Do bees make poison ivy honey?

It’s apparent from watching honey bees that they enjoy a tasty snack of poison ivy nectar. Having observed this, a reader asked “Is there such a thing as poison ivy honey?”

I vaguely remember references to poison ivy honey from way back, but I couldn’t remember the details. According to Honey Plants of North America (Lovell 1926), poison ivy has “small yellowish green flowers in clusters which yield much nectar, and the well-ripened honey is apparently harmless.”

What we usually call poison ivy is Toxicodendron radicans, a plant that grows pretty much across North American except for California and western Oregon. Poison oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum, is very similar but grows only on the west coast of the US and Canada. Another plant, sometimes called southern poison oak or Atlantic poison oak, Toxicodendron pubescens, grows in the southeastern states. There are other Toxicodendron species as well, but these three cover a lot of ground.

All of these plants contain a chemical called urushiol, which can cause severe contact dermatitis in many people, including itching, swelling, and rash. The compound is found in the sap, moves throughout the plant, and aids with water retention.

The search for Toxicodendron honey

Frustrated by a lack of information on the net, I decided to search for “poison oak honey” instead of “poison ivy honey” and that yielded the results I was looking for.

Much to my amazement and delight, I found poison oak honey for sale! I whipped out my credit card and I now have a vial of this mysterious potion on my desk. The thing that really caught my attention, however, is that the honey comes from Philomath, Oregon.

A tale from Philomath

As it happens, I used to live in Philomath when I was a student at Oregon State University. This was a while back, mind you. Like most of Oregon, Philomath was magical, but the apartment where my husband and I lived was $75 a month with mustard yellow walls. It had a bathtub with legs, a light fixture you turned on with a string, and a sofa I refused to sit on. I couldn’t wait to leave.

But a couple of years later after we had moved to Corvallis, I went horseback riding with a friend, aiming for the hills above Philomath. It was a pristine autumn day when we left the stable, but by the time we got into the hills, hideous black clouds obscured the sky and the air smelled like pond water.

We got drenched in downpour after downpour. The thunder was the kind I could hear with my stomach, and the flashes of lightening ghosted in my eyes long after it was gone.

The horses were spooked and hard to handle. My friend, Karen, said she knew of an abandoned quonset hut where we could shelter them until the storm blew over. How she knew about the hut, I have no idea. She was a teenager at the time, and kids know things that adults don’t. So I followed.

We spent thirty minutes in that hut with splintering timber and blinding flashes all around. We shivered from the wet and the threat while we cooed at the horses with reassuring pats. Finally the storm passed and we mounted our soggy steeds.

The infamous shortcut

Karen said she knew a shortcut back to the stable, so like a lemming, I followed. The foliage was dripping, as were our clothes. Rivulets coursed along the reins and dripped from the saddles. A puddle churned in each boot.

As we traveled cross-county through the woods, we got deeper and deeper into tangled understory. It was so thick and viney that we were constantly ripping weeds from the stirrups and pulling long ropes of it over our heads. We were so shivery and drippy it was hard to see, but we just kept plowing through.

Native bee on poison ivy flower.
Native bee on poison ivy flower. Photo © By JESpencer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
After about twenty minutes a sudden realization took my breath away. “Karen!” I shouted. “Do you know what this stuff is?” She either didn’t hear or didn’t care. I stared open-mouthed at the clump of weeds in my fist. Poison oak.

Long story short

I will spare you the details of the ensuing agony. I got what my doctor called an id reaction, which means I broke out in places that never touched the poison vine. In fact, wherever my clothing rubbed against my skin, I broke out in an itchy, messy rash.

The places where my legs touched the saddle were bad, the area where my waistband rested was raw, but where I sat was the worst. I returned to class the next day but spent a whole week prancing around the back of lecture halls, wiggling in my clothes, and trying not to scratch in public.

The ring of authenticity

The book Nectar and Pollen Plants of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest (Burgett et al. 1989) mentions poison oak as a “producer of light honey in areas where it grows in sufficient abundance.” So last week, when I found poison oak honey online and read it was from Philomath, I knew it had to be the real thing. There’s no doubt in my mind that Philomath contains more than enough poison oak for a sizeable surplus.

The honey

The honey itself is a soft amber color. To me the flavor is spicy with citrusy highlights. I like it. Even though that first taste kind of creeped me out, I soon got over it.

If you are curious like me, be sure to have a taste. The poison oak honey, as well as other unusual Pacific Northwest varietals, can be purchased from Old Blue Raw Honey.

Special thanks to new beekeeper Willa Powell for asking the question. The research has been delicious even if it brought back a few itchy memories.

Honey Bee Suite


Beekeeping: a hobby brimming with possibility

Beekeeping is for people who like options. Not only do we have infinite choice when it comes to hive design and management technique, but the variety of things we can produce with our bees is staggering. When we erect our initial hive and order our first bees, most of us think of honey. But honey is the tip of the beekeeping iceberg.

If you were to ask me what I produce with my hives, I might say comb honey because that is the first thing that comes to mind. But more practically, my bees provide material for my website. Their antics, habits, vagaries, and tantrums add spice to articles about their biology, physiology, morphology, and pathology. My bees tell me new stories every day; I just have to listen and translate.

Some bees are kept simply for pollination, producing crops and flowers and seeds for everyone. I say “simply” but pollination is anything but simple. When mere humans are asked to pollinate something, we are perplexed to say the least. Can you imagine pollinating a field of clover? All those itsy-bitsy florets down on the ground in the searing sun? Sweaty. Itchy. Sneezy. Buggy.

An array of products from the hive

Looking beyond honey, pollination, and the occasional website, what else do beekeepers produce with their charges? Here’s a short list, though I’m likely missing something.

  • Besides being the basis of many homemade craft items such as candles, lotions and soap, beeswax has a variety of commercial and industrial uses. Properly prepared beeswax can fetch good prices and is always in demand.
  • Pollen is used as a food supplement by many people, but it can also be saved and fed back to bees during lean times. Pollen collection can easily be added as a sideline to honey production.
  • Propolis is often purchased by manufacturers of various health care products, including toothpaste, mouthwash, and sunscreen. Although propolis is simple to harvest, the amount you can collect is dependent on both your location and the subspecies of honey bee you keep.
  • A growing market exists for royal jelly, especially in those regions where it is considered a super food capable of extending life and slowing the aging process. Harvesting royal jelly is a labor-intensive pursuit that actually makes you feel older than you are, but for those so inclined, it commands a high price.
  • Venom is used by some medical practitioners for treating a variety of ailments. It is interesting to note that venom can be collected without harming the bees. A glass plate with a tiny electric current running through it is installed in front of the hive entrance. The bees sense the current and attempt to sting it, but since their stingers cannot penetrate the glass, the bees walk away unharmed and ready to sting again. The venom is then harvested from the hard surface of the plate.
  • Producing queen bees is an excellent way to expand a small operation. Nowadays, locally-produced queens are popular and command a decent price. Even if you are too far north to produce early queens, replacement queens during summer and fall are always in short supply.
  • The market for good quality nucleus hives is enormous. In early spring, you can split your hives for swarm control and produce nucs at the same time. Placing the frames in cardboard nuc boxes makes them less expensive and easier to handle, and anyone selling nucs, especially on medium frames, has a ready market. I constantly hear requests for medium-depth nucs that the beekeeper doesn’t have to cut down to fit.
  • Larger operations, especially those in southern locations, can also sell packaged bees. Packages require more hives and more labor, but like nucs, quality packages are a hot item.
  • Frames of open brood are something I would have never thought to sell, but a number of beekeepers have asked me where they could buy them. It makes sense: a frame of open brood can be priceless. Open brood can be used to keep bees from absconding, prevent laying workers, boost populations, or manage queens. Especially for those beekeepers with but one or two hives, a source of open brood frames would be awesome.
  • Of course, all that extracted honey you have stashed away can be fermented into mead. Wildly popular in the Middle Ages, mead has recently experienced a re-birth and is easily produced at home using commercial wine yeast.
  • In many cultures, bee larvae is prized as a high-quality source of protein. Bee larvae can be served dried, fried, boiled, baked, or any way you fancy: barbecued bees, bees ‘n rice, bee and bean burritos, bees au vin. I’m told that honey bee granola is a good recipe for beginning this culinary adventure, although I think I would rather have the larvae dried, ground, and hidden in something else. Some people suggest that instead of culling drones and feeding them to chickens, we just sauté the larvae—mites and all—in a little butter with sliced button mushrooms and sweet onions. Coarsely ground pepper, I imagine, disappears the mites.

Honey Bee Suite

Lavender honey from the source

Several years ago I tasted some lavender honey and wrote, “The sample I tried was from Portugal. It was a beautiful medium amber color with almost no flavor other than sweet. It may have had a very slight citrus undertone. Overall, I was pretty disappointed in this famous variety.”

Recently, Dawn Tarin of San Diego read that passage and was mortified. She wrote to me:

I was very sad that you didn’t love the lavender honey that you tasted. I am currently in southern France (Provence) famous for its honey. I have bought some honey from 2015, and to me it tastes fabulous. . . . I would love to mail you a small sample (my gift, of course). It has to be my all-time favorite honey, and would be part of my last meal, if I ever get to make that choice!

Bee Brief bee

When you buy lavender honey, beware of confusing terminology.

The type of honey I have described in this post is honey made from the nectar of lavender flowers. The nectar is collected by the bees, taken back to the hive, and processed into honey.

Many times what is labeled “lavender honey” is really some other type of honey infused with lavender flowers. The flowers are often allowed to steep in the honey for some period of time and then may be filtered out or not.

The labels may say “infused,” “lavender flavored,” “essence of lavender,” or just “lavender honey.” Be suspicious if you see plant parts floating around in the jar.

The taste test

Just as promised, a sample arrived shortly thereafter. The honey was a gorgeous extra light amber and looked like sunshine in a bottle. And the taste? Amazing. I would say (and I’m not good at this) that it had a bright flavor, medium sweetness, and both woodsy and citrusy notes. Faintly in the background, I detected a flavor reminiscent of the scent of lavender, but just a hint, nothing heavy. If this is typical of lavender honey, I can certainly understand why it is a classic favorite.

The beekeeper who produced Dawn’s honey is based in Mougins, in the heart of Provence, an area famous for high-quality lavender honey. Below you can see his label and some notes and translations provided by Dawn, who spoke to him in French (I’m impressed).

Cultivars and terroir

Many variables can make one honey taste different from another. The nectar may have been collected from different species or different cultivars of lavender, which could certainly make a huge difference. More subtle is the difference in geography.

French wine makers refer to the terroir of a region, or how a region’s climate, soils, and geomorphology affect the taste of their grapes. Of late, the term has been used to describe the same phenomenon in coffee, chocolate, cheese, and honey. So even if the bees collected nectar from identical plants, the difference in local growing conditions would make the nectar taste unique.

Toss in the unpredictable

Beyond that, beekeepers have less control over their bees than winemakers have over their grapes. Even if honey is collected from a single crop in a single location, other nectars may get mixed in—maybe some weeds at the side of the road, flowers from a neighboring farm, or a taste of someone’s hummingbird feeder. The idea behind varietals is that the beekeeper believes that the honey was substantially produced from a particular crop at a particular time. Beyond that, we don’t really know.

With that in mind, a second taste—or more—is always a good idea, and Dawn has certainly changed my mind about lavender honey.

Dawn sent me this annotated photo of the original jar she purchased in France. © Dawn Tarin.


Rebuttal: bees turn sugar into honey

I firmly believe that syrup made from refined sugar cannot be changed into honey, but not everyone agrees. Bees do indeed break down sugar (sucrose) into its component parts (fructose and glucose). But that enzymatic process does not make honey, just as adding invertase to sugar syrup does not make honey.

Although honey is mostly fructose and glucose, it is all the other stuff that gives honey its flavor, aroma, color and nutritional benefits. Honey bees thrive on honey in part because of the nutrients, antioxidants, amino acids, protein, flavonoids, minerals, and pollen that it contains. Yes, these are small in quantity, but they are vital, just as the vitamins and minerals in human food is vital to us.

At any rate, I thought I would let you read the rebuttal and decide for yourself. This comment arrived this week attached to a different post on the same subject, “What’s really in the bottle?” but it rebuts my most recent post “Is your honey cut with sugar syrup?” in the same way. I deleted references to other commenters for their privacy.


If sugar and corn syrup and HFCS does not come from a plant, where, pray tell, does it come from???

Rusty, while you may be attributed with having the patience of Job, your love of bees is more in question.

We highly discourage ANY supplemental sweetener other than PURE CANE sugar (not “pure sugar,” nor corn syrup in any form, because of the pesticides used on those plants, as well as genetic modifications to the plants (sugar beets and corn) used to produce other products.

We (as well as many beekeepers the world over) feed our bees sweetened water throughout the year, particularly during the early spring and autumn months, for the VERY simple reason that the BEES (not the beekeepers) need this sweetened water to LIVE.

The bees are well able to convert this PLANT sweetened water into HONEY, regardless the pedantic arguments, and the hive utilizes this honey throughout the winter months, to survive and live.

Now, in regards to the “clear color” of honey, or non-nectar honey – this is a prime example of people over-thinking nature.

Clear honey (or bee-product), is simply honey that has not aged. Like fine wines, honey ages, due to the bacteria and enzymes in the bees’ pre-digestion. Honey that is in uncapped honeycomb cells has not sufficiently dehydrated enough to be capped and age.

Once capped, the “bee-product” darkens over time. Our sugar-syrup fed bee colonies produce HONEY from early spring, as soon as the worker bees can get out and find some sweet liquids to bring back to the hive. They then make honey until the cold temperatures force them to ball up and keep the queen warm over the winter, when the cycle continues. During this period, the bees consume the honey stores they have produced since early spring.

Honeycomb that we have harvested in fall (we have top bar, not Langstroth hives) shows all shades of color, from pale and almost water clear, to deep amber, almost brown. This is not due to the chemical make up of the honey, be it nectar or sugar produced. This is due to the aging of the bee product itself, and uncapped honey cells that contain a higher water content. Please stop over-thinking the color situation. Pure nectar honey would display the same thing.

If sugar water (from plants), did not make honey, the BEES would not be able to survive winter. The fact that humans harvest the food that these insects produce for their personal survival is secondary, regardless the monetized commercialization of the product.

I, along with [deleted], would love to see the chemical breakdown of the supposed “bee product,” in comparison with “nectar honey,” as I suspect little to no difference, beyond the aforementioned minerals and protein content.

I would also love to see the survival rate of bees on the planet increase, not for the consumption of honey or “other bee product,” but for the survival of humans and plants. Any efforts that contribute to bee populations should be encouraged, not discouraged over the semantics and sources of the sweetened liquid bees consume to produce HONEY.

While I cannot speak for any large, commercial operations attempting to sell and profit from “non-plant sweeetner-fed bee product” (and while there is “sugar-free honey,” this discussion is not about that), I can, as a private, small-scale, beekeeper, speak for the bees, in that sugar water (and ONLY pure cane sugar water) is FAR from being a money maker. Thirsty bees can drink gallons a day, and at a 1:1 ratio, a 50# bag of sugar only makes a little over 6 gallons of sugar water.

That sugar water then has to dehydrate and be capped by the bees, and then age to become honey. Time is money, you know.

And not all of the honey produced can be harvested. Sufficient stores of the sugar-water produced honey must be left for the hive to consume over the winter.

Harvested honey then has to be processed, whether by centrifuge, as is the case for Langstroth hives, or by crushing the comb, for top bar hives. Labor is money. So, the snarky worry about profiteering from sugar-water fed bees is utterly needless.

Bottom line, folks, if you are beekeeping in any form, it should, first and foremost be for the bees. Wasting your energies over stupid semantics, instead of focusing on the bees is not helping the cause.

Evil profiteers will always be evil. But looking for evil in every little thing, and pedantically castigating sugar water feeding as not being honey, or somehow contributing to the evil men do in the name of money is truly missing the forest for a chipped piece of bark on a very small tree.

Love bees.

Is your honey cut with sugar syrup?

Adulteration of honey with sugar syrup and corn syrup has been a problem for a long time. An unscrupulous beekeeper can feed his colonies these products and extract them like honey, or he can add them later, after extraction. The financial incentive is obvious because syrup is cheap and readily available.

Naturally, importers of honey and large-scale purchasers of honey for manufacturing purposes have always been interested in knowing if the liquid they are paying for is pure, or if it has been “cut” with syrups from non-floral sources.

Cane and corn are C4 plants

It turns out that most plants can be identified as either C3 or C4 plants. Roughly 90% of all plants are C3 and about 5% are C4. The names C3 and C4 come from the first compound produced by the plants during the CO2 fixation stage of photosynthesis.

In a C3 plant, the first compound produced has three carbons, and in a C4 plant, the first compound produced has four carbons. A third type of photosynthesis called CAM is found in about 5% of plants, mostly succulents. Since many of these can switch between CAM and C3, they are sometimes included with the C3 species.

The C4 cycle is an adaptation of plants that evolved in very hot and dry climates. They are able to use CO2 more efficiently and they lose much less water due to transpiration, so they can thrive in sere conditions. Most C4 plants are grasses, including sugar cane, maize, and sorghum, and most are wind-pollinated.

Honey is made from the nectar of flowers

By definition, honey is made from the nectar of flowers. Nectar is secreted by nectaries, which are glands located in flowers, and the secretions are especially designed to attract pollinating insects. Some definitions also include secretions from extra-floral nectaries and the excretions of plant-sucking insects (honeydew) as honey sources.

However, the C4 plants maize (corn) and sugar cane do not have nectaries and are not known for producing honeydew. Sweet liquids pressed from the leaves, stems, or other herbaceous parts of a plant are not considered nectar for the purposes of honey, especially after they are refined by industry.

Isotope profiles can identify C4 syrup

C3 and C4 plants contain different ratios of the stable isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-13. Isotopes are different forms of an element. Each isotope of an element has the same number of protons but differing numbers of neutrons in the nucleus. Since extra neutrons affect the weight, they are easily detected

A carbon-12 atom has 6 neutrons and a carbon-13 atom has 7 neutrons, but they both act like carbon. These isotopes do not decay and are not radioactive, hence they are “stable” as opposed to the unstable type that decay and are radioactive. A carbon isotope we have all heard of is carbon-14, which is a radioactive isotope with a very long half-life of 5730 years. By measuring how much of this isotope remains in a very old object, we can determine its age.

In any case, since these heavy carbon atoms are measurable, it is easy to discover if a sample of honey is adulterated with syrups derived from sugar cane or corn by measuring the ratio of the stable isotopes, 13C/12C.

Sugar beets are C3 plants

However, a problem occurs when syrup is derived from beet sugar. Beets are C3 plants and have the normal ratio of stable isotopes found in most nectar-producing plants. So honey contaminated with sugar beet syrup is not detectable with this method.

As you can see, contamination with syrup is an unresolved problem. Isotope analysis is not readily available to the average consumer, and beet sugar adulteration cannot be found in any case. If you are concerned about the content of your honey, it is best to know your beekeeper. . .and know him well.