The phrase “cranberry honey” can mean one of two things: either honey that is made from bees' pollination efforts on cranberry plants, or a more standard honey that a cook has flavored with cranberry fruits. Honey is a natural secretion of honeybees that feed in certain fields or crops. The majority of the honey that is widely available in supermarkets is clover-derived, and has a very neutral flavor. Most of the time, cranberry honey is honey that has been produced by bees that have pollinated cranberry bogs. Some cooks add cranberry to clover honey to give a dish a different taste, however, which can also qualify.
Pollination is an essential part of almost all kinds of fruit production. Fruit trees and fruit-bearing plants are often able to produce some fruit on their own through asexual reproduction, but the transfer of pollen from plant to plant is one of the best ways to encourage bigger yields. Cranberry farmers who depend on large harvests commonly erect honeybee hives either in the bogs or on the surrounding wetlands to encourage bee-driven pollination.
Honey bees pollinate cranberry plants somewhat by accident. They feed on the nectar of the cranberry flowers, which requires them to crawl into the bloom itself. As this happens, pollen from the flower’s sexual organs necessarily dusts the bee’s body. As a bee travels from flower to flower, it shares pollen particles, fertilizing blooms the bog over.
When the bees return to their hives after feeding, they secrete honey. Most of the time, honey takes on characteristics of the plants that made up the majority of the bees’ diet. Honey made primarily from cranberry flowers is usually very sweet, and is known for a slightly tangy taste that many identify as distinctly reminiscent of the tart cranberry fruit.
It is very hard to guarantee that cranberry honey is made from pure cranberry flower secretions, as bees often have quite extensive flight paths. Even a bee headquartered in the center of a cranberry bog may travel beyond the field to nearby roadsides or grasslands in search of nectar. So long as most of the nectar is believed to come from cranberry plants, the honey can usually be marketed as “cranberry honey.”
Cranberry honey is not often available on the mass market. In part, this is because of the limited nature of its supply. The honey is available primarily through local farms and cooperatives in cranberry-growing communities.
It is also possible to create a sort of “cranberry honey” by macerating or otherwise blending cranberry fruits into existing honey. Cooks often do this to add color or texture to honey that is to be drizzled over cranberry-flavored confections, or to serve alongside meals in much the way that cranberry sauce might be. Cooking with cranberries is popular in many places, and using a flavored honey is often an interesting way to innovate and play with different preparations.
On their own, cranberries have a distinctly tart, often bitter taste. Combining them with the sweetness of honey often creates an interesting balance of flavors. It also preserves the health benefits of cranberries. Many in the medical community recommend eating cranberries on a regular or semi-regular basis, both as a way of upping vitamin intake and as a means of arming the body with antioxidants. The fruit’s positive health attributes rarely come across in pollination-based honey, but are very present in honey blends containing actual fruit pieces.