West Virginia may not have an official state food, but we do have an official state insect: the honeybee.
In addition to pollinating many of the state’s important fruits, vegetables and grasses, the honeybee produces flavorful honey, which has played a role in many culinary communities — including in Appalachia.
Early European settlers would use honey as a sweetener before commercial sugar was easy to come by, and mountain farmers have continued the long-standing tradition of Appalachian apiculture, crafting delicious varietals like tulip poplar, clover and sourwood.
“Central Appalachia is an ideal location for natural beekeeping. The abundance of diverse forest and undeveloped land in our region helps keep our bees healthy. Our native Appalachian forests host an abundance of nectar-rich species such as tulip poplar, black locust, sourwood, and wildflowers,” according to the Appalachian Bee Collective, a project of the nonprofit Appalachian Headwaters. Headwaters’ primary focus is on ecological restoration and environmental education.
“Most agricultural land is devoted to livestock, meaning that much of the area is covered [in] excellent bee forage, like clover. We have minimal agricultural crops to contribute to the range [of] synthetic chemicals other bees often endure.”
The hospitable environment lends itself to an increasing number of folks keeping bees — many as a second career — to use honey at home, gift it to friends or even sell it locally. This honey can be substituted for sugar in many recipes and the shining star in others, like honey-glazed carrots, spoonbread or apple dumplings.
Though honey has been important in Appalachia for centuries, it’s not the only region where it has played an important role. Honey has been depicted in European cave drawings, appears in the Bible and was even used as currency for ancient Romans.
But, like many other aspects of life, Appalachia remains innovative in its use of ingredients and utilizing what’s available from the land. Or, in this case, what’s available from the hive.
One thing is for sure: It sure makes mountain life a little sweeter.