The World is Her Hive

Follow the HoneyPhoto by Brian Doben.

Follow the Honey offers a window into the beekeepers of many nations

Honeybees are “a gateway bug,” according to Follow the Honey founder Mary Canning, and the “liquid sunshine” they produce is the key to a greater sense of excitement in the world around us.

“I’ve seen people walk in laden with the heaviness of the world and say, ‘Oh my God, you have honey sticks? I haven’t seen those since I was a kid!’” says Canning. “And it’s like they’re skipping around the shop.”

The shelves and displays of her shop, tucked away in a Mass. Ave. undercroft at Harvard Square, are laden with honeys both homey and exotic. Canning works with beekeepers not just from Massachusetts and New England, but nations in Africa, Eastern Europe, South America, the Indian subcontinent—basically, anywhere she can find people with honey they want to sell.

Each variety comes from its own terroir, and some, such as the earthy and smoky miombo blossom honey from Tanzania, will be utterly alien to most American palates. But Canning is there to guide them.

“I say I’m a ‘beecilitator,’ not an expert,” she says. And once someone is in the store and gets a taste of honey or a whiff of propolis, she says, it stimulates their senses and opens them to hearing more about bees and beekeepers.

“I’m trying my best, as a nobody-somebody pioneer, to awaken the spirit of inquiry as to bees and honey and all of the natural world,” Canning says.

According to George O’Neil, one of Canning’s beekeeping mentors, she certainly isn’t a nobody and is way more than just a pioneer.

“I call her the honey ambassador, because she’s there to spread the word about the plight of the pollinators, particularly the honeybee,” says O’Neil, who keeps several hundred hives at his Autumn Morning Farm in Barre. “She’s there to help people understand the product of honey, where it comes from, how it’s produced, and how it goes from being out in the hive to inside her store.”

O’Neil and Canning met through her first beekeeping mentor, Frank Lagrant. After he passed away, O’Neil stepped into the role. When Canning first thought about opening Follow the Honey, she turned to him for support, and he supplied her with a lot of her initial honey supply.

These days, of course, Follow the Honey carries honeys sourced from beekeepers all over the world. And that, says O’Neil, is another reason Canning and the store are important.

“She has helped beekeepers in [developing] countries use honey as a way to provide income for their families,” he says. “So she’s trying to help not only bring their stories back to the United States, but also help beekeepers throughout the world.”

With people from so many countries coming here for graduate school and the tech industry, Canning says people often come in looking for a specific variety of honey. The famed sidr honey of Yemen, for instance, is renowned for its health benefits; as is, in small measures, the hallucinogenic rhododendron honey of the Himalayas. Importing some of these is made difficult by red tape or conflict zones (she once had honey brought out of Gaza through a connection at the United Nations Development Program), but Canning does her best to fulfill such requests because she, too, believes in the healing power of honey—even when it’s just a teaspoon of Massachusetts blueberry honey to lift the spirits.

“Cambridge is sort of a brain trust, built around institutions like Harvard and MIT, and people can become very energetically bogged down,” she says. “But they come in the store and have a tasting, and then learn it takes 1,125 bees to make a pound of honey, and they are amazed in the way they were amazed by new things when they were children.”

For O’Neil, Canning elicits that amazement through an approach that is utterly simple: She lets people taste the honeys she carries, whether they’re from Cape Cod or Tanzania. And more than that: She can tell the stories behind every variety in every jar on every shelf— which, O’Neil says, helps people understand these honeys and actually use them, rather than leave them to languish in the pantry. And that drives demand.

“That’s what Mary has done for the beekeeper” both here and abroad, he says. “She does a lot for the industry. A lot of it is red tape and politics, when you’re trying to get honey out of a country and bring it back to the United States, to share the story. It helps a lot of the beekeepers in these other countries to have a place for their product to go.”

Canning’s travels have done more than introduce her to things like honey from rubber plants in India, or from tapioca plants. After establishing contacts with beekeepers in Tanzania, she started an apitourism program there (“apis” is from the Latin name for the honeybee, apis mellifera) called Nyuki Safari Company (“Nyuki” is the Swahili word for “bee”).

“Nyuki will allow people to see the animals, but also the honeybees in the forests,” Canning says. “In Tanzania, it’s a huge forest country, and that’s where the bees live.”

Nyuki Safari Company represents the root of why Follow the Honey exists, she says: to be a window through which people can examine and explore the curious foodstuff made by her beloved gateway bugs.

“We were all little innocents once, and we still have innocence and sensitivity inside us,” says Canning. “Through Follow the Honey, I feel like I can contribute to keeping that alive.”

So when someone walks into Follow the Honey—whether for the first or the hundredth time—what exactly is it Canning wants them to walk out with?

“A spring in their step, walking on liquid sunshine,” she says. “A heightened sense of delight in the world in which we live.”

This story originally appeared in the Celebrating the Season issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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