Pierre Aucante has been an independent beekeeper in central France since the early 1980s--a job that has him on any given day planting chestnut and acacia trees in the forest, helping emergency services round up bees when they end up where they shouldn't, and, of course, producing natural honey (and a variety of tasty byproducts). If anyone could tell us about the benefits of honey or its lesser-known relatives royal jelly, propolis, and pollen, it's him.
Why Should We Be Eating Pollen and Propolis?
When you're a beekeeper, you end up with a few residual products once the honey is made. Two of these, bee pollen and propolis, are completely consumable and in fact offer very interesting health advantages.
Pollen has been deemed a superfood by many, attributed with, amongst other benefits, helping to cure seasonal allergies. Aucante recommends eating a spoonful of pollen in the morning before breakfast or mixing it into yogurt.
That being said, while his wife Marie swears by it, Aucante seems a bit skeptical as to whether pollen truly has the superpowers people attribute to it. "It's like eating vitamin pills," he says. "It's about the same thing."
The one product he does swear by, however, is propolis. Propolis, also known as bee glue, is a sticky substance that is used by bees to seal up unwanted holes in the hive. Beekeepers have to remove it occasionally to make their work easier, and Aucante makes sure to keep it for its multitude of health benefits.
Traditionally, propolis has been attributed with a host of properties, including anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and even anti-viral, used topically to treat a variety of maladies from foot fungus to burns to herpes and cold sores. Aucante himself recommends chewing on it for any sort of tooth or gum ailment. He also swears by a propolis and hot rum cocktail at the onset of a cold -- a treatment that's tasty to boot.
What is Royal Jelly and Why is it So Expensive?
You've likely heard of royal jelly as a sort of natural treasure, an all-purpose treatment for a great variety of ailments. But you've also likely balked at the price -- a price that doesn't come out of nowhere.
"I don't make royal jelly," says Aucante. "Very few beekeepers do. Many sell it, but very few make it."
Aucante explains that this is because making royal jelly is a very precise and laborious process. The beekeeper must orphan a hive, remove two-day old larva and place them into a container of water and royal jelly. Two and a half days later -- no more, no less -- the larva must be harvested.
"If it's raining, if it's windy, you have to get out there," Aucante explains. "And you usually get attacked, because orphaned hives tend to get a bit aggressive."
All that work for only .2 grams of royal jelly per larva. It's no wonder beekeepers don't produce more of it!
While some will continue to swear by it, Aucante certainly doesn't buy into the hype.
The Golden Ticket: Honey
Byproducts like pollen, royal jelly, and propolis are just that -- byproducts. The most important product to come out of beekeeping is, of course, honey; Aucante produces between 600 and 700 pounds a year.
Natural honey offers a host of health benefits, but it's important not to confuse natural honey with many store bought honeys which aren't actually honey at all. Natural honey, on the other hand, offers benefits like local allergy relief due to presence of the same allergens causing problems, as well as energy boosts and cough suppression. And the best way to take advantage of these benefits is to go hyper local.
Perhaps the most interesting benefit of local honey is the seasonality of it: natural honey changes and evolves over the course of the lifespans of different flowering trees and plants, giving you a different flavor each time. Each region will have its own natural flora, and this influences the sorts of honey that can be made. It's all about striking a balance with the surrounding environment, a philosophy that Aucante keeps close to his heart.
In central France, the first real honey production is acacia, in April, though Aucante says it's possible to have earlier honeys if March is temperate, made up of hawthorn, black pine and wildflowers. He prefers not to make this honey, favoring instead division of his hives, to have a greater production of acacia honey. "You can make bees or you can make honey, not both," he explains.
His second and final large production is chestnut honey, the local specialty. It would be possible to make a summer honey as well, Aucante explains, something that seems counterintuitive when you know that honey is made from flowers -- in summer, there are no more flowering trees, but if summer is stormy, you might end up with honeydew, a product that sounds tasty but that, Aucante explains, is really aphid honey.
"So what we call pine honey is actually 100 percent aphid honey. It's not written on the jar, otherwise you wouldn't sell any, but it's one of the best honeys." This is from a taste perspective as well as from a health perspective: honeydew honeys have an even higher antioxidant and antibacterial level as well as a higher amino acid composition.
Aucante, like many small beekeepers, sells his honey locally, mostly to friends. But he does have a few tips for those who seek out local honey at their local markets: don't worry too much about the organic label. Instead, seek out local producers.
"I do care about organic, in such that I don't want chemical, synthetic molecules in the treatment of my hives," he says. But while he is choosing the best, organic treatments for diseases like varroosis, he and his fellow small beekeepers see no reason to go after the organic label.
"There's no point," he says. "It costs 2,000 euros a year [about $2,200 USD), and for nothing, because at any rate, there isn't enough honey." The certification inflates prices of the honey, and organically certified beekeepers will often go bankrupt before being able to pay off their certification.
At the end of the day, the best move is, as with most local products, to stay educated. Find a local beekeeper you trust, and you'll be able to ensure that you have the cleanest product and a honey that will bring you the most health benefits.
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Images: Emily Monaco