Long Island is swarming with honeybees -- at least, that's what the growing membership of the Long Island Beekeepers Club suggests. This is good news for farmers and gardeners who rely on bees to pollinate their plants, and of course for anyone who loves honey.

KEEPING A COLONY

Fourth generation beekeeper Margaret Barna's family collected honey in Poland, Belgium and upstate New York before establishing BarnaBee Honey in Ronkonkoma. So it's on good authority that she proclaims Long Island honey the world's best, its smooth, soft, supple flavor the product of a seacoast climate and a unique combination of wildflowers. Mary Woltz, owner of Bees' Needs in Sag Harbor, agrees that "the wide variety of nectars found on Long Island make our honey special."

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And when you buy honey, you are supporting the community. "Buying local honey helps everyone," says Woltz. "The farmer who gives the beekeeper a home for the bees, the natural landscape that benefits from the bees' activities and the honey consumer who quite literally tastes the place or terroir."

Beekeepers focus on caring for their colonies, providing optimal conditions for them to gather nectar from flowers and bring it back to the hives. Human handling has very little to do with the final product. Inside the hive, the bees do all the work, beating their wings to create the breeze that will evaporate water from the stored nectar, transforming it into the thick, viscous substance that we pour into our tea. Unlike commercial producers, who boil and filter their honey, sometimes diluting it with cheap high fructose corn syrup, artisanal producers don't do much in the way of processing. Heating honey destroys its healthful enzymes as well its beautiful aroma. Filtering it removes pollen particles some believe relieve seasonal allergies.

Whether you are buying honey for culinary or medicinal purposes, make sure you are getting raw, unfiltered honey from Long Island. The best way to do so? Read labels, but more importantly, know your beekeepers.

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"Go to the bee yard. Look at the hives. Taste the honey," says Wayne Vitale of Spy Coast Bee Farm in Setauket. Woltz agrees. "Many beekeepers supplement their production by buying nonlocal honey, so unless you know your beekeepers and their practices, you cannot be certain you are enjoying the best benefits of eating local honey."

LOCAL HONEY PRODUCERS

The following beekeepers produce 100 percent local honey, raw and unfiltered:

Spy Coast Bee Farm

WHERE At the Port Jefferson Farmers Market

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HOW MUCH $9 for 8-ounce jar

Tom's Honey

WHERE $12 for 12-ounce jar at Clipper Ship Tea Company in Northport and Helen's Farm Stand in Riverhead.

Blossom Meadow Honey

WHERE $3.75 for 2-ounce honey bears (when available) along with candles, lip balm and beeswax crayons at Coffee Pot Cellars tasting room in Mattituck, where you'll also find an observation hive.

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BarnaBee Honey

WHERE $16 for 12-ounce jar at Raphael vineyard in Peconic and Palmer Vineyards in Riverhead, as well as The Crushed Olive and Phountain locations across Long Island.

Buckabee Honey

WHERE $5-$7.50 for 8-ounce jars at The Fresh Market in Woodbury, North Shore Farms in Glen Cove, Southdown Marketplace in Huntington, and Best Market in Huntington.

Bees' Needs Honey

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WHERE $10-$18 for an 8-ounce jar at farm stands including Green Thumb (Water Mill), Serene Green (Sag Harbor) and Balsam Farms (Amagansett) and shops such as Marders (Bridgehampton), Sag Harbor Baking Co. (Sag Harbor) and Naturally Good Foods & Cafe (Montauk). You can also find it online at mouth.com

HONEY CSAS

Want to support a local beekeeper and ensure that you'll have a year-round supply of local honey? At least two on Long Island beekeepers have CSA (community supported apiculture) programs. Tom Tyrrell of Tom's Honey Bees (tomshoneyandbees.com) offers both full ($250) and half ($130) shares, including honey, beeswax lip balm, soap and candles, in early spring. Contact Mary Woltz at Bees' Needs (631-702-5657, mgwoltz@optonline.net) for more information on $100 shares for twelve half-pound jars and $200 shares for twelve one-pound jars of Bees' Needs Honey.

HOW TO DECRYSTALLIZE HONEY

Thickening and crystallization of honey are not signs of spoilage, but rather an inevitable but not irreversible stage. The glucose in honey tends to form crystals on other crystals, or on small particles like pollen. The more opportunities that glucose has to form crystals, the more quickly crystallization will occur. Commercial honey, which has been heated to dissolve existing glucose crystals and filtered to remove pollen, is less likely to crystallize than raw, unfiltered honey.

To reliquefy your honey, place the whole jar (glass jars only; plastic containers shouldn't be heated) in hot but not boiling water (about 100 degrees) and gently warm it until it reaches the consistency you desire. Your honey should remain liquid and smooth for at least a month, if stored at a temperature of 70 degrees. Between 55 and 60 degrees, it will start to recrystallize more quickly. Repeated heating of honey will cause it to lose its aroma, so if you are using yours very slowly, reheat a little at a time, rather than reheating the whole jar over and over again.