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.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 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