Developing a method to capture and authenticate single varietal honey on diverse landscapes

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2015: $11,734.00
Projected End Date: 08/15/2017
Grant Recipient: Second Nature Honey
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Maggie Wachter
Second Nature Honey

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Fruits: apples
  • Animals: bees
  • Animal Products: honey


  • Animal Production: animal protection and health, feed/forage
  • Crop Production: beekeeping, pollination, pollinator habitat, pollinator health
  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: habitat enhancement
  • Production Systems: holistic management



    We began preparing for our SARE project in early March 2015 by moving ten hives of Italian and Russian bees into the apiaries of Curtis Orchard and Pumpkin Patch, a farm that features 20 acres of 30 varieties of apples. During the bloom from April 20 to May 3, the hives were physically transported into the apple orchards to facilitate pollination. 

    During the apple pollination, we monitored the honey bee pollination of the apples by "bee spotting" i.e. counting bees on the trees within a specified time (one to five minutes).  Bee spotting revealed that our honey bees did not rush towards the apple blossoms.  Rather they appeared to prefer the nearby cherry trees that were blooming at the same time. 

    Later in the summer, we conducted similar attempts to direct bees to wild forest crops, including groves of black locust trees (nearby Mahomet IL).  We decided to include groves of sourwood trees because of the unique location of several hives in the Appalachian Mountains of North Georgia.

    Our SARE project also included microscopic examination of pollen collected from flowers and honey bee "pollen loads", samples of pollen that were transported to the hives by honey bees. We taught ourselves the skill of identifying pollen using a microscope.   In the early days of the SARE project, before acquiring a camera to photograph microscopic samples, we sketched microscopic grains of pollen.  Later we used a Cannon Rebel T5 camera to photograph pollen grains through the microscope. 

    We also conducted some exploratory honey analysis in a University of Illinois laboratory.  This included centrifuging samples of honey and examining them microscopically. 

    Another aspect of our project was to participate in the University of Maryland Sentinel Honey Bee Project.  We were required to mount two hives on scales and collect and send samples of bees from eight hives to the University of Maryland Bee Lab over a six month period (May to October) for analysis of mite loads and twelve common bee diseases.


    One of the techniques that we used during apple pollination was to move the hives into the midst of the apple trees during the bloom.  We noticed that each time the hives were moved, the hives were weakened because many foragers returned to the empty space where the hive once stood.

    The results with the black locust blossoms were more successful because we applied the knowledge we gained from the apples: we used strong hives placed directly in front of the grove.  These hives were moved far enough (over two miles) that the bees could not return to the old hive location, so they returned to the new hive location, keeping them strong. The resulting honey had the conventional appearance and taste of black locust.

    Experimentation with bees in the sourwood trees was less clear.  While the hives were strong and the sourwood grove was thick, the background forage in the Appalachian forest is immensely competitive.  The resulting honey was darker than pure sourwood, but it had a wonderful flavor.  We suspect that the unique flavor of the honey was due to its sourwood-wildflower composition. 

    We taught ourselves the skill of identifying pollen using a microscope.  The blooms that we sketched or photographed in 2015 include red delicious apple, red haven peach, blueberry, dandelion, tulip poplar, white honeysuckle and sumac.

    We also began a library of common pollen grains found on the farm.  This year we either sketched or photographed pollen from the plants listed below.  The purpose of the library is to provide a reference for eventually identifying pollen in honey.

    The monthly health analysis of our bees by the Sentinel Honey Bee Project indicated that our bees were healthy and resilient.  The Project consistently rated our bees on the high end of health compared with others.  We hypothesized that the nutritious and diverse forage that is available on a small family farm contributed to the above average health of our bees.  Research supports this hypothesis (Wheeler & Robinson, 2014).

    Honey from our project was sold in the Curtis Farm Store and local farmers markets.  Perhaps one of the best outcomes of the first year is that honey from the Curtis Farm received first place in the Central United States in the 2015 International Black Jar Honey Tasting Contest hosted by the Center for Honeybee Research.  This confirms our hypothesis that honey produced on a diverse small farm is exceptional in many ways.

    During the winter of Year One, we reviewed the effectiveness of our pollination attempts.  We consulted the following experts to help us understand and adjust crop pollination for small farm landscapes:

    Professional apple pollinator-beekeeper, Michael Palmer, advised that we saturate the apple orchard with twice the hive density, a minimum of one hive per acre.  In a personal communication, Dr. Tom Seeley of Cornell University suggested using stronger hives. Dr. Deborah Delany of the University of Delaware pointed out that honey bees preferred high sugar content in nectar, speculating that the cherry blossoms might be higher in sugar than the apple blossoms.  She also suggested that native bees might be useful pollinators for apple trees. 


    In Year Two we approached apple pollination differently based on advice we received from experts cited above.   We doubled the number of hives to saturate the orchard.  We planned to preserve the strength of the foraging populations by keeping the hives stationary, leaving them in their home apiary near the orchards but not moving them into the apple trees.  We also planned to encourage a diversified pollinator population by building nests for native bees and placing them near the orchards.  We hoped that the stronger and more numerous hives would result in improved bee spotting among the apple trees. 

    We continued to improve our skills in pollen identification and build a reference library of pollen grains from common farm plants. 

    We expected the excellent foraging available to our bees, either on a small, diverse family farm or in a wild Appalachian forest to continue to maintain a high level of honey bee health, as confirmed during our participation in the Sentinel Apiary Program (U. of Maryland) during Year One.

    The capstone of our project was the production of a booklet outlining techniques to help small farmers and beekeepers in understanding the special requirements of pollination on small farm landscapes. 


    We shared our project information through Facebook, television, radio, and tours.  Chasing the Honey is the title of our Facebook page that specifically highlighted our grant project research.  We have referenced Chasing the Honey to our business Facebook pages as well, Curtis Orchard and Pumpkin Patch and Second Nature Honey.

    We sent out press releases of our SARE activities to local media.  Television crews were eager to learn more about our project and beekeeping.  We even had the opportunity on two occasions to suit up Fox News anchor, Janese Harris and her camera person to film the honeybees in action.  This was broadcasted across central Illinois during two separate news segments.

    Phillip Kisubika, Radio personality for WDWS NewsTalk 1400, braved his fears of being stung to join us on a bee sampling day.  He was eager to see us in action and to capture the sound of a bee hive.  Here is a link to the audio file Bee research at Curtis Orchard which is shared through our local newspaper’s website.

    Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis visited our apiary in Year Two to see our pollination success. 

    Lastly, we mentioned our grant to the many guests that attend our tours at Curtis Orchard.  We have about 4,000 guests of all ages join our tours and our tour guides mentioned our grant during the honeybee portion of our tour.  One tour of note was the SARE tour with about 35 people in attendance, including NCR-SARE Administrative Council members, State Coordinators, and staff along with University of Illinois staff.  We were excited to share the progress of our research with those closest to the grant funding.

    In the future, we will also send more press releases out in the hopes of generating additional news coverage.  We will distribute our booklet to interested farmers, beekeepers and nature lovers. We have approached local educational venues about presentations, including Parkland College, Urbana Parks and Recreation and the University of  Illinois Extension.

    Annex A

    Table of flowers with bloom periods, 2015



    Name of crop



    Date 1st bloom

    Date end bloom



    10 acres


    April 15


    observed bees on plants


    5,000 trees, 25 acres


    April 20

    May 3

    cool and cloudy at bloom beginning

    Black locust trees

    200 trees on 1 acre


    May 9

    May 24

    White and red honeysuckle nearby


    6x6 foot patch


    May 25

    Start to go to seed in early July

    Did not observe honey bees on crop.

    Sourwood trees

    forest w/ at least 300 sourwoods

    North Georgia

    June 30 2015


    Bees very excited, working hard on July 3


    5 rows, 15 ft long


    April 29


    observed bees on crop

    White & red clover

    10 acres


    April-May 25


    observed bees on crop

    Black Raspberries

    40 ft row


    May 17


    observed bees on crop

    Blueberries highbush

    16 plants


    April 23

    May 13

    observed bees on crop


    20 acres


    July 14


    observed bees on crop

    Red raspberries

    3 rows, 50, 28, 15 ft.


    July 26

    August 6

    observed bees on crop





    Diet-dependent gene expression in honey bees: honey vs. sucrose or high fructose corn syrup.  Marsha M. Wheeler & Gene E. Robinson. Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 5726 (2014)



    Project objectives:

    By exploring methods for maintaining agricultural diversity while efficiently and effectively pollinating specific crops within a diverse environment of competing pollen and nectar sources, we will contribute to sustainably managed pollination of farm crops by honey bees as well as the production of varietal honeys. The methods we develop in this project to monitor nectar flows and authenticate honey will result in a Best Practices Guide for the sustainable production of varietal honey resulting in improved economic return for small-scale beekeepers.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.