Liquid Gold

by Dan Huntley - Florida - April/May 2009

In the inland waterways of Florida's Panhandle, two men battle bears and sleep deprivation to harvest the world's purest honey

Recipes using tupelo honey follow the story

It’s early morning on the Apalachicola River, and patches of mist still cling to the cypress and Ogeechee tupelo trees deep in the coves of one of the largest riverine estuaries in North America. This is the Florida Panhandle, the last section of the state where natives still speak with a Southern accent. Here, about ten miles inland, the river is as wide as a football field.

Master beekeeper George Watkins signals to his partner, Jimmy Moses, to kill the outboard on the 16-foot flounder skiff, and we begin to drift along a shady bank near Bloody Bluff.

“Listen. Do you hear it?” Watkins whispers.

The only sound is water lapping against the wooden hull. But soon, a primal hum can be heard rising from the swamp.

“Those are my bees heading to work in the blossoms,” Watkins says proudly as he pulls his boat alongside a long wooden platform built above the cypress knees. White wooden boxes of beehives are neatly stacked along the weathered dock. As the buzzing intensifies, you can feel the energy radiating up through the planks of the dock. Moses lightly pumps a metal smoker box of fat pine and sends a gentle waft of smoke over the hives to calm the bees. Watkins carefully removes a honeycomb tray about the size of a laptop. He takes a pocketknife to cut off the beeswax cap atop the honeycomb and offers a dollop of the pale gold ambrosia known as tupelo honey.

It smells like sweet butter with a speck of vanilla. Tupelo is the champagne of honeys. The taste is as delicate as a honeysuckle stamen. Because of tupelo’s high ratio of levulose to dextrose sugars, tupelo is the only honey that diabetics, like Watkins, can safely eat. Pure tupelo—unfiltered and unheated straight from the hive—is the only honey that will not crystallize. Although the air is cool on the river this morning, the honey is still warm from the bees’ bodies. “This honey was nectar in the tupelo blossoms twelve hours ago,” Watkins says. “It doesn’t get any fresher than warm from the hive.”