Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Honey as more than a sweetener is this UCD center’s charge

From page MIY12 | July 07, 2013 |

Nicole Westbrook, counselor for a UC Davis youth camp, tastes some honey at the Honey and Pollination Center, as camp participant Cassidy Boynton looks on.
Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

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The intricacies of honey — the nectar transformation process that creates it, options for eating it thereafter, and how it can vary depending on the flower it’s from — can arouse excitement only if known.

And Amina Harris, executive director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center, has been as busy as a bee trying to generate that buzz. It began with this year’s Picnic Day, one of the first public introductions that the education-based center made.

“We’re trying to figure out different ways to work with the public, and gain more awareness,” she explained. “The goal is encouraging a deeper understanding of honey and pollinators locally.”

The center, which is part of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at UCD, was established last fall. Its initial budget relied on a grant from the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, with auxiliary funding from the Whole Foods supermarket chain.

The center has since paved two avenues of self-generated income: bottling honey and selling it at the center and at the campus bookstore, as well as selling high-resolution note cards that feature close-up photos of pollinators, courtesy of Kathy Keatley Garvey from the UCD department of entomology.

The center’s biggest happening this summer was inspired by visuals with a similarly intimate perspective of pollinators. Specifically, it was a short video of butterflies, hummingbirds, bats and bees from Louie Schwartzberg, titled “Beauty of Pollination.”

“I mean, you get forwarded this kind of stuff on the Internet all the time,” Harris said. “But this was just amazing. I said, ‘We need to get the guy who put this gorgeous video together to come talk to us.’ … We found him, sent him an email, and he said he’d love to come.”

Schwartzberg has lengthened his nature documentary, added narration by actress Meryl Streep throughout, and gotten it produced by Disneynature (the studio responsible for “Earth”). His now 90-minute film, “Wings of Life,” has already been released theatrically in France.

But it’s also getting what’s billed as a premiere showing in Davis during a special gathering on Wednesday, July 24. The Honey and Pollination Center, with sponsorship from the UCD School of Education, is hosting a screening and evening of activities at the UCD Conference Center. Admission is $5.

Attendees are invited to come at 6:30 p.m. for honey tasting, music and education by An hour into the program, “Wings of Life” will be shown, preceded by a conversation with Schwartzberg.

Earlier in the day, the School of Education will do some of the same for children. The kids will visit the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven — a half-acre garden next to UCD’s Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility — and have their turn to speak with the director themselves.

“It should be wonderful to have the kids get face to face with the filmmaker and ask him questions,” said Andee Press-Dawson, director of community programs and events at the School of Education.

The long-term goal is to develop an annual weeklong program out of this year’s event come 2014. It’s part of an ongoing effort to educate youths about beekeeping, pollination and honey, so they understand the science of it.

Harris mentioned that it’s uncommon for people to recognize that each honey has distinct properties depending on the floral source. For example, honeys from California tend to be drier. That’s something she plans to teach.

One of the ways that’s hoped to be accomplished is by creating visual representative, a “honey wheel” diagram, this summer. It would be similar to a wine or cheese wheel, in that it illustrates certain varietal features.

“Hopefully they’ll know when tasting an orange blossom honey they’re getting a specific aroma and floral taste,” she said. “It will also look different and have a totally different texture.”

Connected to that is a further-off goal of featuring varieties of mead, a honey wine. For this, Harris aspires to incorporate use of the Robert Mondavi Institute’s resources.

The on-campus winery is active only three months of the year, from crush to bottling, and is otherwise a showplace. Mead could be produced in the off-season, Harris said, which is something its makers may take interest in.

“There’s not a whole lot here for mead-makers,” she said. “Not a whole lot happens except among themselves, at least nothing formal. This will be an opportunity for them to create a real ongoing learning opportunity.”

All that the Honey and Pollination Center could soon offer should be enough to get people excited, but it’s going to take an increased awareness of honey being something other than an additive for tea first.

“An interest in local honey and its health benefits have come to the forefront,” Harris said. “Simultaneously, a lot of people are just now finding that there’s so many varieties of it, and even more are ready to be informed.”

— Reach Brett Johnson at or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett



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