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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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

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Comments

Eddie
Reply

No thanks on the poison ivy honey … and I will pass up the rattlesnake venom tastings. Guess I’ll never be a Darwin Award winner. 🙂

Bill
Reply

Poison ivy is one of plants that are blooming in abundance here in early summer in northern Minnesota. I had the same question years ago after relocating to NW Minnesota with poison ivy everywhere. I did some research on the subject and even chatted with Marla Spivak from University of Minnesota. Marla confirmed with me that the urushiol, the oil that causes the itch, is not contained in the nectar or pollen of the poison ivy flower. So, I don’t mind the poison ivy at all.

Joann Odenwelder
Reply

Please change my email to above gmail address. I cannot stand to be without HoneyBeeSuite for long!

Rusty
Reply

Joann,

Done. And thanks!

Barbara
Reply

I hear there is research being done on whether one can obtain a high by eating “cannahoney” (pollen collected from the flowering male marijuana plant). I have a neighbor on the adjoining property who has a grow area (I live in Oregon). She said she has seen bees hovering around the plants but is not sure if they are just being curious, or are in fact collecting pollen. I asked her to call me next time she sees them. I may be consuming cannahoney and not even know it….

Rusty
Reply

Barbara,

Yes, I’ve heard that many bee species will collect the pollen, but I don’t imagine that much of it makes its way into honey. Probably some, of course, but enough? I doubt it.

Kim
Reply

I have asked a similar question over the years with no answer. Male marijuana plants are loaded with tiny flowers and I have seen them buzzing with bumble bees. Male plants don’t have any/much THC but I always wondered whether there was a “pot” honey. Maybe someone on your list knows.

Rusty
Reply

Kim,

I looked this up once. If I recall the plants are wind pollinated so they don’t produce much nectar at all. Bees will happily collect the pollen, however.

lanie
Reply

So interesting. Thank you for the newsletters, I’ve learned a ton of interesting facts! Thanks.

Lanie

Judy Scher
Reply

I remember waaaaaaaay back in the 1970s when poison oak honey was sold in a little store called Honey Heaven in Eugene, Oregon. I haven’t seen poison oak honey since then. I wonder if bees make propolis from the resin!

By the way, I bet your horses tried to snack on the poison oak. When I had a horse I had to really clean the bridle and bit after rides in the Oregon woods!

Rusty
Reply

Judy,

So I’m not the only one who has run into this problem. It’s funny, I never see up here (south of Olympia).

Maryly
Reply

Now that you’ve tasted it, did you have any sort of a reaction up to 24 hours later?

Rusty
Reply

Maryly,

No. Nothing.

Barney
Reply

Hi Rusty, so can we assume that any poisonous plant’s nectar makes safe honey?

Rusty
Reply

Barney,

I would not assume that, but I think that plants in the genus Toxicodendron make safe honey.

HardlyWarcane
Reply

If you put the poison honey on the spot you touched …. does it draw the itch out???

Rusty
Reply

I have no idea, but honey in general is good for wound care, as long as the honey hasn’t been heated.

Ginny
Reply

Had a similar experience when I was a Park Ranger setting sandbags in flooding waters. the urishiol was floating on the water surface and I broke out on everything exposed to that water. Yeck!

Shari
Reply

There are those who say eating poison oak honey helps diminish the allergic reaction to the plant toxins.

Rusty
Reply

Shari,

I’ve heard that too.

Diane
Reply

I live in Corvallis, and I hike on various trails in the area, so I can imagine all too clearly your poison oak adventure! I recently read “Following the Wild Bees,” the book on bee lining that you have displayed above on your site. I was completely captivated by the book (as was my husband), and for a short time I thought that maybe bee lining would be a fun activity to try. Then I thought about the reality of walking cross-country through the hills and forests around here, and the amount of poison oak one would need to trek through, and that was the end of that idea.

Rusty
Reply

Diane,

Good point. That would take the fun out of it.

Willa Powell
Reply

Thank you so much for this essay and for answering my question. As someone who has increasingly more severe reactions to poison ivy, I could totally sympathize with your experience of years ago. I can see why the subject would be intriguing to you!

I was out hiking in Upstate New York this past weekend, and my hiking partner called my attention to the number of bees hovering around a large clump of (invasive) Japanese knotweed. Within a quarter mile we found a feral hive in a hollow tree within line-of-sight of our trail. Very exciting.

Two days later, I was thoroughly captivated by honey bees collecting pollen from moon flowers that were beginning to open in late afternoon/evening in an urban backyard. No idea whose bees they were…

Rusty
Reply

Willa,

My daughter who lives in Seattle has a neighbor who lets the Japanese knotweed run wild. She said the buzz from the honey bees is absolutely deafening. They love it.

Vicki
Reply

After reading this blog, I’m not sure what to believe. I was at a county fair a couple days ago and one of the vendors was selling honey from all sorts of flowers, including poison oak. I tasted it and it had a definite molasses overtone. It was also quite thick and dark.

Rusty
Reply

Vicki,

The taste and color of varietal honeys depends on what other flowers the bees are collecting at the same time. Honey is never purely from one flower, but a mixture of flowers. Varietals are “mostly” one type of flower, but also others, so the color and flavor can be drastically different.

Henry Storch, who produced the honey sample I had, commented on my post. He said, “I would also add that there are nectar flows before and after the short poison oak flow. Sometimes the poison oak honey has a little trailing blackberry (dewberry) on the early side and sometimes it has a little chittum (cascara) on the later side. It all depends on the rainfall, temperatures and plant phenology that particular spring. The trailing is a lighter honey and the chittum is darker. We always label it as such.

DJ
Reply

Excellent blog! Thank you for all your stories and insight. After reading this blog and contemplating the what if on the honey I just harvested here in Texas, I just have to ask about a unique flavor that I’m getting from my feral hive. The honey is light in color and smells and taste like Luden’s cherry cough drops. I love the cherry flavor and that is not the part that throws me off. The hiccup in the getty-up is the mouth feel. It’s warming, not hot or spicy just warming. What flower would offer a nectar that creates a honey that is so very cherry and warming to the mouth?

Rusty
Reply

DJ,

I have no idea. Maybe someone else does?

Katherine White
Reply

Just now reading this post, I wonder how I missed it. How delightful to know that our abundant crop of poison ivy has an up side! Fortunately for us, Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis) is abundant as well. Crushed and rubbed on the skin within a few hours of contact with urushiol, it’s a reliable antidote, even for reactive people like me. I’ve never seen a bee on the flowers, though they tend to like our “balsam” impatiens.

Rusty
Reply

Katherine,

I grew up in Pennsylvania where we, too, used crushed touch-me-not leaves. Cool!

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