Food Science

Feast Q&A: UC Davis to present ‘Honey Sensory Experience’ in May

Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center at UC Davis
Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center at UC Davis

It’s a liquid gold rush at UC Davis’ Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine.

Attracting international attention, the institute’s Honey and Pollination Center has found its sweet spot in the study of one of the world’s oldest foods and the bees that produce it. In May, the center will host its first Honey Sensory Experience, a two-day immersion in all things honey, featuring experts from around the globe.

“This course brings together the world of sensory science, honey, research at the university and a broad variety of presenters that will make the inaugural event very unique,” said center director Amina Harris.

Demand for honey continues to increase as more consumers want sustainable and natural foods, Harris noted. In particular, “varietal honeys” – sourced from particular flowers – are booming.

Set for May 20 and 21, the Honey Sensory Experience maintains the center’s mission “to help UC Davis become the world’s leading authority on bee health, pollination and honey quality.” In addition, a master class on honey tasting featuring honeys of Italy will be held May 23.

Bee health continues to be a concern for farmers, scientists, honey lovers – and the Honey and Pollination Center. Bees pollinate at least 30 percent of the world’s food crops including such major California harvests as almonds, citrus and stone fruit. To focus on those honey producers, the center will host a special “Bee Symposium: Keeping Bees Healthy” on May 7.

Both the bee symposium ($80) and the honey weekend ($600; $675 after Monday, April 25) are open to the public with registration online at Harris took a few moments away from the buzz to talk honey and bees.

Q: What inspired the Honey Sensory Experience?

A: The Honey and Pollination Center has several foci. Initially, it was just honey and the development of the UC Davis Honey Wheel (a tasting guide to honey flavor, appearance and scent). With the help of local sensory scientist Sue Langstaff, we gathered a team of tasters – some professional and some not – to experience and discuss honey. The wheel was printed in the summer of 2014. Shortly after, the center began focusing on the growing mead trend offering classes and programs and then onto bee health. This May, we return to that first project with a weekend devoted to learning about varietal honey.

Q: What will be some of the highlights?

A: Gian Luigi Marcazzan, president of the Italian Register of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey, will be presenting all three days. Unless you are planning a trip to Bologna, you won’t have this opportunity in the foreseeable future. We’ll be tasting a huge variety of honeys – not just from California, not just from the U.S., but from the world.

Q: What aspect of honey do you think is most surprising to newcomers?

A: People, even those who are experienced, are still astounded by the variety of flavors in varietal honeys. Simply, they are not prepared. Great tasters learn to know the difference between orange blossom honey from California and that from Florida – but most people don’t have that opportunity.

Q: Who is this weekend designed for?

A: The Honey Sensory Experience is designed for those who have a keen interest in honey – store category managers, taste profilers, chefs and bakers, writers, tasters – right on down to the simple aficionado who loves the stuff. We are bringing in chef, baker and author Mani Niall to speak about how to use honey in a variety of ways. Amy Myrdal Miller will discuss the nutritional aspects of honey.

Q: Tell me about the Bee Symposium.

A: Our featured speakers include Yves Le Conte, the director of the French National Bee Lab in Avignon, France, addressing the need for bees to develop resistance to the varroa mite, and Dennis vanEngelsdorp speaking on reducing colony losses. Each of these are extremely important issues. Varroa destructor weakens bees by feasting on larva; it’s a parasite sucking the bee’s blood and keeping them from developing naturally. Colony losses are now averaging 45 percent yearly – not just in the winter. This is a huge issue for beekeepers – how can we keep our colonies alive and healthy.

Q: Will this be a good honey year?

A: Everyone is hopeful that this wonderful wet winter will provide a flurry of forage for our honey bees. We won’t know until we see the liquid gold.

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Amina Harris

Director, Honey and Pollination Center

Center at Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science continues to create a buzz.