations in Falmouth, Westbrook, Biddeford and Cape Porpoise are in undeveloped areas of industrial parks.
“It’s a good idea not to have too much density (of bees) in one place,” she explains.
MacGregor-Forbes’ real job is as the controller at Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland. Her bio on the Allagash website says her fondest Allagash memory is the first Allagash beer made with honey. She’s thrilled that brewers will be releasing a batch of beer made with honey from her bees this month. It’s called Saison Genever and is available only on draft in restaurants and bars.
“It is delicious,” she says.
If keeping bees and making honey seem time consuming, MacGregor-Forbes agrees that it feels like a second occupation at times. But it is a fulfilling job that she believes helps the honeybee population thrive and provides a worthwhile product for local consumers.
“I’m passionate about it,” she says. “It works for my life.”