ODUM, Ga. — The most expensive honey in America starts in these mucky Southern swamps, where white Ogeechee tupelo trees twist up out of water so dark you can’t tell if that was an alligator or a snake that just broke the surface.
For two precious weeks each spring in this slice of southeastern Georgia and in the Florida Panhandle, tupelo trees bloom with pale, fragile flowers that look like pompoms for tiny cheerleaders. Beekeepers tuck their hives along the banks, or occasionally float them out into the water on rafts. Then the bees get to work, making honey that looks and tastes like no other.
Good tupelo honey will glow with a light green tint, especially when it’s fresh from the comb and bathed in sunlight. The first taste is of cinnamon with a tingle of anise. That gives way to a whisper of jasmine and something citrusy — tangerine rind, maybe? The honey is so soft, light and buttery that the only logical move is to chase it with another spoonful.
“I love it, but it’s not something I can afford to use regularly,” said Kelly Fields, whom the James Beard Foundation recently named the year’s Outstanding Pastry Chef for work at her New Orleans restaurant, Willa Jean. “The real stuff is so sacred down here that if I ever got my hands on some, I’d probably keep it at home.”
Beekeepers who chase the tupelo bloom are a fiercely competitive and vanishing breed. All told, there are probably fewer than 200 beekeepers producing the honey in any notable quantities in Florida and Georgia, wholesale buyers and agricultural officials estimate. That doesn’t include hundreds of other beekeepers who might secrete a few hives along the riverbanks.
The honey-gathering season just ended, and it was a bad one, at least in Florida. In October, Hurricane Michael, the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the contiguous United States in 26 years, made landfall in the heart of tupelo country. Wooden bee boxes were smashed into kindling or blown away. Trees were bent and stripped of their leaves. Blooms started five months early, if they came at all.
“Put it this way: The tupelo trees got beat all to heck this year, so they couldn’t bloom right,” said Ben Lanier, 61, whose family has been producing honey in the swamps of the Apalachicola River basin in Gulf County, Florida, for three generations.
There’s not much about tupelo that Lanier doesn’t know. He was a consultant on the 1997 film “Ulee’s Gold,” in which Peter Fonda’s portrayal of a solitary, hard-bitten beekeeper with family trouble won him an Oscar nomination for best actor.
Lanier keeps about 500 hives. A good hive can produce 100 pounds of honey, but not if there are no flowers. Lanier was able to gather only a little bit of tupelo this year. So in order make a good showing this month at the Tupelo Honey Festival in Wewahitchka, Florida, he had to dig into reserves from last year, when the honey was flowing. Tupelo never goes bad, although it’s best in the first couple of years.
In 2018, he got $18 a pound for it. This year, there was a price war among the nine vendors at the festival. He ended up selling his at $12 — a real bargain for honey that can command $22.95 a pound online.
The men and women who make tupelo have more than weather to worry about. Encroaching development and battles between Florida and Georgia over water use have reduced the number of tupelo trees. There’s a constant threat from mites and diseases.
“You have to really fight being depressed,” Lanier said. “It’s a fickle thing anyway, making a living off insects.”
Here in Georgia, about 260 miles away from Lanier’s home, the tupelo trees bloomed like crazy in the Altamaha River basin. Florida usually makes about 15 times as much tupelo honey as Georgia, but this year that ratio will change.
If you want to get into one of the South’s great culinary conflicts, try telling a Florida beekeeper that Georgia tupelo is just as good.
“It’s impossible to make good tupelo honey in Georgia,” Lanier said. “Ask my wife if you don’t believe me. It’s just so special. Real tupelo is rare, and I can tell you it’s not from Georgia.”
Ted Dennard, one of the biggest buyers of bulk tupelo in the country, has tasted great honey from both states. Florida normally has the edge, simply because it produces more. But this year, he said, the best will likely be out of Georgia.
Tupelo producers are among the food world’s toughest negotiators and most enthusiastic trash talkers.
“It’s just schoolyard behavior,” Dennard said. “These guys are the biggest group of characters ever. It’s like the Hatfields and McCoys. These guys love their bees and love their honey, but that’s about it. They are only loyal to one thing: the dollar.”
As they say in tupelo country, the honey is the money.
To keep the honey as pure as possible, a beekeeper needs to monitor the day-to-day health of the blossoms and check the frames inside the hives regularly, pulling them out when they are heavy with honey. When the tupelo flowers start to fade, bees will move on to whatever blooms next, which here is often gallberry bushes.
“A lot of the time people send me honey they think is tupelo and it’s mainly gallberry,” said Dr. Vaughn Bryant, director of the palynology laboratory at Texas A&M University and by all accounts the nation’s preeminent honey tester.
He has never sampled tupelo from Georgia that was more than 52% tupelo. Florida’s samples have had higher tupelo pollen counts, but he concedes that not every producer sends in honey to test.
Frederick Merriam Jr., 48, is one of those beekeepers who can read the swamp so closely he knows exactly how to produce great Georgia tupelo without having to send it to a lab. He tested his honey when he first started, he said, and it registered as 86% pure. But he doesn’t bother anymore.
“It’s easy to fake some honeys, but tupelo you can’t mistake,” he said.
He sells his tupelo only wholesale, except for some the family bottles up for its store in Vermont. “We never have enough,” he said. “It’s sold before we produce it.”
To get the honey, he places hives in 18 secret spots near the Altamaha River. Landowners he has befriended let him park them free, happy for a few jars of honey in return.
“You can almost taste the culture of the forest and the sweetness of the swamp,” he said. “It’s one of those things that is just a part of the heartbeat of the place.”