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Joe’s mysterious honey

About two weeks ago, Joe Caracausa from east Texas said he harvested some honey with a very strong pine flavor. He wondered if the flavor might be due to the many pine trees in the area of his hives. He reported seeing yellow-green clouds of pollen in early spring, and he wondered if pine pollen could flavor the honey. Joe and his wife weren’t sure they liked the taste of the honey and didn’t know what to do with it. One of Joe’s friends said the honey tasted like a Northwest IPA, very hoppy.

Well, that last comment caught may attention, because there’s nothing I like better than a bitter IPA. Honey that tasted like hops would suit me just fine, so I suggested he could send it my way.

I didn’t think pine pollen would give the honey a pine flavor, but I wondered if it could be honeydew honey collected from pine aphids. I don’t know much about pine-eating aphids, but it seemed to me that pine sap that was eaten by aphids and then collected by honey bees could be the source of the flavor.

If you are not familiar with honeydew honey, it occurs when aphids gorge themselves on sap. They eat so much that the sap leaves their bodies more-or-less in the form it entered. It remains on the tree and then the honey bees come along and collect it. Although it sounds a bit bizarre, honeydew honey is very popular in some places and often commands a high price.

A week later, a sample of the honey showed up in my mailbox. Joe’s honey is a gorgeous amber color, and both my husband and I tucked into the jar as soon as it arrived. We both love it. My husband tastes the hoppiness (which I don’t) but we both detect a bitter aftertaste that is very reminiscent of an IPA. Neither of us tasted a pine flavor, but both Joe and his wife say the piney component has indeed mellowed since they first extracted.

The honey has that ultra-smooth characteristic that is so common in tree honeys that are high in fructose—a velvety, creamy texture that honeys higher in glucose seem to lack. Yes, I may be crazy, but this honey feels like tree honey. I asked Joe what else grows in the area, and he wrote:

There are a lot of woods around, we have substantial amounts of hickory trees, sweet gum, dogwood, many different oaks, willows, locust, bois d’arc, hawthorn, American beauty berry, farkleberry (look it up, it exists), woolly croton, several Narcissi, daffodils. Probably many others. The native pines are long needle varieties, mostly loblolly and slash pine. We also have ‘cedars’, actually juniper trees.

But now the story gets weird. I decided to look at Joe’s honey under the microscope to see how much of that pine pollen actually got into the honey. But what’s going on? I can’t find any pollen. My microscope only goes to 400x but I should see some pollen, even if I can’t see it well. I searched and searched, perplexed.

I wondered if I was doing something wrong. So I got a drop of my own honey from the cupboard, put it on a slide and OMG! Pollen of all shapes and sizes, even at only 40x. I went back to Joe’s honey and tried two more samples. Nothing. Even if pine pollen is really small, I should have seen something in there. Instead, I saw a few pieces of debris and couple of things that, with a good imagination, might have been pollen.

My honey was put through a standard 600-micron honey sieve. Joe sieved his too, and he thinks the sieve was 400 microns, which is smaller but should still let the pollen through. According to Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, 600 microns is considered a coarse sieve, 400 microns is medium, and 200 microns and below is fine.  Nearly all pollen is between 6 and 100 microns, so neither a 400- nor 600-micron sieve should remove any pollen.

The lack of pollen made me think that maybe it was honeydew honey after all. Aphids don’t eat pollen, just sap. So if the honey bees collected honeydew from the bark and needles of pine trees instead of visiting flowers, they would not have much contact with pollen.

Joe says he fed no sugar syrup this year and that there is no civilization anywhere near his hives where they could have found syrup. I know this is true because his honey tastes nothing like syrup! Trust me.

Still, I don’t know the answer to the mystery, I’m just asking the questions. What’s going on here? Does anyone have a different theory?

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Joe-C-honey-2
Joe’s honey at 40x. I found a few things that looked like this. © Rusty Burlew.
Deer-Trail-honey-2
My honey at 40x. Pollen galore. © Rusty Burlew.
Joe-C-honey-4
Joe’s honey, a pleasing amber color and a great taste. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Hilary
Reply

What about honey made from fungi? I recently read about this from Paul Stamets, “For 6 weeks one summer our bees attacked a King Stropharia bed, exposing the mycelium to the air, and suckled the sugar-rich cytoplasm from the wounds. A continuous convoy of bees could be traced, from morning to evening, from our beehives to the mushroom patch, until the bed of King Stropharia literally collapsed. When a report of this phenomenon was published in Harrowsmith Magazine (Ingle, 1988), bee keepers across North America wrote me to explain that they had been long mystified by bees’ attraction to sawdust piles. Now it is clear the bees were seeking the underlying sweet mushroom mycelium.”

Rusty
Reply

Hilary,

Wow, really strange. I would never guess . . .

WesternWIlson
Reply

Rusty, I am not an expert but if memory serves, many evergreens will secrete extra sugars on hot and sunny days. This sugary substance is extruded from and will sit on the needles and is available to be collected by bees, and is also called honeydew, although I have no idea why. Should be needle-dew or something like that. Locally this makes a very dark, strong honey with medicinal/herbal notes, somewhat reminiscent (if you are old enough to remember) Vicks Formula 44. I love this kind of honey (loved the Vicks too!). Locally we had a very dry, hot and sunny spring/summer/fall, so I would expect many of the 2014 Vancouver/North Vancouver/close to the mountain slopes honeys to be very dark and rich.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks! I keep learning new things. This makes a lot of sense, though. I’ve seen clear drops of something sticky on the evergreens around here, especially the pines, but I never thought about what was in it or what would happen to it. I often see honey bees in the cedars, too, but I always suspected they were collecting only pollen . . . maybe not.

Craig
Reply

I saw that a lot, when I was a kid.

That sappy stuff also tasted a bit like turpentine.

I’m thinking that, if this is what it is, the turpentine could have evaporated out over time.

That would account for Joe tasting pine at first, then the pine flavor waning, after a bit.

Rusty
Reply

Craig,

That makes a lot of sense, since turpentine is quite volatile.

Brian Lacy
Reply

Interesting post here.

Paul Stamets of Fungi Perfecti is a true friend of bees. Here’s the link to his recent talk on the fungi/bee connection:

Dave
Reply

I’ve read that several trees and bushes have “extra floral nectaries” that attract mainly ants but also honey bees (not bumble bees). In that these nectaries have nothing to do with pollination, it could account for the absence of pollen in Joe’s honey?

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

It could be. I’ve seen honey bees completely avoid the pollen in flowers like camas.

Dave
Reply

Oops – the wording in brackets was meant to read “not bumblebees” – predictive text strikes again!

Rusty
Reply

Thanks. I was wondering what that was.

Mariana
Reply

I know honey bees are faithful to a particular nectar source on a given foraging trip, but aside from those situations in which there is only one source available do they only store one type of nectar in each cell or frame? In other words, is it unusual that this honey is so consistent in its lack of pollen? It would seem to me that there would be a mix of nectars (and pollens) in a given frame. The picture of your honey (Rusty) shows a number of different shapes/sizes of pollen granules–I’m assuming that they’re from different sources/flower species. Is Joe’s environment so limited that only one source is represented? I’m just curious.

Rusty
Reply

Mariana,

Bees work different crops as they become available, and they put those nectars in the area they are working at the time. If you look at your frames, you will see areas of one color, and other areas of other colors. I think Joe’s honey came from a short time span of working this particular source. It was probably only a few days, and Joe extracted less than two quarts, so it wasn’t very much. The honey from my cupboard didn’t come from just one small area they way Joe’s did. My honey was collected from a number of frames and mixed together. That said, I still think Joe’s honey is unusual. We have some other theories and will soon have someone else working on it. I will post an update.

Marian
Reply

Thanks, Rusty.
Sometimes I can see only trees, sometimes (less often) I can only see the forest….
Marian

Anna
Reply

Did you mean bizarre not “bazaar”?

Rusty
Reply

Of course, Anna! Thank you.

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