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Kudzu honey and the scent of Kool-Aid

As we all know, honey is made from the nectar of flowers. But when push comes to shove, honey bees will collect sweet liquid of endless variety. Several weeks ago, after describing the purple honey I received from a beekeeper in South Carolina, I received many opinions about what was really in the jar.

My opinion, which is shared by others, is that the purple honey was real honey made from real nectar secreted by the kudzu vine. Kudzu is actually a group of pea-family plants in the genus Pueraria. It is an invasive species which has pretty much swallowed parts of the southeastern United States.

Tales of purple honey surface from time to time in the same states that host kudzu. I don’t know of anyone who has positively identified the purple honey by chemical analysis or pollen sampling, but a lot of circumstantial evidence points to kudzu. It does not appear to be a favorite of honey bees, but when summers are especially dry and nectar resources are scarce, frames of purple honey appear scattered throughout the kudzu-rich areas.

It’s not from grapes

Many people opined that the purple color came from the juice of grapes. But nearly all grapes have perfectly clear juice, which is why we have white wine and white grape juice. In fact, to make red wine, the grape skins must be allowed to ferment along with the juice.

Furthermore, many beekeepers question whether honey bees have the mouth parts necessary to easily pierce grapes. We’ve had long discussions about fruit-eating honey bees here on this site, and the consensus is that honey bees will drink the juice of grapes and berries if someone else pierces the fruit, or if the fruit is very ripe and the skins tender. Also, if the fruit rots, falls, and splits open, honey bees may collect some of the juice. In any case, the juice is still clear and not red.

Nor is it blueberries, elderberries, or mulberries

Along the same lines, most all fruits have juice which is unavailable to honey bees unless the skin has been compromised. Blueberries have very tough skins, and inside the pulp is greenish, not purple. The same holds true for elderberries and mulberries.

It’s anecdotal, I know, but I have two hives next to my two mulberry trees. In spite of huge yields of exceptionally sweet berries, I have never once seen a honey bee on the fruit. Furthermore, the mulberries draw both social and solitary wasps by the truckload, many of which pierce the skin of the berries, but that still doesn’t attract honey bees, even in dry years.

It’s not buckwheat

A couple people suggested buckwheat, but being a life-long aficionado of buckwheat honey, I don’t see any similarity in either appearance or taste. Certainly buckwheat honey doesn’t taste like grapes, nor is it purple. Although, as with many types of honey, I imagine the light source has a lot to do with how we see the color. Sunlight, incandescent, fluorescent, or LED can make a big difference in how we perceive color.

And it’s not from factories

We have all read or heard about honey bees getting into byproducts of manufacturing plants. I’ve reported on many of them here, including episodes with maraschino cherry juice, blue M&Ms, and leftover candy canes. But many factors nix this theory when it comes to purple honey.

For one thing, the southeast US is not a hotbed of candy manufacturing, and candy factories do not spring up in different places each year. In each of the famous episodes listed above, the colored honey—in toxic shades of blue, red, and green—had limited distribution and the source was soon pinpointed. But purple honey is not like that.

Although the purple honey that beekeepers find is always in the south, it is usually restricted to exceptionally dry years, and it is spread throughout large regional areas. A beekeeper may find a few frames in his hives, but never a lot, and usually not in successive years.

Candy factories, on the other hand, are not restricted to the south, they operate in wet years as well as dry ones, and they do not spread their operations throughout large geographical areas. In addition, production tends to be somewhat steady: they do not produce in some years but not others. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Furthermore, purple honey has been around for decades. It is not something new, but a recurring and scattered phenomenon. Most people who’ve had it wish they had more, but no one seems to know how to do that.

A scent match to kudzu honey

A couple of weeks ago I got a message from Dr. Jim Cane of the USDA Agricultural Research Service. He said that when he taught beekeeping at Auburn University in Alabama, they would occasionally find some cells filled with purple honey. He said the odor was of grape Kool-Aid and reminded him of the scent that comes directly from kudzu flowers. In any case, he thinks it would be difficult to do a pollen identification, especially if you didn’t have the plant where the pollen originated. Apparently, plants in this subfamily have pollen with little identifying ornamentation.

Blame it on the vine

Anyway, that’s where I stand on the purple honey. The sample I tasted was beautiful and oddly delicious, so if you get a chance, be sure to give it a try. But don’t blame it on corporate America. Instead, blame it on the kudzu vine.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Kudzu vine in flower, the most likely source of purple honey.
Kudzu vine in flower, the most likely source of purple honey. © Clinton Steeds.

Comments

R SCHAFER
Reply

I presently harvest some honey from my top-bar hive. The honey is as dark as dark chocolate. It has not other taste than regular honey. Do you have any idea how this happened?

Rusty
Reply

Well, it is regular honey. The color of the honey is totally dependent on the color of the nectar, and the color of the nectar is dependent on the species of plants the bees collected from. Colors range from water white (almost clear) to dark brown, almost black. See “The color of honey.”

Craig
Reply

Add this to the long list of problems caused by this plant. It’s overgrown and choked out hundreds or even thousands of sqaure miles of forest lands. I suspect it’s highjacked a great deal of land that used to grow huge amounts of bee forage.

E.t. Ash
Reply

I greatly enjoy your articles here and I the journal, Rusty. Looks like the content and quality of article is improving in the journals.

Alternative hypothesis… I have always suspected Nehi Grape and Big Red as potential causal agents when folks report of honey of extreme color. Neither of these very sweet soft drinks seem popular or even available outside of the southern US. Just a thought…

Phillip
Reply

Where I live on the Isle of Newfoundland, lupines are a big deal for most July. I don’t often see honey bees on them, but I’ve been told more than a few times now that lupines smell like grape Kool-Aid. Apparently some Iris varieties smell like grape Kool-Aid too.

Another possibility: People are drinking too much Kool-Aid.

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