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 bazaar, 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?


Joe’s honey at 40x. I found a few things that looked like this. © Rusty Burlew.
My honey at 40x. Pollen galore. © Rusty Burlew.

Joe’s honey, a pleasing amber color and a great taste. © Rusty Burlew.

Consider the honeybee bee

I have one more post to write in the pollen series, but I keep getting sidetracked by the photos people send me. Yesterday’s thermal images were awesome, but today’s photo is totally annoying.

The photo below was taken at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum by beekeeper David Caylor. The text is on the wall of the entomology section. Being a regular reader of Honey Bee Suite, David knows how the word “honeybee,” all run together like that, irritates me no end. So he sent this picture to give me heart failure. What? The folks at the Smithsonian can’t spell?

As I told David, maybe the writing is on the wall, so to speak. Maybe the language is changing faster than I can adapt.

But there are very good reasons that most entomologists insist that “honeybee” is wrong, that it should actually be two words. My favorite quote explaining the reason is by Robert D. Snodgrass:

Regardless of dictionaries, we have in entomology a rule for insect common names that can be followed. It says: If the insect is what the name implies, write the two words separately; otherwise run them together. Thus we have such names as house fly, blow fly, and robber fly contrasted with dragonfly, caddicefly, and butterfly, because the latter are not flies, just as an aphislion is not a lion and a silverfish is not a fish. The honey bee is an insect and is preeminently a bee; “honeybee” is equivalent to “Johnsmith.”–From Anatomy of a Honey Bee.

Think about it. The word “bee” is a noun. In English, the adjective that describes the type of bee goes before it, so it becomes honey bee, bumble bee, sweat bee, carpenter bee. When you go to the grocery store (not the grocerystore) you buy yellow beans and green beans, not yellowbeans, greenbeans, or greatnorthernbeans. My spellchecker is freaking.

Yes, languages that make sense put the adjective after the noun not before. But in English, you wait in suspense to find out what is being written about. “It was a big, red, shiny”—wait in suspense right here—“pomegranate!” It could have easily been a car, apple, or welt.

Now, take the word “fly.” If the thing you are referring to is actually a fly, you have the noun “fly” preceded by the type of fly, let’s say hover. So you have “hover fly.” But if the thing is not a fly, you need a whole new noun to identify it.

For example, since a butterfly is not a fly, the word “butter” does not modify the word “fly.” Instead “butterfly” is its own thing, a completely different noun. You can modify that noun with another descriptor, say “blue,” which gives you “blue butterfly.” But you don’t write “bluebutterfly” or “blue butter fly.”

A beewolf is not a wolf (nor a bee) but is something completely different, a wasp. So you can write “beewolf” or “beewolf wasp,” but not “bee wolf” or “beewolfwasp.” Get it?

I happen to have a yellow jacket in my closet. It’s a good jacket, warm with lots of pockets, and I would never consider killing it. The yellow and black wasp that bugs picnickers is a yellowjacket because it is not, in fact, a jacket.

I almost didn’t buy what turned out to be an excellent book, Honeybee Democracy, because of the spelling. Certainly Thomas Seeley knows better. But later I read that his daughters encouraged the spelling because it makes the title rhyme. But wait: Honeybee Democracy rhymes and Honey Bee Democracy doesn’t? I’m lost.

People like Seeley and the folks at the Smithsonian are changing the language, and I think it is sad. With rules of spelling, you can derive meaning. You can look at the word “glowworm” and, knowing nothing else, you realize it is not a worm. You know a hairstreak is not a streak (nor a hair), yet you know a stag beetle really is a beetle. But when spellings become random, you can’t draw conclusions. You become lost in a sea of unrelated words where the simplest terms are confusing. Perhaps we should call it a “honeybee bee.”

Thanks to David for the instructive, if maddening, photo.


Consider the Honeybee. © David Caylor.

Don’t miss these photos!

Do you ever wonder where your winter colony is? Or how big? Yesterday, Kevin O’Donnell of Arlington Heights, Illinois sent us some awesome photos that answer those exact questions.

Kevin is a specialist in insulated packaging systems, especially those that pertain to drug products. As a result, he has a fascination with thermal regulation inside his beehives.

Recently, Kevin discovered a thermal imaging camera that attaches to an iPhone 5. With it, he photographed his three hives and was amazed to discover all wasn’t as he expected. He writes:

As you can see in the first photo, the hive on the left is doing well, the middle colony appears to be failing, and the one on the right is dead. I find this curious as the strongest hive going into winter six weeks earlier was, by far and away, the hive on the right. The weakest? The one on the left.

That’s a lot of important information from one photo! I do things the hard way, by pulling out the Varroa trays to see where the debris is. But the photo tells you not only the size and location, but the vertical placement and current colony strength.

Kevin continues with even more fascinating information:

The second photo shows a small feral colony (where I am pointing) living inside a hollow column on my cousin’s front porch in Peoria, IL. If it is still there in spring, I am going back to retrieve it!

Is that cool or what? If any of you are interested, the camera can be found at: Too bad I have an Android.

Thank you, Kevin, for sending the photos. Great work!


Thermal image 1 Odonnell
The colony on the left is strong, the middle is weak, and the right is dead. © Kevin O’Donnell.
Thermal image 2 Odonnell
A feral colony living inside a hollow column. © Kevin O’Donnell.

Winter thoughts

Darkness continues to creep in as our daylight hours are shorter and shorter, but not for long; the winter solstice is just around the corner. At noon today the temperature was pushing 54 degrees; dark, heavy cumulus clouds hurried across the sky being carried along by cool winds from the northwest. At times the rays of the sun would pause for a moment with their warming embrace.

Along the sheltered edge of the hay barn there is a little patch of dandelions making a very early appearance due to the above normal temperatures that we have enjoyed for the last few days. To my amazement I noticed bees, almost a quarter mile from their hives, busy gathering pollen from the yellow flowers. Notice the orange pollen on her pollen sacs. In a make-believe world I can just imagine the bees encouraging each other saying, “Hold on girls, we still have some rough weather in front of us, but we have a pretty day today, we can do this.”

I made a walk-by inspection of the hives during a particularly sunny period and found all were very active, even the small nucleus colony that I am trying to carry through the winter. After a most wonderful day, my wish is that the spirit of hope, of joy, of peace and of love embrace each of us as we travel along our different roads. . . .”

David Robertson
Tallapoosa, Georgia

AFB-fortified pollen

­­­Oops. Unfortunately, bee-collected pollen can transmit the spores of American foulbrood just like honey. It works like this:

A colony of bees has become infected with the bacterium that causes AFB. The disease only affects young larvae less than 48 hours old, but adult bees can inadvertently carry the spores throughout the hive.

When a diseased larva dies in its cell, it can release as many as 2.5 billion spores. A nurse bee attends to the mess, cleaning up the dead larva and polishing the cell. But as she works, many of those spores stick to her body and she swallows even more.

In the cramped confines of the hive, she rubs against other bees including a forager who is unloading her pollen into an empty cell. Millions of spores are transferred to the hairs on the forager’s body. Once her pollen is unloaded, she heads back out into the field and begins to collect more.

As the forager sweeps the pollen off her body and into her pollen baskets, spores of AFB are whisked along with it. The spores adhere to the sticky pollen and become embedded in the pellet. These are not wimpy spores—they can survive in bee equipment for forty years or more.

When her pollen baskets are fully loaded, the forager returns to the hive where Beekeeper A has installed a pollen trap. She squeezes though the trap and loses one of her pellets. It drops into the collection drawer below. Damn.

Undaunted, the forager unloads the remaining pellet, gets some food from one of the nurses, rubs against a few others, and is out the door again.

Towards evening, Beekeeper A unloads the pollen trap, dumps the pollen in a plastic bag, and sticks it in the freezer. But freezing is no match for those AFB spores; they are still completely viable when Beekeeper A sells his pellets to the health food store where they are repackaged and dropped in another freezer.

Next month, along comes Beekeeper B. Beekeeper B wants the very best for his bees, so he buys pure, natural, bee-collected pollen to supplement his colony. Ouch. Spendy. But he buys it anyway. He takes it home, crushes the pellets with a mortar and pestle, and feeds them to his bees.

The bees love the stuff, frolic in it, and carry back to their hive along with a few million spores of AFB. By spring the colony is dead, smelling rotten, and the hive needs to be burned. Beekeeper B can’t figure out what he did wrong. . . .

Bee-collected pollen. Photo by Lamiot.
Fortunately, bee-collected pollen can be irradiated to neutralize the AFB spores. Once irradiated, it may be fed directly to bees or mixed into pollen substitutes.

In addition to AFB, pollen may also carry chalkbrood spores. To be on the safe side, never feed pollen to your bees unless you know the source of the pollen is disease free. The best way to do that, of course, is to trap pollen from your own disease-free hives.

Commercial pollen packaged to feed bees is usually irradiated, but pollen from health food stores and similar establishments probably is not, so be a careful consumer, read the label, and ask questions. In most cases, your bees didn’t need the extra pollen anyway, so it is a sad mistake to make.