Taste Iowa State honey flavored with prairie at Pollinator Fest, June 25

Two jars of golden honey with ISU labels, one with a special prairie strips tag
Iowa State University honeys are a partnership project produced at the Iowa State University Horticulture Research Farm and on prairie strips of farmer collaborators. Photo by Nick Howell.

AMES, Iowa — Visitors to Pollinator Fest, Saturday, June 25, at Reiman Gardens in Ames, can taste test the newest sweet treats from Iowa State University – Iowa State-produced honey and its alter ego, Prairie STRIPS honey. Their unique flavors reflect the work of many partners, including Iowa State scientists, staff and students and farmer collaborators.   

An apiary was established at the ISU Horticulture Research Station in 2020, under the leadership of Randall Cass, ISU Extension and Outreach bee specialist, and Nick Howell, superintendent of the Horticulture Research Station. They started producing what is now being called ISU “classic” honey.

The new ISU honey on the shelf represents years of research on pollinator health and survival in Iowa’s agricultural landscape led by professors Amy Toth and Matt O’Neal in the Department of Entomology. That work revealed the potential to integrate honey production with Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS), a new, nationally recognized conservation practice developed at Iowa State.

“We have documented multiple benefits from prairie strips integrated within conventional production practices,” O’Neal said. “That includes significantly improving much-needed habitat for bees and other beneficial insects, such as monarchs and weed seed-eating ground beetles. The practice also provides important habitat for grassland birds and benefits soil and water quality.”

The research has shown prairie strips have significantly more blooming flowers, especially in late summer, a critical time when bees collect nectar for the winter. Siting hives in prairie strips leads to larger populations of bees that are more robust and produce more honey -- about 24% more honey than bees in hives on farms without prairie strips.

Such findings inspired a group of enthusiastic Iowa State students to explore the science and business of beekeeping. The resulting We Can Honey-Do It project was among the Student Innovation Center’s first Innovation Fund Challenge winners in 2021, gaining support to access prairie strip field sites, pay for lab analyses and run a market study of prairie strip honey as a specialty product.  

“We wanted to give students real-world experience producing a sustainable and environmentally-conscious product by targeting the entire process from beekeeping to marketing, and it has resulted in a new product,” said O’Neal, a Consulting Faculty Innovator with the Student Innovation Center and one of the team’s mentors.    

In its first year, 20 Iowa State hives at the Horticulture Research Station yielded about 700 pounds of honey. Last year, the location of hives expanded to include farms with established prairie strips. Hives on the strips produced enough honey to sell as a stand-alone product

This year is the rollout for the special prairie strip honey, with its own unique color and flavor profile, differentiated from the ISU “classic” honey by a green prairie strips tag. On one side of the tag is a logo. On the other side is a QR code linked to the  STRIPS program website. 

The We Can Honey Do-It team sent samples of the two ISU honeys for a detailed laboratory analysis. The results showed distinct differences. The “classic” honey from bees located at the Horticulture Research Station was largely based on pollen from soybean, clover and fruit trees. Honey from the bees on the prairie strips was comprised of a diverse mix of nectar from native asters and other prairie plants, according to Cass.

Howell, who has been in charge of the honey extraction and bottling working with Cass and the students, describes the prairie honey as darker with caramel undertones. “The Horticulture Station honey is a little lighter in color and flavor, but they’re both very good products,” he said proudly.

Visitors to Reiman Gardens' Pollinator Fest on June 25, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., will have a chance to taste for themselves. Those who can’t attend can find the honeys at the Iowa State University Book Store, the Student Innovation Center gift shop or at Wheatsfield Co-op in Ames. For now, the supply is limited, so get it while it lasts.

“The whole process has been fascinating,” Howell said. “We started from scratch, and it’s been a great learning experience for us and for the students, from working with the bees and the honey to developing the safety procedures and creating the labels. The Extension classes that Randall is teaching are also expanding our outreach to help achieve one of our goals -- to encourage farmers to consider beekeeping as a possible enterprise from prairie strips.”

Money from honey sales supports the Horticulture Research Station. Other support for the project and related research has come from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, Iowa State University Student Innovation Center donors, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the ISU STRIPS Project and the Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station.