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

Old-Blue-Raw-Honey-back
Old-Blue-Raw-Honey-front

Book review | Two Million Blossoms

Folk medicine was never my thing. Being the child of a pharmaceutical researcher, I was carefully taught that  “quack” medicine and “real” medicine had nothing to do with each other.

In truth, I’m extremely grateful for modern medicine. At one point in my life I was told I would never walk again—not normally—but I walk, run, skip, and climb just fine. I’ve also recovered from childhood illnesses that would have taken me out without modern intervention.

But still, it has become obvious over the years that, in many ways, modern medicine has its limits. Drugs that are designed to do one thing, cause other problems. Antibiotics have bred super bugs that seem resistant to everything. Worse, drugs that could help are often priced beyond comprehension, sometimes forcing people to choose between them and other necessities.

Out of curiosity more than anything, I began reading Kirsten Traynor’s book Two Million Blossoms: Discovering the Medicinal Benefits of Honey (2011). Traynor is a honey bee biologist who has done extensive research on honey and how it is used by international health care practitioners.

She is an excellent writer whose text is both clear and engaging, but the best thing about the book is her attitude. The book is not preachy in the least. She does not try to convince you that honey is the best medicine, but simply lays out the facts.

For example, many sources tell us that honey has antimicrobial properties, but few tell us how it works. In one section, Traynor explains how the osmotic pressure of honey dehydrates pathogens, how the high acidity of honey retards microbial growth, and how glucose oxidase (an enzyme added by the bees) releases a steady stream of hydrogen peroxide into a wound. She describes these and other mechanisms, but then allows you to decide for yourself if it’s worth a try.

Traynor cites a great many sources for her research and relates many case studies. But in spite of much technical information, she writes in a friendly, conversational tone that makes the book easy and fun to read. For example, when describing burns, she says, “Unlike murder, first degree burns are the least severe.” Okay, I can relate to that way of thinking (plus now I will remember which is which).

I think the book is appropriate for anyone who deals with honey. Even if you personally are not swayed by the material, as a beekeeper the book will help you answer those inevitable questions about the healing properties of honey.

If I ever again have to see my tibia up close and personal, protruding from the side of my leg, I will definitely opt for a surgeon over a jar of honey. But there may be a time and place for both types of cure in our modern world, and Traynor’s Two Million Blossoms opened my mind to some of the possibilities.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

*This post contains an affiliate link.

How common is foul brood in honey?

Beekeepers are frequently warned not to feed honey from untrusted sources to their colonies because it can carry the spores of American Foul Brood (AFB). Furthermore, we know the spores of AFB are not affected by standard pasteurization methods because they are highly resistant to heat. Pressure cooking at 250° F (121° C) for three minutes will kill the spores, as will other combinations of temperature, pressure, and time.

However, as “saving the bees” has become a popular activity for many people, non-beekeepers frequently write to me and explain how they are doing their part to save the bees by feeding them honey. For any number of reasons, these individuals cannot become—or do not want to become—beekeepers, yet they want to do something to help the honey bees.

When they write to me, I always take the time to explain the hazards of feeding honey, but of course I don’t know if they heed the warning or not. But more problematic are all the folks who don’t write, don’t ask, don’t know, and just assume they are doing the best thing for the bees. For every person who writes into a blog, there are thousands who don’t. And since I get a lot of e-mails about this, I assume the number of people feeding bees is staggering.

I have a picture in my mind of a scrupulous beekeeper, carefully tending his bees, taking precautions against the worst diseases, and doing everything by the book, while a neighbor down the road blithely buys imported honey from the grocery stores and fills a dozen feeders. It’s an uncomfortable thought.

So I began to wonder how often contaminated honey actually transmits AFB. We hear the warnings all the time, but I’ve never actually heard of a case where contaminated honey was thought to be the cause. So how common is American foul brood in honey? Come to think of it, how common is American foul brood in honey bee colonies?

The only time I ever saw AFB was in the hive of a friend, and that was many years ago. I seldom get mail asking about it. I’ve heard of a few recent cases of European foul brood, but not AFB. Nearly all the mail I get is about Varroa mites, deformed wing virus, nosema, CCD, chalkbrood, tracheal mites, and hive beetles, but nary a word about AFB.

So how common is AFB? How big of a problem are AFB spores in honey? Should we worry about scores of people feeding grocery store honey to any honey bee that wanders by? Or is foul brood in honey not a worry?

I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Why won’t my bees store honey?

Why? Because conditions are not right. Pure and simple.

This time of year, new beekeepers are asking why their bees will not fill the honey supers or even visit the supers. Some report their bees walking around inside only to leave again, uninterested. Some blame queen excluders. Others believe they are doing something wrong. But most want to know how to “make” their bees store honey.

First off, you can’t make a honey bee do much of anything. Like teaching a pig to sing, you might be able to encourage certain behaviors, but it might not be in your best interest.

A colony needs time to establish

Let’s look at what happens when a new beekeeper starts a colony in a new hive. New bees—whether in a package or in a nuc—most often arrive in the spring. Spring is when most major honey flows occur, but a new colony has a lot of work to do before it can begin storing surplus honey.

Most pressing is raising lots of young. To do that the colony needs to build brood comb and collect food to feed the young. It needs to feed drones. It needs to fill the pantry with supplies, but first it has to build the pantry. It needs to collect water to cool the hive. It needs to defend itself. All of these chores take lots of energy which is readily available because it is spring and flowers are abundant.

New colonies expand on the nectar flow

From the beekeeper point of view, the hive is exploding and will soon be able to fill the honey supers. But just when you eagerly plop the honey supers atop the hive, the spring flows are winding down. The days get warmer and the flowers get scarce. You’ve raised your bees on the spring flow, but the flow is over and the bees have no motivation to draw out your supers because there is nothing to store.

When the nectar flows dry up, the days get hot, and the hours of daylight are less—think summer solstice—a colony shrinks the brood nest. Not as many bees are necessary to keep things going, so less space is devoted to nursery. The shrinking nest allows more nectar to be stored in the immediate area, and the bees will fill this instead of filling the supers.

A nuc has a much better chance of putting away some surplus the first year simply because part of the work is already done. But regardless of how the colony starts, it needs to get through the to-do list before it begins storing surplus.

Other factors also affect how much honey a colony will store, regardless of whether it is new or old. The climate and local weather is critical as is overall colony strength, genetics, available forage, and environmental stressors.

It’s all about the flowers

A beekeeper has to understand both the rise and fall of colony populations and the ebb and flow of nectar. In most places in North America, for example, we have one or more strong spring flows, followed by a dearth in mid-summer and, in most areas, a fall flow that may or may not materialize. These patterns vary depending on where you live, but once you learn the bloom schedule in your specific area, you will have a better idea of what to expect from year to year. Remember, beekeeping is all about the flowers.

Great expectations

I think it is a mistake for a new beekeeper to expect a crop the first year. There are exceptions, of course. But we all can’t be the exception.

Tricking your bees into building in the supers by baiting them with a frame of honey, for example, is not always the best thing to do. If you get them to store honey in the supers before the brood boxes are full, you may end up harvesting honey that they need for winter survival. You—and they—are better off if they are allowed to fill up the brood boxes first. Then, if they are healthy and make it through the winter, your bees can build up before the spring flow instead of building up during the spring flow, and you will gets lots of honey.

A word about queen excluders

Through the years, I have waffled over the use of excluders. I used to believe—as many others do—that queen excluders are honey excluders. In the past, I always put a section super directly above the brood box and it usually kept the queen away. But after more than a few ruined sections, I’ve gone back to queen excluders.

I’ve discovered that with an excluder, the bees will be more apt to store below it at first. But this gives them a good honey supply for winter because they fill every nook and cranny of the brood boxes. Once the boxes are full, however, the colony will burst through the excluder and fill up supers in a matter of days. It depends on the strength of the flow of course. This year I had nothing in the supers, nothing, still nothing, discouraging nothing, than bam! Full in a few days. Crazy full. Need-help-lifting-them full.

Sure, some colonies did not pass through the excluder, but I don’t think they would have stored surplus anyway. Not all colonies are created equal, and not all colonies will provide surplus every year.

A word about patience

We are used to instant gratification. We want honey and we want it now. But nurturing bees is more than collecting their honey. If we concentrate too much on the end product, we are missing the wonder of honey bees. The question, “How soon can I get honey?” always worries me. So does the beekeeper who buys an extractor along with his first package. Harvesting should not be your first thought.

This, I think, is why the hype about the Flow hive annoys me. All the concentration, all the focus, in fact the whole purpose of the Flow hive is to take the bees’ honey quicker and easier. Proponents say it’s better for the bees, gentler (as if stealing someone’s food supply is ever “gentle”). But when a first-time beekeeper starts with a Flow hive, his focus is already on the harvest. He’s calculating what’s in it for him­ before he’s ever seen a bee up close and personal.

If you take time to become a good beekeeper, you will have plenty of honey. You will have honey for years and years and years. Learn how the system works and your honey crops will come.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Flowers-and-patience
Flowers + bees + patience = honey. © Rusty Burlew.

What the heck is vegan honey?

Update: Included at the end of this post is a statement by Katie Sanchez of Bee Free Honee.

Honey is excluded from the vegan diet by definition. Both the definition and the term “vegan” are credited to Donald Watson, who promoted the idea back in 1944. A few months later, the Vegan Society of England adopted Watson’s model. He wrote:

Veganism is a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals.

So if honey is included in the official definition, there is no doubt that honey is off limits to vegans. I am frequently asked why honey is vegan, and knowing this will make it easier to answer.

But here is my question: Recently my daughter—who is vegetarian but not vegan—found a recipe that calls for “3 tablespoons of vegan honey.” She asked me, “What the heck is vegan honey?” Good question. As she points out, the phrase is confusing. Like fat-free half-and-half, it defies all manner of logic.

So I did an internet search. Lo and behold, you can buy something called “Bee Free Honee” that is made from concentrated apples, beet sugar, and lemon juice. At least one reviewer says it’s “even better than the real thing.”

Personally, I doubt it’s better than the real thing, especially since it comes in four flavors that don’t particularly remind me of honey: original, mint, chocolate, and ancho chili.

But the thing that’s most baffling? The label. It reads “All Natural • Plant Based.” While that is no doubt a true statement, you could say the same thing about honey: both are all natural and plant-based. Honey is made from nectar, and nectar comes from plants. Okay, maybe a bit of bee spit too, but when apples are pressed, all kinds of bugs and caterpillars, wormy things and slugs, get squeezed along with the fruit.

Some lifeforms are hard to avoid. According to the FDA Defect Levels Handbook, apple butter (which is also a form of concentrated apples) is not flagged until the 100-gram samples contain an average of four or more rodent hairs and 5 or more whole or equivalent insects (not including mites, aphids, thrips, or scale insects). These levels are set for aesthetic reasons only, and it sounds like the mites, aphids, thrips, and scale insects are so small that they are not even counted. So much for vegan.

And speaking of animal exploitation, I wonder who pollinated all those apple trees? And the lemons? Is it possible that bees were stacked on a flatbed and trucked across the country, servants to the ag industry? Is it possible that apples and lemons are “commodities derived wholly or in part from animals” or their labor? One reviewer wrote, “No bees die in the production of no-bee honey.” I wonder how sure she is about that. Both agriculture itself, and the migratory beekeeping that serves agriculture, are very hard on bees.

I certainly have nothing against veganism: people should be free to eat what they want. But I find it odd that people take labels at face value without evaluating the subtleties—the details about where food comes from and how it’s processed.

At any rate, consider this a public service announcement for beekeepers: now you know where to send your vegan friends who can’t eat honey. But for the record, I don’t understand why vegans condone consumption of bee-pollinated crops or the ingestion of insect parts that are invariably part of our food supply. To me, that is no less abusive than eating honey—bees die either way.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite


Response by Katie Sanchez of Bee Free Honee:

Thank you Rusty, for allowing me the opportunity to respond to your blog and the thread of comments following your discovery of Bee Free Honee. I would like to begin this is my product: I created it (by accident). I was trying to make apple jelly and did not read the directions. Later, I began to hear about the decline in the honey bee and began to learn more about what was happening in the industry and asked myself: Can I do something with that mistake?

My father was a beekeeper growing up; most of my life bees were our closest neighbors. I love bees and all pollinators and have a great deal of respect for them. I grew up around people that believed in doing things simply, naturally. As I got older and moved away from home, I lost touch with that world so I was shocked to find how much beekeeping had changed since my last exposure to it. I began to learn about national hive renting and local hive renting and their differences. I learned about nutrient deficiencies for our pollinators due to farming practices, grooming of the roadsides, and clearing land for construction spreading into rural areas. I read articles on the decline of the honey bee and realized that what was being put out was not a call for action but a way for people to get mad about governments allowing certain pesticides and cell phone use…but not a demand for change. I looked in the stores and saw shelves of honey, honey sold by the gallon all year long, not seasonally as I knew it to be.

I realized this is not only about neonicotinoids and cell phones; this is also about our expectations as consumers to purchase honey all year round and in unlimited quantities, at a low cost. This is about pollinating fields at the expense of the insects, without allowing the costs of maintenance of the hives cut into the bottom-line. Could almond growers have their own hives, they could but they do not want to. The reasoning given is that there is not enough water or food for the bees to live on; some orchards say it is too hot for the bees and no shelter to protect them; the bees would cook in the hives. Well, there are solutions for all of that…it is not an overnight solution but we can make this work. First of all, we build shelters for all other animals; we could build simple shelters for bees. Water is provided for livestock; why not provide it for bees. Green walls are now very water efficient, they could be built strategically to provide  the nutrient diversity for the bees, and as they are built vertically, they take up almost no land. This would also increase the amount of  water that is put back into the atmosphere through transpiration. According to http://water.me.vccs.edu/courses/SCT112/lecture3_print.htm : “For example a large oak tree can transpire 40,000 gallons of water per year. About 10 percent of the earth’s atmospheric moisture can be attributed to plant transpiration. The rest is supplied by evaporation and the water cycle.” The fewer greenery the less transpiration – likewise, increase greenery and produce more fresh water.

Think of the good for our fresh water supply, cleaning up the air quality, and for our pollinators if we began to build green walls strategically. Think of the good we could do if we kept bees stationary, if we began to treat them as the beautiful special and important insect that they are. Not just think of them as a means to a commodity. Why is there not more education on the Mason bee? They are less aggressive, native to our country and easy to house….and very effective pollinators. Maybe because they don’t produce a commodity?

Through Bee Free Honee, I do my best to educate the public on these topics as well as asking them: If you are buying honey simply as a flavor profile in cooking or baking; Why not find an alternative that will provide the same result but allow the bees some time to regain in strength and in numbers? We cannot just continue on business as usual and expect it to be okay. We need to make changes. I do understand that change is hard. I do understand that there will be people who will never understand or approve of what we are doing. But to reduce it to being simply vegan does not do it justice. Vegan is one attribute of our product, another is that we need to save the bees and I am trying to do something about it in any and every way I can. It may not be the method others would choose but that is why we value the freedoms our country affords us. So we can all go forward in our own individual ways.

We try to be very clear about what Bee Free Honee is. When we did use beet sugar, it was non-GMO, but that local farmer sold his field to a company that planted GMO beets, so we switched to Vegan quality, non-GMO cane sugar. We use only as much is as needed to create tackiness, no more. Lemon juice is the only preservative and the rest is apple. That is it. From every angle of the bottle we clearly write that we are from apples and even have the words “contains no real honey” on the bottle. The word ‘Honee’ is a descriptive; ‘Bee Free’ refers to the process in which it is made, not to how it was pollinated.

I hope this clarifies our stance, if you would like to read more, we have a page on the bees on our website that talks about our stand, and there is a page on how it all got started. I hope you feel comfortable taking a look through the site. I hope you are able to see that we are trying to create a positive. Thank you for your time.

Katie Sanchez
Bee Free Honee

Bee on apple blossom.
Bee on apple blossom. Pixabay public domain photo.