The latest buzz on the sweet world of honey in the desert
Oh, honey. This golden treat is a part of culinary traditions all over the world, and revered for both its sweetness and, some say, medicinal qualities. The most commonly kept bee for honey production today is Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, which was brought to North America by settlers in the 1600s. But there are thousands of other bee species that produce honey in the wild that have interacted with humans for thousands, if not millions, of years. And when it comes to that human-bee partnership, the Las Vegas Valley is a veritable hive of activity.
Bee a Friend
We all know and like the industrious honeybee, but there are, in fact, more than 4,000 species of bees native to North America. All of these bees play a vital role in pollinating the crops we harvest and consume: 90 percent of flowering plants and 30 percent of crops depend on pollinators like bees to propagate — about $15 billion worth of crops depend on bees to pollinate them every year.
But in recent years, bee populations have been facing a crisis called Colony Collapse Disorder, in which worker bees abandon the queen, resulting in the death of the hive. The causes are complex, but the loss of food sources, exposure to pesticides, and transmission of mites are among them. Climate change, too, plays a role: Irregular flowering seasons and extreme temperatures contribute to hive loss. As many as 30 percent of hives are lost over winter across North America (the fate of wild bees is much harder to measure). Bees, says UNLV professor of anthropology Alyssa Crittenden, are the canary in the coal mine for climate change.
So the next time you see a bee hive, hold off before spraying the Raid. “If you don’t bother them, they don’t bother you,” says Tom Lioubas, owner of Tom’s Beehives. The exception, he notes, are Africanized bees, which will chase you for three blocks. The Clark County government website advises keeping family and pets away from the hive, and calling a professional bee removal service. Keep your eyes, nose and mouth covered (the bees aim for those areas), and avoid flailing, which just enrages the bees. Both Lioubas and Josh Hammons do professional bee removals. And if they’re honeybees, says Hammons, all the better: “I’ll give ’em a home and a job!”
Squeeze, Spread, and Slice Locally
Luckily for us, there are several local producers of honey whose bees live in and around Las Vegas.
C & D Honey: Local raw honey producers from Pahrump who sell wildflower honey and bee products, including royal jelly, propolis (a resinous compound bees produce), and beeswax lip balms and hand lotions at farmers markets around the Valley. (c-and-dhoneyco.com)
Hammons Honey: Produced from bees in Centennial Hills, Hammons Honey sells a handful of honey varietals, as well as honeycomb from the Gardens Park farmers market, Bruce Trent Park farmers market, and the Huckleberry Park farmers market.
The Las Vegas Farm: The bees here don’t have to travel very far to get their pollen at the farm, where vegetables abound and fruit orchards bloom across the street. (thelasvegasfarm.com)
Pahrump Honey Company: Pahrump Honey’s hives are located in Pahrump near the state line, where their bees travel the Great Basin Desert, as well as local alfalfa fields and orchards. (pahrumphoney.com)
Tom’s Bees: Tom primarily builds bee boxes, but also sells raw honey from his local Las Vegas hives while supplies last. (tomsbeehives.com)
Blue Lizard Farms: Rodney Mehring, a veteran beekeeper who has taught beekeeping at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, has a farm in Caliente where he keeps honeybees. You can find his honey, when available, at PublicUs, or contact them through the Blue Lizard Farm Facebook page.
Also keep an eye out for Southwestern honey brands like Rice’s Local Hive Southwest and Annsley Naturals Southwest at grocery stores like Whole Foods, Sprouts and Artisanal Foods.
Many of us grew up with the classic honeybear bottle on the shelf, perfect for sneaking into spoonfuls (come to think of it, Mom probably knew). But supermarket honey brands tend to lack one key ingredient that many consider essential to honey, especially for combatting allergies: pollen. On the other hand, pasteurized, ultra-filtered honey removes the natural yeasts and tends to have a longer shelf life. If the pollens are what you’re after, look for “raw and unfiltered” honey, which tends to crystallize more, and has more of the beeswax, pollen, and nutrients.
The flavors you’ll get in your honey will vary depending on several factors: what the bees are eating, the weather, the season. Some honey connoisseurs even talk about the “terroir” of honey. Honey is sold in a variety of forms: Liquid, crystalized (spreadable), and honeycomb (perfect for pairing with cheese). Among the local honeys available in Las Vegas, keep an eye out for these flavors:
Desert wildflower: The most common “flavor” to find, these bees feed on a mix of desert blooms, lending floral notes to an amber, complex profile. Because this a broad, umbrella term, flavors can vary from producer to producer.
Clover: Often considered a “bread-and-butter” honey by producers, this common varietal is a bright, sweet honey with mild flavors and an easy versatility.
Alfalfa: This varietal tends to be less sweet, with a mild acidity and beeswax aromas.
Russian olive: Russian olive is an invasive species in Las Vegas, but the honey it produces is a delicious, tangy varietal with raspberry notes.
If you’re ready to take your honey hobby to the next level, you might consider operating some beehives yourself. Tom Lioubas of Tom’s Beehives recommends getting them started here in Las Vegas in April, to coincide with the spring blooms. Lioubas comes from a line of beekeepers on the Greek island of Corfu. “My grandpa used to keep them, and my father, and, as a little boy, I used to follow them,” he explains. After embarking on a career in carpentry, then moving to Las Vegas in 1971, he eventually circled back to building beehives in his retirement.
Before you buy a bee box, you’ll need to check your local ordinances regarding the number of hives you can keep on the space you have. Talk to your neighbors to make sure none of them have bee allergies, and do your research. How much are you ready to invest? Does anyone spray pesticides nearby? Is there a source of water (that isn’t your neighbor’s pool)? If you take care of your bees, says Tom, you should have four to five pounds of honey by September — just make sure to leave enough for the bees to eat over winter.
An Ancient Bond
The honey-human connection is quite possibly as old as humanity itself. UNLV professor of anthropology Alyssa Crittenden studies the role of honey in human evolution, or more broadly, “the dietary changes that mapped on to neurological changes.”
“The brain burns all sorts of energy, so it’s metabolically expensive,” Crittenden explains. “And honey, it was argued back in the ’70s, was the most energy-dense food found in nature.” To understand how honey fueled the development of the human brain — and our existence today — Crittenden worked with the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer population in Tanzania who live in a landscape similar to that of human ancestors (it stands to reason that their foraging patterns would have commonalities). “For every foraging population, we know that they were consuming some kind of honey of some kind of bee,” she says.
For further evidence, Crittenden points to early rock art that depicts humans targeting beehives, as well as to the behavior of great apes, our closest primate relatives, who also target honey. And with new research being done in the examination of ancient dental plaque, she believes we’re going to find a “treasure trove” of information into early human diets, including just how much honey they ate. “There’s a continuum from our first interaction with bee species 2.8 million years ago to now,” she says.