By Lynn Wilder, Apalachicola Riverkeeper Board member
Tupelo honey. Movie plots have centered around it. Songs have been written about it. This high-quality honey is considered some of the finest in the world. Its high levulose content makes it the only honey that doesn’t crystalize.
This rare mild-flavored light amber-colored elixir comes from the white tupelo gum tree. Nyssa ogeche “Bartram” or white Ogeechee tupelo trees have quite a limited native range that centers around Northwest Florida in wetlands along the Apalachicola River. These important trees are in decline due to altered river flows that have impacted the Apalachicola flood plains. Although these trees are found in a few other areas of the Panhandle, such as Wewahitchka and Bristol, the long stretch along the Apalachicola River is where they are most abundant.
In an interview with long-time Apalachicola beekeeper George Watkins, I learned much about the art of honeybees and white tupelo trees. Here is just a little of the knowledge he passed along.
White tupelo trees start blooming around the second week of April. Timing is everything. The key is to harvest the nectar during that narrow window when only the white tupelos are in bloom. If the hives are set up too early, the bees make honey from black tupelo tree flowers. If the hives are set up late, the bees miss the best nectar (George calls this “the best of the flow”). George has a few white tupelo trees in his yard to gauge when it’s time to transport his bees up the river.
When it’s time, the hives are taken about 10 miles up the Apalachicola River and set up on his private docks. His bees will then start collecting pollen and nectar from trees within about a two mile-range. After the hives are set up, George will make five to six more trips upriver to check on the bees, bring a few new boxes, and bring back honey to his processing house to be extracted. The hives are brought back to Apalachicola after about three weeks. If left too long the bees run into dragonfly season; evidently bees are part of their diet!
I asked George what conditions make a “good year.” The best nectar is produced when there are foggy mornings, daytime high temperatures around 70-75℉, nighttime temperatures above 60℉ and west to southwest winds. Too much rain keeps the bees in their hives.
Over the years George has seen the trees producing fewer and fewer blossoms. He thinks perfect conditions may have moved north. In its glory days, maybe 200 hives were taken upriver and he produced enough honey to supply all of the local grocery and gift stores in Apalachicola. That was a heck of a lot of work. Now, because he’s enjoying a bit more leisure time and because the blooms aren’t as plentiful, he takes from 15-20 hives to his docks every April.
The next time you are enjoying some of the best honey in the world from these rare trees, remember the Apalachicola Riverkeeper and our efforts to save our wetlands, river, and bay.
And remember George and his bees who work hard to bring us this increasingly rare delicacy.
More about Tupelo Honey