Photo by Caitlin Abrams
When Moses led the Israelites into the desert, he brought skeptics, those who thought it a poor idea to undertake a 40-year journey with nary a Noodles & Company in sight. But the Lord provided. Specifically, he provided manna from heaven. Little bits that looked like dew, but on closer inspection were something else, honeydew. In Greek mythology, Zeus nursed on honeydew. Honeydew also pops up in Norse and Chinese mythology and in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s mythology, too, as Kubla Khan’s food.
If you never heard of it—me neither! I figured manna from heaven was a metaphor. Then Brian Fredericksen, of Ames Farm, showed me a little jar at his table at the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market. “Ever had honeydew?”
The jar cost $5. It was made from honeydew harvested by bees and concentrated into honeydew honey. Sap-sucking bugs such as aphids make honeydew when they stick their little taps into plants, like humans tapping maple trees, and get more sap than they can use, causing it to spill onto leaves. Bees have converted it into honey since time immemorial.
In that massacre of bumblebees in Oregon last spring, when some 25,000 bumblebees were killed on linden trees around a Target parking lot, the bumbles were likely there to gather honeydew. The pesticide that killed them was applied to prevent the aphid-generated honeydew from getting on customers’ cars. Would customers have minded if they knew their cars needed to be washed of the substance that nourished Zeus, Kubla Khan, and Moses? That’s a question best left for the ages, but I can answer this particular question: Honeydew is delicious! Like honey shot through with iron, threaded with a piney, winey ferment, it tastes like something to nurse a Greek god.
Fredericksen coaxes flavors from nature that the rest of us modern humans don’t know are there. He was once a 3M research engineer, with many patents to his credit. One day he decided the point of life was to know the world outside a cubicle. He started Ames Farm, a grand experiment dedicated to bottling raw, local honey in tiny batches.
Most modern bees are kept in hives that are like multi-story apartment buildings; the stories are called supers. Beekeepers typically keep all their bees together in one spot and pull all the honey from all the supers in one batch, because that’s convenient for beekeepers.
Fredericksen doesn’t care about what’s convenient for beekeepers. He cares about what’s interesting. He keeps his bees in 500 hives all over Minnesota. He likes to watch them, see where they get their nectar, and bottle each super separately, labeling each bottle to reflect exactly what it is: This one is from a stand of flowering linden trees in Belle Plaine; this one is from a private restored prairie in Minnetonka when wildflowers were blooming; this one is from a field of buckwheat in Blue Earth. The difference between bottles of honey from different supers, different times is a revelation: One is more minty, more buttery, another more hay-like, lighter.
“I decided to be driven by Mother Nature instead of some other schedule,” he says as he drives around in his truck, checking on hives that hide behind stands of trees or in hollows of hills, buzzing electrically. “If you’re in an office, your whole schedule is about the holidays, deadlines. My whole schedule revolves around the bees. At winter solstice, they stop laying eggs,” he says. “That’s the quiet part of the year. They’re just in their hive, 20,000 or 30,000 of them, with their stored honey, and their stored pollen, and the queen bee, vibrating their bodies to generate heat, and hanging out.”
They can hang out for a long time. Remember last year, when the winter never ended? Ames Farm honeybees were in their hives buried in the snow beside the pines, waiting. When the days get long in March, they come out. “The maple trees and the willows, they’re the first big pollen source, before you would notice a flower anywhere,” Fredericksen says. “Next, the dandelions are the first big nectar source; they’re very important to the bees. Then the basswood, and then in come the prairie flowers, which are all of August. In the fall the bees wind up the season with goldenrod and Joe-Pye weed and hatch the bees which will get them through winter.”
Fredericksen collects some of all of that, and bottles it, for his farmers’ market shoppers. Once in a great while he’ll collect a bit of manna from heaven and bottle that, too, so those with $5 can know what it was like to eat as Moses in a world where nature was second to nothing.
Ames Farm honeys are available at Surdyk’s, Kowalski’s, Lunds & Byerly’s stores, and amesfarm.com.