by Doug Alderson
For more than 80 years, Donald Lanier has lived along the lower Apalachicola River near Wewahitchka. He learned the family beekeeping trade in the wide river floodplain, and he later worked on a snag boat for the Army Corps of Engineers. “My parents took me down the river in an apple crate when I was three weeks old,” he said with a chuckle, “and I’ve been going down ever since. I put a lot of gray hairs in their (parents) hairs. I could tell you many stories.”
In one story, Lanier recalled a visiting group of football players when he was a young man. Everyone stayed in the family river cabin and it was cold that night, so Lanier went out for some wood to rekindle the stove. It was then that he saw a panther and the cat let out a loud scream. “I hit the door hard when I came in and those football players were climbing into the rafters,” he said. “They thought I was the panther.”
Lanier is still saddened that thousands of acres of floodplain were sold to a paper company in the 1960s and were promptly clear-cut. “There used to be beautiful open hammocks in the floodplain and that’s where we put our bees.” The state of Florida has since purchased most of the floodplains and they are slowly recovering. The lower Apalachicola River basin has the largest concentration of tupelo trees in the world, although an estimated 3.7 million have died due to chronic low water conditions over the past 20 years, and that has impacted the tupelo honey crop. “There aren’t as many tupelos as there used to be,” Lanier concluded.
Even in ideal conditions, producing tupelo honey is not an easy proposition. “It is a lot of trouble to bring bees downriver on a barge and setting them on elevated platforms above the water level,” he said. “When the tupelos start blooming, it is a pretty delicate operation.” To make pure tupelo honey, the combs must be clean just before the Ogeechee tupelo trees (white tupelo) bloom for about two weeks in late April and May, and the honey must be harvested just as the blooms fade so no other nectar sources can contaminate the honey. Timing is critical. Plus, too much rainfall or too little rainfall, or a late frost or too much wind can affect the tupelo blossoms and honey production. The payoff is a honey that never crystallizes. And Ogeechee tupelo honey has a unique composition—being high in fructose and low in glucose—that allows some diabetics to use it in small quantities as a sweetener.
So, keep an eye out for tupelo honey, having been harvested along the lower Apalachicola or Ochlockonee rivers. Real tupelo honey has a light golden amber hue and often a slight green cast. The flavor is distinct. It might be more expensive than other honeys, but that reflects the effort and expertise that goes into it and the often short supply. Old timers like Donald Lanier can tell you why, and a whole lot more.