Honey bees collect plant nectar from millions of blooming plants in order to produce the food we know as honey. This wide variety of nectar sources results in honey that may be light or dark in color – but what about blue or purple? If you have heard the rumors about beekeepers producing purple honey, you are not alone. But, from where does this special product come?
Real Purple Honey Not Commercial Sugars
Our winged friends do have a craving for sweet liquids. In times of dearth, or nectar shortages, they may gather anything they can find. This is why we sometimes read in news articles about beekeepers that have harvested honey in some rather outrageous colors.
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These bright orange, deep red or even green colors of honey usually end up not being true honey. Rather, the source is found to be some type of commercial candy dye etc that a bakery or candy store has discarded. The bees obviously thought it tasted good so they brought it home.
The saga of purple honey though does seem to have a foundation of truth. Beekeepers in some regions do occasionally harvest honey that is well… blue or purple. Actually, the color varies from just a hint of blue to a true-blue honey and even a deep purple.
Nothing has been added and the product seems to be true bee honey made from plant nectar. How can this be?
Possible Explanations for Purple Honey
As with many things in the beekeeping world, there is much disagreement on the origin of purple honey. Yet, there are several theories commonly used to explain this phenomenon.
- bees harvesting juice of dark berries
- high aluminum content of nectar source
- bees are visiting a nectar source such as kudzu
Honey bees will drink juice from ripe fruit. Though they are often only sucking juices from holes made by larger bees. Many beekeepers insist that this is the most likely source of blue honey.
They say it is simply made from berry juice. But, dark fruits such as elderberries, blueberries or blackberries have not been in bloom in all locations where purple honey has appeared.
N.C. State University Professor, John Ambrose, performed a series of tests in the 1970’s to determine the source of purple honey. His research found that field bees coming back to the hive did not have blue nectar in their honey stomach.
His studies suggested that some nectar gathered was from plants with a higher aluminum content. This aluminum then interacted with acidic environment in the digestive fluid of house bees. The final step during the honey making resulting in the purple color.
Good old Kudzu – the bane of southern existence produces beautiful little purple flowers. They smell like grape flavored Kool-Aid. Honey bee colonies that are near large areas of kudzu are known to produce honey that has a purple tint and some grape flavor.
I have had it – it is rather good. While not a favorite flower of honey bees, they will work kudzu blooms during dry times.
Yet, purple honey also occurs from time to time in regions of the country that do not have kudzu plants. Perhaps there is another plant in those areas that is responsible for this color of honey and grape taste? The Summer Titi (Southern Leatherwood) plant has likewise been suggested as a source.
A Rare Harvest
So, is it a result of hungry bees foraging on berry juice, reactions to aluminum rich nectar reactions in the hive, or a simple nectar source such as Kudzu or Huckleberries? The mystery continues.
This rare honey seems to occur mainly in the southeastern part of the county. It is most common in the areas of the Carolina coastal plans. It is more prevalent in some years than others and tends to show up more in dry years.
Even more puzzling, some hives in the apiary produce a small amount of purple honey. While others in the same bee yard have none! How can this be? Well, we really don’t know and the bees are not talking.