Who doesn't love honey? In ancient times, honey was considered a food of the gods, a symbol of wealth and happiness.

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Who doesn’t love honey? In ancient times, honey was considered a food of the gods, a symbol of wealth and happiness. Today, we know it as the sticky-sweet substance that seduces Winnie the Pooh, recalls the childhood memory of buttery bread, fills the iconic plastic bear, and soothes a sore throat with winter tea.

Open a jar and unleash a field of flowers: clover, orange blossom, blackberry, eucalyptus, lavender. Each honey is unique, depending on the flowers that cross a bee’s path. There are more than 300 kinds of honey in the United States alone. Honey from leguminous plants (like clover and alfalfa) is relatively neutral, according to “Larousse Gastronomique.” Honey from conifers, buckwheat and heather has a stronger taste, and aromatic plants like thyme and lime blossom impart their own distinctive flavors. In general, lighter honeys are milder while darker ones are stronger.

Chefs and home cooks who want certified organic honeys might have a hard time finding any from the U.S. Because bees travel up to five miles for nectar, beekeepers have trouble ensuring organic practices, especially if other property owners are involved. Most organic honeys come from pristine areas of Australia, New Zealand or Brazil. However, many local and U.S. honey makers produce quality all-natural honeys without the organic certification.

Quality local producers include Moon Valley Honey (www.moonvalleyhoney.com), which sells wild blackberry, raspberry and a lusciously tangy (but not at all hot) fireweed honey. They can be found at some local food stores or tasted at the Pike Place Market in Seattle. Snoqualmie Valley Honey Farm (www.honeyexpress.com) also offers products at the Market.

Seattle chef Johnathan Sundstrom of Lark likes to support local products but also enjoys experimenting with unusual finds from other countries. At Lark, he uses Dr. Pescia’s hand-produced chestnut and heather honeys from Tuscany (sold at DeLaurenti Specialty Food and Wine and other local food stores). “Honey is a fun way to balance out food,” Sundstrom says. “It’s a way to get a sweet element without using sugar, and to introduce a unique flavor.” Sundstrom has been “playing” with bitter honeys lately. In winter, for example, he served an aromatic Corsican honey with a sweet date cake and olive oil gelato. Earthy chestnut honey is good in the fall and winter, he says, while summer calls for lighter honeys such as blackberry.

Thank the busy, and endangered, bee

For all the good honey brings us, the busy honeybee rarely receives the glory it deserves. Worker bees collect nectar from millions of flowers to make one pound of honey, traveling about 55,000 miles (that’s twice around the planet). For all that buzzing and producing in its short life, one bee makes just one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey.

The only insect that gives humans food, the bee is also responsible for much of the plant life on Earth. About a third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants; the honeybee is responsible for 80 percent of the pollination.

What would we eat without honeybees? Not such a rhetorical question. Honeybees are dying off at unprecedented rates, and the cause is puzzling researchers. What is called the “honeybee crisis of 2007” is wiping out apiaries across the country. Moon Valley Honey, a small producer in Arlington, lost about a third of its hives last year. Kim Denend, who owns the business with her husband, Aaron Otto, attributes the plight to a combination of factors — mites, disease and a general weakness in the bees to environmental threats such as pollution and climate change.

As versatile as the chef using it, honey plays well both sweet and savory. At Barolo Ristorante, chef James Best turns out a stunning tuna tartar appetizer with a honey-ginger glaze. Best uses wildflower and fireweed honey from High Country Honey in Darrington, available at the Pike Place Market and area food stores. “I love the floral flavor and color,” he says, “and the texture is perfectly paired with sashimi-grade tuna in this dish.”

Another Seattle chef known for scouting out the finest Northwest ingredients is Kerry Sear from Cascadia Restaurant. He prefers a wildflower honey from Fresh and Wild in Vancouver, Wash. This summer he is featuring a wildflower-honey Peking duck with a sweet, crispy skin and, for dessert, a wildflower-honey upside-down cake with fresh honeycomb. Sear calls the honeycomb garnish “mother nature’s bubble gum.” Now that’s another story.

Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle freelance writer. Barry Wong, a Seattle-based freelance photographer, can be reached at studio@barrywongphoto.com.

Tartara di Tonno

Barolo Ristorante

Serves 4

1 pound sashimi-grade ahi tuna, cut into 3/8-inch dice

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon red onion, finely diced

1 teaspoon Italian parsley, finely chopped

A pinch of fleur de sel or coarse sea salt, to taste

1. To make the sauce, whisk together the sesame oil, soy sauce, honey, ginger, lemon juice, onion, parsley and salt.

2. Toss tuna with sauce.

3. Press into 4-ounce molds (such as a ramekin or custard cup). Invert onto serving plates.

4. Garnish with more fleur de sel or coarse sea salt.