The tupelo blooms were not quite open yet last Wednesday afternoon, but they would be soon.
The air was just turning sweet with the scent of the twisted water trees’ nectar, and small fuzzy balls had appeared on the branches.
Jim Rish examined the trees’ limbs from the back of a kind stranger’s boat.
“Would you mind pulling on up to this one right here? It looks a little healthier,” Rish asked the boat’s captain. “You see when you start seeing these green balls it’s ready to burst open any day now.”
“That one there is like a day away.”
His own boat’s motor had been giving him trouble for a few weeks. It hadn’t started when he launched his boat at the Gaskin Park boat ramp earlier that day, and he had floated about a half mile down the Apalachicola River before he was able to row the boat to a nearby dock, tether it, and climb out onto the shore with damp boots.
Then, he went door to door looking for someone who was home.
Six doors down he found the stranger, who has been coming down to his fish camp in Wewahitchka from Alabama for more than three decades, was happy to provide a tow in exchange for three jars of tupelo honey.
“There’s tupelo all over the South,” Rish said to the man. “But the thing about this part of Florida along the Apalachicola River is we have more of a concentration than any of them.”
“Where they came from originally, I don’t know.”
Rish is a beekeeper. His family has been harvesting tupelo honey along the Apalachicola River for generations.
It can take decades to learn how to time the tupelo bloom right, he said. But over the years, he said that the lessons he has learned can be boiled down to a simple gambler’s mantra – “you’ve got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.”
Tupelo blooms for a short time in the spring every year, usually in mid-April, but this year it is a little late. Sometimes the nectar flows for two weeks, sometimes three, and at the end, the flowers dry up and fall into the river.
Timing the bloom is important in Rish’s line of work.
“There is more to making good tupelo than most people know,” he said. “It is of course the bees who make the honey. However, when the beekeeper takes the honey is the determining factor as to the quality of it.”
Beekeepers need to place their bees by the trees at the correct time, then remove the existing honey from their hives in order to get them to produce quality tupelo.
“This creates a panic in the bees and cleans one’s comb for them to put Tupelo in,” Rish said. “If one does not take their mixed honey the bees don’t work as hard. It is all nectar to them and with plenty on hand they would not have room for more anyway.”
Miss this timing, and the honey will be mixed with other pollens – still delicious, but prone to crystallization and not as strong in its tupelo flavor.
“Tupelo does not crystallize. When you see some crystallization in the bottom of a jar of tupelo honey, it is because the beekeeper either started too soon to take the mixed honey from them at the start of the flow or waited too long at the end of it to get the Tupelo off,” Rish said. “In either case, it is a matter of timing and good judgment.”
“While one can call honey tupelo if it is at least 51 percent tupelo these days, it is just not the same as honey that is 89 to 95 percent tupelo,” he continued. “One can tell by the green cast in the honey, tupelo nectar is greenish, and of course the taste – sweet, but not too sweet, plus a little zing, but not too much like orange blossom has.”
Rish tries to come out on his boat to examine the blooms a few times throughout the month of April, just to monitor how things are going, but you can tell the status of the blooms based off of the behavior of the bees as well.
He’ll need to get his boat fixed soon, but for now, with his bees already placed, the best thing he can do is wait for them to do their thing.
“We make most of our living in these few weeks in my line of business,” he said. “But other than focusing on the timing of it all, all I can do now is wait.”
In the following weeks, Rish and his son, Nathan Rish, will work to get the honey cleaned and jared in time for Wewahitchka’s Tupelo Festival, which will be held on May 21 at Lake Alice Park.