Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Mystery of the Red Honey

Bloody Bees....
Image Copyright 2010, BoroughBees.com

I've gotten a few e-mails from friends and readers forwarding the recent article in the New York Times covering the outbreak of red “honey” in Red Hook, so firstly, THANK YOU to everyone who sent it to me. It's a very well-written article and it delves into the pressing issues of gentrification and the social friction it creates.

Cerise Mayo expected better of her bees. She had raised them right, given them all the best opportunities—acres of urban farmland strewn with fruits and vegetables, a bounty of natural nectar and pollen . . .

And then this. Her bees, the ones she had been raising in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and on Governors Island since May, started coming home to their hives looking suspicious. . . . Where there should have been a touch of gentle amber showing through the membrane of their honey stomachs was instead a garish bright red. The honeycombs, too, were an alarming shade of Robitussin.
Follow the link to the full NYT Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/nyregion/30bigcity.htm

While gentrification and the clashes between local businesses, old residents, and newcomers to neighborhoods are fascinating, as a beekeeper, I've been much more curious about the beekeeping aspects of this story since it first came to my attention several months ago.

A lot of people have a very pastoral view of bees: flying from flower to flower slowly, sedately, looking for food, dancing their way toward a hive full of honey happily donated to our kitchens and tables. The reality is frantic, a constant struggle for survival against a legion of enemies. Honeybees are desperately productive, and the old saying “busy as a bee” takes on new meaning when you consider that most bees die in the field, full of food and nectar, expending the last of their energy on One. Last. Load.

So when honeybees find a source of high-density food, such as the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) used in the manufacture of maraschino cherries, they don't think twice about whether the source is natural, safe, or convenient. They take it for what it is—a chance to make it to next year. Bees are much less discriminating than we are when it comes to food. If it has sugar in it, they'll take it back to the hive and take as much of it as they can. Most of the time, their food comes from sources that we, as beekeepers, approve of. Many of us feed our bees in the spring and winter to give them the extra boost needed to survive, and in the summer we let them find their own food in the hope that they'll find enough to survive, thrive, and share their bounty with us.

That said, a treat like industrial-sized containers of bright red HFCS is impossible for bees to resist. It's not necessarily bad for them. Commercial beekeepers have been supplementing their hives with the stuff for decades. It's cheaper than mixing up sugar syrup and in all honesty it's practically the same stuff. I don't like to use it myself (I make an exception for pecan pie and still I 'll cut it with real molasses), but the industry's push to get it rebranded as “corn sugar” isn't as disingenuous as many believe. That's pretty much all it is, but with a chemical-sounding name: extremely dense sugar syrup. And the bees LOVE it. They can take it back to the hive and since the water content is already so low, they barely have to do any work to store it away for the long, cold winter ahead.

This sort of thing happens pretty often. A state apiculturalist mentioned at least two incidents to me. In Long Island, a beekeeper found honey of ALL colors in his hives—red, blue, green, and more. Eventually he found that his hives were within a mile of a candy factory that used brightly colored corn syrup in its manufacturing process. Another beekeeper in Syracuse wound up with peppermint honey after he placed his hives near a mint factory.

The beekeeping world is rife with mythical stories of multicoloured honey, and I've been hearing various iterations since I started keeping bees over a decade ago. Beekeepers are a gregarious bunch, and a lot of us absolutely adore a good story. Embellishments are institutional. I once saw a bee the size of a kaiser roll.

I got involved with this story because of the social nature of the hobby. Gita N., one of the beekeepers in Red Hook who helps maintain the hives at Added Value, uploaded pictures of the bright red honey to the New York Beekeeping Association Facebook page. I joined the discussion and we threw out a bunch of ideas about what could be causing the problem until I came up with a real doozy.

Mmm, ethylene glycol. You see, the Red Hook Farm is right around the block from a huge bus service depot. Transmission fluid and antifreeze both contain ethylene glycol, a sweet, poisonous chemical that rednecks joke about using to poison their neighbors’ dogs. Animals love the stuff. So do babies, for that matter. It's nasty, and the fact that it tastes good (if you like things that taste sickly sweet) really doesn't make it any more pleasant. I talked to a few more experienced beekeepers, and while they had never heard of bees taking up antifreeze specifically, they agreed that it was within the realm of possibility. At that point, I proceeded to get all aggro and message everyone in sight not to taste the ”honey” before we sent samples off to the food lab. In retrospect, I feel like a bit of an ass, but better safe than sorry, right?

Part 2 . . .
Part 3 . . .


  1. With this story now going viral, I was glad to see and lucky to find a first hand account of this saga. Looking forward to part three, thank you.

    Being a beekeeper myself, I share the sense of heartbreaking concern for the bees and the pure wonder of such an event.

    At a beer and honey event a while back, I was shown a photo of uncapped comb with the red red honey inside by a woman concerned for her bees well being; who said her name was Cerise. I thought yea right... she must be fooling; well, you just can't make this stuff up.

    Richard L

  2. Amazing story thank you,
    thought you might like my machinima film about the bees and permaculture
    blessed bee!
    elf ~