The next time this columnist sweetens her tea with a little honey, she will have a brand new perspective on what is on her teaspoon. Honey is honey, right? Not so, according to Jim Robins of Robins Apiaries in St. Charles.
“All my life, I have known the difference between honeys—that different sources make different flavors of honey,” Robins says. “I was amazed when I found out that many people believe that all honey taste the same, so I started to keep the honeys separate, and bottling and labeling the honey so that people could tell the difference and know how the flavors are distinctly different.”
Robins had a terrific teacher—his father. One of the founders of the American Honey Producers Association, Leonard Robins started keeping bees in 1922; as a teenager, he founded of Robins Apiaries.
Robins notes that his father lived and breathed bees and honey, so it’s probably not a surprise that, at a very young age, he taught his son how to work with the hives. “My father had me out with the bees when I was just 9 years old—I think that's called involuntary servitude,” Robins laughs. “And I hated it for a long time. But when I got into my late teens, I thought, You know, this isn't so bad, and then I thoroughly got into beekeeping.”
In the mid 1950s, the business underwent a major expansion, taking its number of hives up to 3,600; and after his father died in 1970, Robins ran the total number of hives up to 8,000. He currently has 400 hives. “I'm an old guy now, you have to remember that,” he says with another chuckle. “But I'm producing quite a bit of honey with the 400 hives, and I've been going to the farmers markets at Tower Grove Park and at Schlafly.” Robins’s honey also is available at Local Harvest Grocery in the Tower Grove neighborhood and Great Harvest Baking Co. in St. Charles.
And the flavors of honey that Robins Apiaries offers? They include Black Locust, Wildflower (mostly Dutch clover and white sweet clover), Alfalfa, Edamame and Cotton honeys. “The Edamame and Cotton honeys come from southeast Missouri and my son (David Robins),” he explains. “So, it's not local in that it does not contain the local pollen grains that can possibly help with allergies, but it is Missouri honey. But the other honeys are from the St. Louis area.”
According to Robins, who has hives in 30 locations around the St. Louis area, many of his customers tell him that they use his local honey to help with their allergies. “Now I am not a doctor, but if you’re trying to treat your own allergies, you’d better be eating the pollen that’s causing your problems,” he notes. “The flora/fauna used to make the honey needs to be the same as what the person is living with and breathing in every day. People like to use the term ‘local,’ using miles as the determining factor, but that's not true with honey.”
Robins says that his favorite among his honeys is the Black Locust with its mild flavor. “It’s light and delicate, and a lot of people like to call it ‘tea honey’ because they can sweeten their tea and have it still taste like tea. When you use other honeys, well, you now have honey-flavored tea.”
Perhaps a column on honey would be lacking without a mention of those dedicated working bees and their queen and their importance on what we eat. So, this columnist asked. Robins’s response: “It’s something like 30 percent of all the food we eat that the honeybee was involved in pollinating a plant. So, if you don't have the honeybee, you don't have the pollen and that plant is no longer in the mix. And what are left are those plants that are wind pollinated like wheat, barley and rye. Those plants you would lose would be most of your fruits like apples and watermelons, because plants of that nature depend on insect pollination. I have hives on some farms right now; and one of those farmers recently told me that when I put my bees on his place, he had the biggest boost in production that he had ever had. He told me, Please don't ever move your bees. They do make a dramatic difference in our lives.”