The dark secret of purple honey
Back in August, Aubrey from central North Carolina asked if I had any experience with purple honey. Specifically, he wanted to know what makes it purple.
Although I have no personal experience, the idea of purple honey has fascinated me for years. Like a lot of folks, I first heard about it in The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. In that book there is a brief reference to purple honey and elderberries. In truth, it seems that purple honey only appears in the southeastern states, that it appears mostly in dry years, that it accumulates in only some hives, and that the amount produced is usually limited to a few frames or a partial box.
Lots of theories but few facts
Many people claim that bees eating the fruit of blueberries, blackberries, or elderberries causes the color. Although bees are known to occasionally sip on ripe fruit (see below), beekeepers who have harvested purple honey claim that no berries were ripe when the purple honey was produced.
Others claim that specific soil conditions affect the nectar of some plants causing it to turn purple, and other people write that, “bees have to work the blooms in a certain order in the make the honey purple.” Without some science to back them up, I can’t accept these conjectures either.
Could it be kudzu?
I tend to side with the folks who say that purple honey comes from the flowers of the kudzu plant. For starters, kudzu and purple honey (sometimes called blue honey) share a geographical distribution in the southeast, whereas blueberries and elderberries are found everywhere. Also, purple honey is said to taste like grape jam and smell like grape soda—descriptions that are often applied to kudzu flowers as well.
Furthermore, kudzu seems not to be a favorite of honey bees. But in dry years—especially during a summer dearth—the bees will forage on it to a limited extent. This comports with the fact that purple honey is most often collected in years of drought and never collected in large quantities. As I mentioned in several recent posts, honey bees often do well on invasive species, many of which have multiple advantages over native ones. With few natural enemies to weaken the invasives, they often thrive under conditions where the natives fail—and the honey bees are quick to notice.
I’m sure someone has done a pollen analysis of purple honey to determine its floral source, but I haven’t been able to find one. In the meantime, I place my bets on the kudzu and I eagerly await my first taste of southern purple honey.