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The Honey Makers
Mother Earth wouldn’t be herself without the animals and insects that pollinate plants. Among these, responsible for one of life’s sweetest things, is the Apis mellifera of “honey-bearing bee.” Ancient Egyptians are thought to be the first to “keep” bees; that is, to create hospitable environments for a colony to develop, and to harvest its residents’ honey and wax with regularity. Cave paintings in Spain from 7,000 years ago depict men collecting from feral colonies. In not-at-all nearby China, Shang dynasty oracle inscriptions from 4,000 years later clearly show bees swarming.
As we humans evolved, so did our methods. Haphazardly poaching the sticky stuff from wild hives gave way to building small pots, keeping bees in hollow lots, or housing them in woven, termite mound-like structures called “skeps.” Today, most beekeepers use the Langstroth hive, which resembles a filing cabinet and was invented in 1852 by Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth.
Growing awareness of just how important these little beings are to life itself has resulted in the appeal of beekeeping n some unlikely places, from city rooftops to residential backyards. The New York City Beekeepers Association is making news, as is a program called Bees Without Borders, whose mission is to bring beekeeping to impoverished communities and teach them how to operate this lucrative business, which in turn helps all of the crops and plants nearby.
Local chefs, bakers and other purveyors of edibles are unanimous: Hawaiian honey is unbeatable. The two most abundant types on Maui are Macadamia Nut Blossom—“a briary bouquet and, not surprisingly, more nutty taste,” says David Maggenheim of Makawao’s Market Fresh Bistro
, and Christmas Berry, which is “lighter in color and flavor, with more floral flavor profile and nose.”
In Kihei, one shop with a name to delight, Who Cut the Cheese
, is a little slice of heaven for epicures. Proprietor Ann Tuomela’s cheese selection impresses even a New Yorker reared on the grand arrays of gourmet markets like Zabar’s and Murray’s. Tuomela, a.k.a. “The Big Cheese,” stocks her shelves exclusively with honey from a Wailuku company called Tropical Apiary, and has for years.
“They’re just great people,” she says, hoisting a beach ball-sized wheel of imported gouda for a customer’s inspection. “I met him when my friend had a beehive under his house. Dennis (Morihiro, of Tropical Apiary) removed it for him. We tasted the honey later, and it was so nutty and so good… I said, ‘I gotta have that honey!’” A gourmand through and through, Tuomela experiments extensively with pairings, formulating theories on how Maui honey takes several imported cheeses to new heights. “Honey and cheese—yes! A light double or triple crème is good but the best is with a truffled cheese. The truffle really kicks off the flavor.” A whiskey cheddar blossoms with some sweet stuff drizzled atop, as does mild Manchego. Sottocenere, a semi-soft with truffles and a 16-spice rind, has “a lot going on.” A goat cheddar called Chevre Noir has an earthiness that elevates—and is elevated by—honey, making taste buds tap dance.
Scott Fredas is brewmaster of Maui Brewing Company. He uses Tropical Apiary honey in his well-loved local honey brews and non-alcoholic Island Root Beer, available at the Brew Pub (Kahana Gateway Center, (808) 669-3474) and at stores, restaurants and bars all over the island. Fredas produces dozens of craft and canned beers and says the secret is in the ingredients, like local Maui honey. “And practice,” he says. “I try to drink a lot.”
In Wailuku, Dennis Morihiro and his daughter, Courtney Schuster, are partners in Tropical Apiary. Distributed island-wide, their honey is used by top chefs and sold in natural boutiques, stirred into tea, added to body scrubs and lotions, and poured into baby baths.
“Yes,” confirms Schuster. “Some folks do bathe their babies in honey.” In fact, while Tropical Apiary has a bustling culinary demand, the father and daughter team also gives a lot of honey away to friends who appreciate its abundant health benefits.
“Christmas Berry has the most anti-oxidants,” explains Morihiro, describing why honey makes an excellent wound dressing. It’s common knowledge that wounds heal best in a moist environment; the catch-22 is that moisture invites bacteria. Honey, however, has strong antibacterial properties (that, incidentally, is why it never spoils). “So if you have a cut or a scrape,” he advises, “Put some honey on it and cover it, and it probably won’t even leave a scar.”
Morihiro is genuinely concerned about the future of bees on Maui and beyond. “On Maui we are losing the bees,” he worries. Changes in wind patterns caused by the deforestation of prime Maui land has had a domino effect on the worlds of many living things, he avers, especially tiny ones like honeybees. With a decreased canopy, there’s less moisture and more heat. Plants get smaller, and the lives that depend on those plants are suffering. As for bees, “They’re really the insect that begins the life cycle of so many other insects, plants and birds.”
Born and raised on Maui, 70-year-old Morhiro spent several of his adult years on the mainland before coming home in 1986 to begin his commercial beekeeping efforts. “I wanted to do something that was connected to the environment. There are different aspects of propagation of bees that are really interesting, the genetics and the life cycles. You become an entomologist; you become an arborist; a meteorologist. There are so many different facets of it. I’ll never finish learning. It’s just not ‘hive’ and ‘flower.’ They need help from us.”