In The Honey Connoisseur, the book that Marina Marchese and I just finished, we examine 34 popular, and in our opinion excellent varietal honeys, along with the plants the initial nectar is gathered from. We look at where the plants grow, a bit about their botany, issues with their lifestyle, and especially we look at the effects that weather, soil, altitude and any of the many environmental aspects in their particular location have on the honey that is produced. There are two real stories here…one about where the plants are – it’s called terroir, a sense of place. And it is what that place does to them and for them and the net effect that place has on the honeys they provide we are interested in. Particularly, this is important when comparing honey from the same plant but growing somewhere else…the plant is the control, the environment is the variable and the honey is the result.
And the other story is also about the plants…but it is about where they call home. Of these 34 honey plants we examined, there are eight that physically don’t grow in the U.S., but 11 of the remaining 26 did not begin their evolution here and are non-natives – that’s almost half – and in fact, most of those are downright invasive, nasty creatures. They may make perfect honey, and in fact lots and lots of it, but sweet they are not.
When I realized the influence these imported plants actually have on the US honey crop I was amazed. I still am. They are responsible for a huge amount of the honey crop produced in the U.S. EVERY year. Imagine what our annual honey crop would be like if they were not here…no apple or orange blossom honey. No loosestrife or buckwheat, either. And a life without clover or alfalfa honey, so common, so pedestrian, so much, yet so delicious would be worse for the loss. For all the curses of kudzu, we have all the blessings of thyme. And even if you simply love star thistle, it can be a mean and nasty plant. But all of these plants make all of these honeys that are the best honeys there are. And only 15 have always lived here. Of these, blackberry may be the best, but so would tupelo, and maybe sourwood really is the best of the best. Of them all, only one reigns supreme. Or maybe two, or three.
This non-native thing is important though and I found out more when I had the opportunity to listen to a lecture by Dr. Doug Tallamy, a Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, and Director of the Center for Managed Ecosystems at the University of Delaware. Among other things his interests focus on looking at food webs in our environment, particularly those in what he calls managed landscapes…the massive lawns and ornamental plantings so common in residential, corporate and public landscapes. He discussed how the vast expanses of lawn in our communities have virtually destroyed much of any support systems native animals, including insects, once had.
And all that grass…from here to everywhere, and never, once, ever produced so much as a drop of honey. Now, I’m not including the clovers and dandelions (both invasive, by the way), and ground ivy that grows in my lawn, yours and others that don’t partake in intensive lawn management. But grass…nada in the honey world.
But there’s more bad things about non-native ornamentals hanging around. Almost all birds feed their young caterpillars for protein. Where do native birds get native caterpillars for this food? From native plants, of course. Those adorable, but environmentally useless ornamentals out there are nearly worthless as far as all the rest of the wildlife is concerned. And speaking of worthless…grass. It sucks up fertilizer by the ton. And it is a toxic waste dump in many places due to the insecticides and herbicides and fungicides applied at least twice annually. It sucks up water…a waning commodity certainly, that keeps the grass alive but then soaks into the groundwater, taking fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides with it. Or it runs off site and though is returned, eventually, to the system, is wasted to use by humans. Add to this the amount of fossil fuel used daily to keep this toxic spread looking sort, trimmed and neat and pretty – all in the name of pampered lawn care.
Think of the benefits to the environment, to the native fauna, to your home landscape, to the global warming phenomena, to almost anything positive about where we live if we got rid of half the grass we grow. And think of the time you’d save to do other, more productive activities, like harvest the honey crop you made off the plants now growing where the grass was, if you didn’t have to mow the lawn, or at least as much lawn.
So here’s my thought. Let’s get rid of all that grass. Or at least half of it. I’ll settle for half. Let’s plant native plants, honey plants, non-invasive ornamentals…whatever is good, and turn all that grass land into pollinator and honey land. Not gonna happen, you say? Well, let’s add some incentive to get folks to do this. Let’s institute a Grass Tax. For every 1000 square feet of lawn, the city’ll ding you $100.00, every year. They re-evaluate property values every so often, so they could do the same with your lawn. Don’t want to pay that tax? Plant Natives. No grass, no tax.
What do you think?