Hydrangeas and Honey-Beekeeping on Nantucket: The Buzz about Island Beekeeping The Local Honey Difference

July 28, 2023

When visiting Nantucket, travelers often find their favorite spots on the island, each with its unique charm. Nantucket, an idyllic island off the coast of Massachusetts, is not only renowned for its picturesque landscapes and quaint charm but also for its delightful local honey. But have you ever wondered if bees have their preferred areas too? Does the side of the island where you buy local honey make a difference?

Focusing in on Hydrangeas 📷Debi Lilly

Just as humans have their favorite spots, bees also place favorites when it comes to collecting nectar. Different areas of Nantucket boast diverse flora, ranging from heathlands and saltmarshes to meadows and woodlands. As bees forage for nectar, they imbibe the essence of these varied flowers, infusing their honey with distinct flavors and aromas. We will explore the captivating world of Nantucket’s honey, unveiling the diverse elements that arise from the island’s varied flora. As bees buzz and dance amidst the blossoms, they craft a symphony of flavors that distinguish each honey based on the types of flowers grown in different areas of the island. 

So, whether you’re drawn to Sconset, Polpis Harbor, Jetties beach, Surfside, Cisco, Tom Nevers, or Madaket, keep in mind that the local honey you find might carry a touch of that specific location’s floral harmonic expression. The next time you savor Nantucket’s golden honey, relish not only in its sweetness but also in the unique taste of the island’s different corners, as collected and crafted by the busy bees. Join us on this sweet journey as we delve into the enchanting nuances of Nantucket’s local honey.

Sign found in town heading to the Western end of the island.

Native bees live alone in wood, gaps between rocks, plant stems, and self-dug underground homes, while European honey bees live in colonies ruled by a Queen. Honey bees thrive in various environments, including natural and domesticated settings. They prefer gardens, woodlands, orchards, meadows, and areas abundant with flowering plants. In their natural habitat, honey bees build nests in tree cavities and hidden spots to protect themselves from predators. We have a lot of gardens, forests, woodlands, some orchards, meadows, manicured lawns and nature preserves throughout the island so once here bees have their pick of the territory. We also have a lot of rosa rugosa (beach plum roses), hydrangeas and other favorite plantings scattered around the locality. I am wondering if that gives a difference in the flavors of the honey depending on where it is specifically located?

Sconset Bluff Walk 📷Maria Waickowski

Honey bees produce the coveted golden nectar and honey has a multitude of benefits. Honey can assist in some cases with inflammation and may even have some cognitive benefits. Many of us are probably aware of honey soothing a sore throat when we’re falling sick. It contains probiotics to nourish good bacteria. Raw honey has been able to show that it has immune-boosting and anticancer benefits. It can heal wounds, but you would want to ensure that it is medical grade, which means it’s sterile and inspected and so it’s recommended to consult a medical professional if choosing this course of action. Great for antioxidants, various vitamins and contains many antibacterial and antifungal properties.

Hydrangeas and other pops of color 📷Debi Lilly

It has been more commonly discussed that we need to save our bees as they help to pollinate….how much of our food source? How fragile their lives are and those in the industry especially understand this frail thin line that separates them from life or death.

Greg Mehinger, an expert in bees and other insects, has a passion for understanding these creatures and uses organic methods for environmentally safe practices. He even created his own line of local honey called ‘Buzz Off’ honey. Greg suggests that local honey on one side of the island may have a more rose flavor, while in hydrangea-saturated areas, it could taste different.”

Plenty of research and books on honeybees

For a fairly small island in stature there is still so much variety of different experiences and even if one has visited the island for years it’s surprising to realize how much more there is to explore. In a similar manner to humans, bees might have their particular favorite spot, where they like to consider themselves as locals. Do they tell their fellow honey bees?

Bluff Walk findings 📷Maria Waickowski

David Hitchcock, one of the proud beekeepers on the island, happily shared a lot of his knowledge with me. David Hitchcock, cutely stated: “Yes, I’d bee happy to contribute” and was curious about my interest in the subject that he is clearly very passionate about, “I’m picking up 94 colonies of bees” in a few days. From his website in learning more about David, it states, “From a young age, David had always loved bees. In the fifth grade, his teacher brought a bee in on a leash and demonstrated to the class the benefits of bees. As David grew older and started his own family, bees were always buzzing around his mind. One day, David became frustrated with his job and decided to pursue his dream of bees. Shortly after, David began hand building all of his equipment, purchased bees, and began making his own honey.”

📷BeeHappyHoney website

David later launched into how he got started in the business and how his interest began. He remembers that a little over thirty years ago getting a Sears and Roebuck Farm catalog in the mail and inside the centerfold was something entitled, “Beginner Bee Outfit” of which he was taken back by it as it provided everything one would need to get started, including a book on how. It also included that they would mail the bees via USPS, which made him laugh yet enticed him to say, “We have to do this!” He was so excited to see how the mailman would deliver a colony of bees and found the whole learning experience fascinating so he went to immerse himself and was compelled to read anything and everything available on the topic. He ended up building three additional hives and started with four colonies in the first year and in his second year he had 27.

Hydrangea’s planted in front of the Greydon House on Broad Street

What flowers on the island attract bees? The island boasts an array of bee-attracting flowers, including plentiful roses, hydrangeas, and lupines. Panicled hydrangeas like Hydrangea paniculata Confetti offer a feast for bees, while some hydrangeas exude a honey-like scent, like Hydrangea quercifolia. These flowers also entice honeybees, bumblebees, pollen wasps, and syrphid flies. Lupines, particularly in a lesser-known spot on the island, serve as bee-friendly plants. Interestingly, honey can reciprocate the favor by aiding in rose growth-simply dip the stem into honey and plant it in soil, and a whole new rosebush can bloom, as honey acts as a natural rooting hormone. 

Bee enjoying local lupines 📷Isabelle Roberts

On the island we have plentiful roses, hydrangeas and even have lupines. Often overlooked as a pollinator plant, panicled hydrangeas provide a feast for bees. Hydrangea paniculata Confetti produces a light scent. Plant this beauty and watch the pollinators party in the garden! Some hydrangeas even have a smell like honey. Hydrangea quercifolia: the smell is rich honey-vanilla to my nose.This shrub is also a wonderful magnet for honeybees, bumblebees, pollen wasps, and syrphid flies. Its inner flowers are fertile, while the more dramatic outer sepals are sterile.” Lupines are bee-friendly plants and there is a little well-known spot on the island that grows these. It is especially known to influencers and instagrammers alike. “Wild Lupine has a showy racerne of blue-violet flowers(occasionally white or pink), in late spring and early summer” in Massachusetts. Beyond flowers helping to create honey, honey can be used in turn to help roses grow. It has been said that you can dip the stem into honey and plant it into some soil. It’ll grow into a whole new rosebush. Honey acts as a natural rooting hole room.”

Rosa Rugosa spotted in Madaket

David finds working with bees rewarding on multiple levels, recognizing their vital role in carbon sequestration, a process that captures and stores atmospheric carbon dioxide to mitigate climate change. He emphasizes that bees create wax from atmospheric carbon, making them a remarkable contributor to carbon sequestration. David’s beekeeping operation focuses on sustainability, with minimal carbon footprint using reclaimed wood for crates and equipment. The bees’ ability to sequester carbon extends to the nectar of flowers they collect, converting it into honey and beeswax, a process that remains unmatched by human technology. Pollen, being a rich protein source, holds more importance in the bee diet than honey.

Where can you purchase local honey? We have a healthy number of local farms and beekeepers on the island. Besides Greg Mehinger and David Hitchock, there is Grey Lady Apiary, Rugbees, Nantucket Honey Bee Company, and Miss Bee Haven Honey Company.  There is a cool test to see if honey is pure, which is called the honeycomb test. If you place some honey in a bowl, then, add water to it and swirl in a clockwise direction and it forms a hexagonal honeycomb texture or pattern, then you can know that it is pure honey.

Honey aisle at Bartlett Farms

Nantucket’s local honey is a testament to the island’s rich biodiversity and the tireless efforts of its buzzing ambassadors, the honeybees. Each honey variety embodies the essence of its specific habitat, transforming the nectar of diverse flowers into golden nectar of various flavors and textures. So, the next time you taste the sweetness of Nantucket’s honey, remember that it is not just a simple condiment but a sensory symphony of nature’s finest offerings. Appreciate the dance of bees and the beauty of the island’s flowers, all bottled up in a jar of local honey.