The Tupelo Trees, Bees and Honey of Apalachicola
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There are a variety of different species of Tupelo trees including the Nyssa aqualica, Nyssa talamancana, and Nyssa sylvatica. But it is the white Nyssa ogeche variety upon which Apalachicola honeybees feast in order to produce a very unique, sweet and light-colored nectar, aka Tupelo Honey. These impressive trees are typically found along river banks and in swamps because they do best in a water level around four to six meters throughout the year. This species flourishes along the Apalachicola and Chipola rivers because there are few competitors for the nutrients they require.
Making Tupelo honey is a time-sensitive process that can be easily disrupted by environmental factors. This means that harvest yields are unpredictable. Tupelo tree blooms are fragile and the trees tend to retain high levels of moisture. Although Tupelo trees thrive in moist to wet areas, heavy rain can kill their fragile blooms before bees are even able to reach them. Additionally, lack of water and nutrients in the Apalachicola River can impact already low harvests. And finally, the Tupelo trees’ blooming period only lasts about three weeks each year (April to mid-May), so Apalachicola beekeepers depend on this very small window going well for the trees and the bees if their entire year’s honey crop is to be productive.
L.L. Lanier & Sons and Smiley Honey are two small businesses along the panhandle that rely on the Tupelo trees and honeybees to ensure they have a successful honey harvest each year. These family-owned business have been around for decades, in Lanier’s case since 1898, and both have commented in the media that the 2015 harvest was challenging. "It was cold and it was rainy, they had a rough time this year. Most of them made a box of honey. Instead of making three boxes they made a box," said beekeeper Lanier. After a poor Tupelo harvest in 2015, Smiley Honey was forced to diversify its products.
"For big beekeepers, it causes a lot of pain. Tupelo is the single largest source of income for a lot of them," he said. "With it, you thrive. Without it, you survive."
- Brian Bertonneau, owner of Smiley Apiaries in Wewahitchka
Tupelo honey is a revenue producing and particularly delicious economic crop in the Chipola and Apalachicola River Basin area. Although the Ogeechee tupelo tree is grown elsewhere in the United States, this area is the only region where Tupelo honey is commercially harvested. While data is not available specifically about the Tupelo region’s contributions to Florida’s economy, according to the National Honey Board and the USDA honey production is a $27 billion industry for the state, and that does not include the value added to crops that benefit from honey bee pollination.
The Florida Division of Plant Industry reported in 2011 that crops pollinated by honey bees have a $3.3 million economic impact in Florida, and produce $192 million in tax revenue. Even livestock feed crops such as alfalfa and clover rely upon on honeybee pollination. (according to the National Honey Board). In other words, the value of the Tupelo honey industry reaches far beyond the revenues and employment of the beekeepers and honey sellers themselves. Many agricultural crops in north Florida and south Georgia benefit from healthy and blossoming Tupelo trees, busy honeybees, and a productive Tupelo honey harvest... and all of that depends on a healthy Apalachicola River ecosystem.
In addition to the being at the financial and social center of the beekeeping communities it supports, honey as a food product has been long been promoted as a healthy alternative to sugar and other sweeteners. Many of claims about the health benefits of honey are based on folklore or anecdotal such as its cleansing properties and its beauty and skin care uses. However, researchers have found scientific evidence to support some of honey's health benefits. It is highly nutritious and has traces of minerals and vitamins. It can be used medicinally to treat nausea, asthma, and osteoporosis. It is also used topically on wounds because it helps dry them out and has antibacterial properties. Tupelo honey, in particular, has high antioxidant levels and antioxidants are known to help protect body cells from damage caused by free radicals. Not to mention that Tupelo honey is unique, even among all other honeys, in that it has a higher ratio of fructose to glucose, which means that it does not crystallize making it a great table honey.