The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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The Curious Beekeeper

Waxing Eloquent on the Art and Science of Dippering

- September 1, 2023 - Rusty Burlew - (excerpt)

Waxing Eloquent on the Art and Science of Dippering

Although it may appear useless, the honey dipper is well-liked by many. In fact, some argue that dipping transforms honey into a special occasion.

Serving honey with a twist

At Christmastime, my daughter gave us a ceramic skep-shaped honey dish with a wooden honey dipper. Oddly enough, this was my first experience with a honey dipper. Although I never paid much attention to them, I thought they were weird. After all, what can a dipper do that a spoon cannot? And now that I’ve used one for a while, I’m even more befuddled by this strange utensil.

I’m a fan of comb honey, which requires cutting and spreading, so a regular kitchen knife has always been my weapon of choice. To me, the practice of combining honey from different combs is even more perplexing than using a honey dipper. However, I realize few people agree with me on this. Because modern beekeepers nearly always extract their honey crop, dippers have a perpetual audience.

My husband, Rich, never used a honey dipper either because he grew up with creamed honey, something which also requires a knife. Together, the two of us knew zilch about the art of dippering.

The physics of dippers

Upon examining the Christmas dipper, Rich began to speculate, and that’s when I began to take notes. He said, “Wooden dippers were probably turned on a lathe beginning whenever lathes became popular. The lathes could be hand-turned or, later, motorized. The design probably arose in India, China, Germany, or Mesopotamia.” Mesopotamia? I have no idea where this came from. Never before has he mentioned Mesopotamia to me.

He twisted the dipper into the honey and ruminated. “The dipper is easy and natural to use. Honey is viscous. On a dipper, honey forms a glob due to gravity. When the force of gravity (Fg) exceeds the force of cohesion (Fc), the glob separates from the dipper and plops into your oatmeal.” Oatmeal? This is another subject he’s never mentioned to me — not even once. I’m transfixed.

“The adhesion between the honey and wood is increased because of the parallel grooves around the circumference of the dipper.” He compared it to the way high-voltage insulators impede the path of a spark. Really? And this is relevant?

He continued. “If you hold the dipper horizontally and rotate, the glob never accumulates because Fg<Fc. As long as you keep spinning it, there is no issue of the honey falling from the dipper. This is unlike a knife, where it slides off, or a spoon, where it drips from the bottom. Compared to most utensils, it can deliver honey with precision. For example, with an English muffin, you can fill all the little holes individually.” So cool! Why had he not explained muffin amendment before now?1

In conclusion, he opined that “the honey dipper was an advanced device first made by people who hadn’t studied flow dynamics and physics.”

Boundary layers and the flow of liquids

When I consulted a physics book for further clarification, I gathered that the shape of a dipper provides lots of surface area for the amount of honey scooped. The many places where the honey rubs against the wood form a boundary layer where molecules of honey resist the pull of gravity because of friction between the honey and the wood.

The more surface area the dipper has, the slower the honey drips. But the viscosity of the liquid also plays an important role. A very viscous liquid has a wider boundary layer than a thin, runny liquid. For example, if you tried to pick up your tea with a honey dipper, even rapid turning wouldn’t prevent gravity from pulling the tea back down to earth with urgency.

However, any slow-moving liquid can benefit from a dipper. Besides honey, you can use dippers to drizzle maple syrup, chocolate syrup, molasses, caramel sauce, some salad dressings, barbecue sauce, or even loose jam. You could buy dippers by the dozen and still have a need for more.

A honey dipper for everyone

Honey dippers, also known as honey wands, honey sticks, honey spoons, and drizzlers, do indeed have a long history. Progenitors of today’s dippers surfaced among Egyptian artifacts. These were wooden sticks with grooves cut along the length, although fancier models had ridged fan-shaped ends that further increased their surface area. By the Middle Ages, dippers made of bone or metal became common in kitchens everywhere, from dugouts to monasteries.

And Rich was right about woodworkers and their lathes. Today, you can find websites and YouTubes with precise instructions for dipper manufacture using popular species of wood such as olive, maple, walnut, beech, and bamboo. Each woodworker has a favorite wood and a signature pattern, meaning copious dippers are everywhere. I even saw a dipper design where the small end held a honey-based lollypop — a combination dipper/sucker.

But wooden dippers are the tip of the iceberg. You can also find dippers made of stainless steel, silver-plated brass, plastic, silicone, ceramic, and glass. Even so, wooden dippers are considered superior because they won’t chip your teacup — a good thing to know because it’s tacky to be a dipper chipper.

Some beekeepers claim that wood is superior because it absorbs the flavor of honey, while metals or plastic impart a flavor to honey. In addition, wood has antibacterial properties that can protect the honey even after multiple dips. Apparently, wood is a winner in the dipper department.

If you choose, you can season a new wooden dipper. First, lightly sand any rough spots or splinters. Next, wash the dipper with warm water and a drop of dish soap. Once it’s dry, lightly coat the entire dipper with olive or coconut oil, wiping off any excess.

Controlling the goo

When it comes to mastering the art of dippering, metering is key. Experienced dippers get high on controlling the flow. You hold them one way to avoid drips and another to encourage drips. The angle you choose — somewhere between vertical and horizontal — displays your artistry. The controlled descent of your honey onto the substrate reveals a lot (I’m told) about your personality. Some say it’s all in the wrist.

The shape of the dipping part is variable, and the shape together with the size determines how much honey gets delivered and how fast. Popular shapes are cylinders, spheres, skeps, teardrops, pears, and points. Some historians claim the original carvings were modeled on pinecones, full of gravity-defying voids for safely transporting your honey from crock to crumpet.

Each shape presents its own control variables, so different shapes require different techniques. The problem is so complex that those who wish to apportion an exact measurement into their tea — say a teaspoon — are better off leaving dippers to the pros.

Dipping protocol: how to do it properly

Apparently, much dissension exists about dipping protocol. For example, when having tea, do you dribble above the cup and simply replace the dipper in the jar? Or do your swirl the dipp