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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 . . .

Sean Govan
Reply

This just gave me a brainwave. Probably this has already been an obvious thought for Rusty for a long time, but maybe bees’ predilection for hollow trees is not just about the shape and size of the hollow, but also about the fungi that made the hollow and are continually enlarging it. Hollow trees are hollow because fungi rotted out a damaged area of the trunk, right? So maybe the secretions of those fungi increase the bees’ immunity to viruses, or make the bees more healthy or more comfortable in some other way. This makes me want to give my colonies some ekes full of rotting wood. (The next wave of “natural beekeeping”?) I suppose that in a hollow tree, at least some of the moisture required by the fungus comes from rainwater going into the hollow, and maybe some of it comes from sap as well. Rotten wood is quite spongy and can hold water for a long time. If I try this, I suppose I should water the rotten wood sparingly but regularly. Rusty, any thoughts? Do you know of anyone else who has tried this?

If I had a bunch of colonies, I would give half of them ekes of rotting wood and observe the differences with the other half. That would be interesting.

Rusty
Reply

Sean,

Yes, I have head of people doing this, but they usually put the boxes of rotting wood under the brood boxes. I’ve seen them called “bio boxes” so that’s something you might try googling. I’ve been thinking about doing some research on it.

Sean Govan
Reply

You may laugh, but after reading this, I decided that I wanted to get ahold of some rotten wood and bring it home as soon as possible. So this weekend I took my two toddlers to the city dump while their mommy was shopping, and they climbed on the wood chip piles while I dug into them. The chips at the surface were weathered, but not very rotted. But the deeper I dug, the darker the color became–and the smaller the particles, also. After six or seven inches, I started to feel heat on the hand I was digging with, and saw millions of white threads lying tangled everywhere. MYCELIUM! It was amazing to feel the heat of that compost. I dug until it got almost too hot for my hand, and went home with a lot of wood chips. I hope I get to see bees on them. I will be checking them regularly.

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.

Sean Govan
Reply

My head is spinning. I used to think of honey as just coming from nectar. (And yes, thanks to you I know that that is the legal definition.) But now I know that honey bees also store other sweet liquids available in nature: mycelial juice, “fast-tracked bug poop,” and now maybe “needle dew.” What next, maple sap?!

For what it is worth, here is the Wikipedia article on “pine honey.” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_honey
Apparently it is a thing over in Turkey, and apparently it does go through aphids first, if Wikipedia is right. Which leads me to a question: if the pine needles exude it without the help of aphids, as Western Wilson says above, then why would the bees have to wait for it to go though the aphids in order to make “pine honey” out of it? And another question: since bees collect honeydew, why don’t they ever just chew into a plant stem on their own account and collect the sap for themselves, directly (for example during a nectar dearth)?

Rusty
Reply

Sean,

I don’t think honey bees need to wait until the sap goes through a aphid, but I think they prefer it that way. Post aphid, it’s already kind of thick and partially processed, so it’s easier to store as honey. Just my guess.

As for chewing, bee manidbles are not particularly useful for biting through plants, which is why when they rob nectar they usually wait for some other bees (like a bumble) to put a hole in the flower. Then they reuse the hole.

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.

Sean Govan
Reply

If that’s the case, it must have tasted really piney to the bees before they dehydrated it enough to cap it, since the dehydration would probably have removed a lot of turpentine with the water. Ah, Rusty, the things I learn from your posts and from the comments!

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:

Sean Govan
Reply

Interesting video. Makes me want to grow mushrooms for my bees, besides leaving out piles of rotting wood and giving them rotten wood in ekes!

Sean Govan
Reply

Another thought on this video: Paul Stamets only speaks of honeybees in this video, but I wouldn’t be surprised if native bees went after fungi too. Has anyone ever observed anything like that?

Sean Govan
Reply

Two weeks after seeing this video for the first time, I’m still excited but also somewhat perplexed. I turned to Google and tried to find pictures and videos of bees sucking on mycelium. Nothing besides Stamets. I tried to find reports of people SEEING bees sucking on mycelium. Again, nothing besides Stamets. Perhaps it just doesn’t occur to people to look in the right place at the right time, or maybe people just don’t realize what they are looking at, but I’m inclined to think that bees don’t suck on mycelium very often. After all, mycelia in nature are usually growing in places a bee can’t get to–right?–like inside a solid piece of wood. Paul Stamets’s famous mushroom patch in 1984 was growing in wood chips that the bees could manage to move aside. And by the way, I have seen nothing from Paul Stamets that says he has seen bees doing this in the past thirty-five years. He rather gives the impression that he saw bees sucking on mycelium only that one time in 1984.

Also worthy of note, the species that he saw those bees going after was the Garden Giant mushroom, but the two or three species that he proved to increase honey bee longevity and reduce DWV load were not–they were Reishi, Amadou, and I think something else. Has anyone ever seen bees hanging aroung those fungi in a natural setting?

One more thing. In desperation, I tried to make Google find me something about bees on rotting wood, rotting logs, sawdust piles, and wood chip piles. Everything I found was about honey bees frolicking in fresh, unrotted sawdust (which, oddly, apparently has been observed by gazillions of people) or honey bees on wood chips that had been peed on. Oh yeah, and I came up with gazillions of pages on carpenter bees, but they weren’t sucking on mycelium.

The part about reducing DWV loads is still really interesting, though.

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.

Marty
Reply

Found this after noticing a bee land on a juniper tree and stay there for three minutes. She had just checked out my lure box. I’m perplexed. If she’s scouting, what is she doing on the juniper?

And now you are forcing me to buy a microscope! I’ll take pics of what I find on the branch the bee landed on and send them to you.

Rusty
Reply

Marty,

Maybe she wasn’t scouting but just checking out an odor she was following. Honey bees collect propolis from many different trees including cedars and junipers, so perhaps she was collecting, or perhaps she was just resting. I often see honey bee in my cedars.

Maria
Reply

I am no expert on honeydew honey, my suburban bees make a “millefiori” sort of honey, but “forest honey” from firs or pines is highly prized in my country as high in minerals and lacking pollen, thus ideal for allergic people. Also, the medicinal properties of fir honey are considered similar to manuka honey … and there is a general consensus that honey from conifers is a honeydew honey. No beekeeper in my country doubts it, just as nobody doubts that drones are haploid. Beekeeping experts in Central Europe even identify species of aphids that produce it and years when there is an overpopulation of those aphids (as I said, the honey is highly prized). When I compare your image with the image of a pine honey from one honey e-shop in my country, the color seems exactly the same to me.

Rusty
Reply

Maria,

I think honeydew honey is fascinating, and I’m looking forward to trying it. Someone must sell it over here.

Sean Govan
Reply

Rusty, the other day I wrote a comment about actually colonizing wooden hive bodies with fungi, and allowing them to rot for a bit before putting bees in them so they would be more like a hollow tree. Not sure which post I put it under or whether you’ve published it yet, but I’ve had some more thoughts. At first I thought maybe the beneficial microbial community in the rotten wood benefits the bees in a similar way to how the bacteria on our skin benefit us–by out-competing pathogens. But then I thought: if they completely seal the inside of the tree with propolis anyway, then why would it matter if the wood was rotten or not? If there is a solid wall of propolis between the bees and the microbe-laden walls of the cavity, then my guess is that the microbes in the wood can’t affect the bees. Seeley says that the long-lived feral colonies he observed all had more propolis than a typical managed hive, right? So maybe the quality of the propolis layer has more effect on their health than the microbiome of the tree cavity does. In which case, allowing a hive body to rot would be pointless, and roughing up the inside of the box with heavy-grit sandpaper would make more sense. I guess the only way to find out for sure would be a controlled experiment.

Sure wish I had some real bee trees to look at… maybe they don’t propolize the whole thing. Maybe the bottom of the cavity is filled with “stump dirt” that doesn’t get propolized.

Rusty
Reply

Sean,

I believe that is most likely the case, at least according to what I’ve seen. The cavity walls are usually coated in propolis, but the sump is filled with accumulated debris and is not propolized.

Dallas Madsen
Reply

I have been fascinated to read the above comments on honey dew honey. We have a local beekeeper who provides us with the usual clover and manuka (very expensive stuff!) And a honey she sells as “willow cooking honey”. She told us it’s via aphids feeding on willow and technically it can’t be called “honey” (which I debated as surely if it’s been ingested by a bee it’s honey?)

Anyway they hate the stuff and no one wants it here. As others have said it’s very difficult to extract and contains no pollen. We sell it at half the price of the clover etc and personally, I really like it. So, what are people’s thoughts on it being labelled “Honey”?

Rusty
Reply

Dallas,

In the U.S. we have a legal definition which says honey is made from the nectar of flowers. So by that definition, I guess it’s not honey. Sugar water is also ingested by bees, and that is not honey either.

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