What's the Buzz on Southern Honey?

Like fine wines or regional Southern accents, the color and flavor of every nectar reflects a particular time and place. Check out our buying guide to get the buzz on Southern honey.
Story by Hannah Hayes

From mile-high layer cakes to sweet tea, Southern cooks know their sugar. But what you may not know is that Dixie is also America’s sweet spot for local honey.

From cotton candy Tupelo to herbal Palmetto, we boast the busiest bees and the world’s most coveted single-varietal nectars. Every honey from our region gives even the tiniest postage stamp of Southern soil a flavor. The Everglades taste like molasses, spring in central Mississippi is cinnamon, and the hills and hollers of Tennessee are like cream and clover.

Whether you want to go beyond the bear on the grocery store shelf or delve even deeper into Southern honey, use our guide and you’ll be golden.

What’s the Buzz About?
Cast-iron, farm-to-table, pickling. The South has always been ahead of its time with what’s trending in food, and honey is no exception. While the rest of the nation is starting to appreciate single-sourced sweetness, we’ve always taken pride in our Southern-specific honeys, such as Palmetto, Sourwood and Gallberry, especially on a warm buttered biscuit.

But both the local food movement and concern about Colony Collapse Disorder, a disease that has recently decreased the global bee population, have moved more Southerners to start keeping hives on Richmond rooftops, Florida swamp bottoms, and everywhere in between. Now you’ll not only find particularly paired honeys on menus and mixed in cocktails at some of the South’s best restaurants (sometimes harvested from their own hives), but classes on beekeeping, tours of apiaries, and honey-exclusive vendors at farmers’ markets all over our region.

Place Matters
When Van Morrison crooned “she’s sweeter than Tupelo honey,” he wasn’t kidding around. People the world over clamber to get their hands on this sweet stuff, and there’s a reason why. True Tupelo honey comes from temperamental blossoms of the Tupelo tree that only bloom along the banks of the Apalachicola and Chipola rivers of Northwest Florida. Although most supermarket-style honey is generic because it’s blended and heated (therefore not raw), honeys like Tupelo and Orange Blossom come from a specific source, hence their “single-varietal” or “monofloral” designation.

While the blossom is one contributing factor to the flavor and color, the season is equally important. For bees foraging on wildflowers in a certain area, the changes in weather produce a golden rainbow of honey shades ranging from butter to chestnut. The same batch of bees sipping on nectar from the same area in springtime could produce a light amber honey and a darker caramel one in the fall, depending on what pollen sources are available to them.

Price wise, these local honeys are typically more expensive than those that are mass-produced. But trust us, they are well worth the expense. Make sure you get the real deal by looking for raw or unpasteurized honey and researching the producer when you can to make sure the source is genuine.

Check out our source guide for our favorite raw honey varieties from across the South.

Get Busy
While beekeeping might seem less approachable than starting a vegetable garden or even setting up a chicken coop, more and more Southerners are starting their own backyard hives and reaping the rewards. Birmingham photographer Carey Norton was bit—or rather, stung—by the beekeeping bug and recently started his own homegrown apiary with two other friends under the name We Three Beeks. Now they have six hives and thousands of bees. “[It’s] on-the-job learning, so to speak. Every time we visit our bees, I’m more amazed and more in love.”

Carey’s operation may sound intimidating, but for people starting out there are more resources than ever, from local extension agencies to farmers’ markets that offer classes on beekeeping and honey production. If you live in a metropolitan area, there are even independent organizations like the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association or Austin Urban Beekeeping that have become their own colonies for bee enthusiasts.

Read more of our interview with backyard honey bee keeper Carey Norton.