We are currently artists in residence at Kingdom Supercultures, a natural microbial culture design company. Kingdom Supercultures collects undiscovered, naturally-occurring microbes from the wild and assembles them into communities for fermentation. These microbial assemblages are termed “supercultures,” as they focus on novel relationships between different microbe species and their emergent metabolics. Placing microbes together in new iterations can result in completely unique smells and flavors.

Image: Honey fermentation experiment at home.

Our lab residency at Kingdom Supercultures focuses on three primary areas: experimental mead fermentation, bioprospecting within the bee microbiome, and environmental analysis of bee habitats and honey production. Honey fermentation is the oldest known form of fermentation, dating as early as 7000 BCE when honey fermentation vessels were discovered in northern China. The soma described in the hymns of the Rigveda may be the earliest description of fermented honey, likely written between 1700–1100 BCE. Throughout history, honey has been used as an intoxicant, a sacred nectar, an aid for healing and cleansing, as well as an entheogen.

Images: Collecting microbial samples from bees and honey combs for bioprospecting.

By studying mead with Kingdom Supercultures, we hope to connect this most ancient ferment to contemporary biotechnology. What new flavors of mead might be created from novel microbe communities? We are particularly interested in new meads that are fermented with microbes found on and around the bees themselves. Presently, we are conducting a series of microferment experiments, fermenting New York honey varieties with commonly-used microbes (Torulaspora delbrueckii, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and Lactobacillus). We are fermenting the honey using various strategies, including  simultaneous and sequential inoculation.

Image: Microfermentation experiments with different microbial species and inoculation methods. 

Image: Secondary fermentation for new mead flavors.

However, our ultimate goal is to ferment with microbes endemic to the bees and the hives where the honey is collected. To this end, we are bioprospecting within the bee microbiome, collecting bee and hive samples around New York and lab-culturing the microbes found on these samples. We hope to extract and characterize novel yeast and bacteria strains that we can use for fermentation. As we ferment with these endemic microbes, we will track the chemical composition of the honey and the related metabolic output of the microbes (antioxidants, phenolic compounds, sugar content, contaminants, etc.).

Image: Preparing plates for microbial growth from honey samples.

Image: Preparing bee microbial samples for lab culturing.

Due to the pollination habits of bees, honey serves as a barometer for ecological health, reflecting the botanical abundance, biodiversity, and contaminants of a given area. Through chemical analysis, such as mass spectrometry, we can identify and compare the active compounds that affect flavors, as well as the contaminants in different honey samples. As we speak with meadmakers and beekeepers, we have noticed a prejudice against urban-produced honey, which is often thought to be of lower quality. We are questioning this bias, and testing whether it has any scientific basis. Our goal is to detect the general quality of both urban and rurally produced honey, as well as to infer how the feeding habits and botanical environment of the bees affects the honey.

Image: Naturally occuring microbial strains found in NY honey samples.