Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Mystery of the Red Honey, Part Two

So . . .

Ethylene glycol. Nasty stuff. The kind of stuff you don't want in your honey, let alone your hives. Obviously, this suggestion caused a bit of consternation and I quickly got in touch with Cerise Mayo and Gita N., both of whom maintain hives at the Added Value Red Hook farm, as well as Ian Marvy, the director of Added Value. We started a huge e-mail chain of ideas, theories and suggestions, but eventually decided that the best and only course of action was to meet in person to take a look at the affected hives and take samples to send to the state food lab. We met on Labor Day.

I arrived at the farm prepared for the worst. I had already seen the pictures of the red "honey" on Facebook, but they didn't do it justice. Bright red, practically fluorescent bees flying into the hive, completely unaware of the alarm they were inciting just doing their thing. I should probably clarify that the bees themselves weren't (and still aren't) red. The dye is no more incorporated into their bodies than the red food dye we eat in so many foods is integrated into ours. It's just along for the ride. When a bee finds a source of food, it will fill itself to bursting. Its crop, or honey stomach, distends drastically until it takes up almost half of its abdomen, and since its exoskeleton is partially translucent, you can see whatever it’s carrying. In this case, the bees had found something bright red, and there was a lot of it. Hundreds, thousands of bees were coming in heavy, packed tight with neon goop. Like David mentioned in the New York Times article, it was pretty beautiful.

After we made our introductions and got over watching the bees, we set to work. Once the smoker was lit, we surrounded the strongest hive and cracked it open. We could immediately see that something was not quite right.

Take a closer look.
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See it now?
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Once again, pictures really don't do it justice. I was floored seeing it in person for the first time and was even more surprised when Cerise mentioned that the hives looked LESS red than they had two weeks before. We started pulling out frame after frame filled with the red syrup, and each time it was a shock. We selected the reddest of the red combs and started excising samples. The food lab had asked for about a pound of honey, so we just cut out chunks of comb and stuffed them into the 50ml sample tubes that I had brought along with me. It was a messy job, but it gave us an opportunity to get a better taste of the stuff. A lot of people have been curious about what it tasted like, but I'm not really sure how to describe it with any accuracy. It was overly sweet, maybe even saccharine, and it had a bit of a metallic aftertaste that didn't do it any favours. In a word, gross. Not something I'd put on my biscuits.

Not so bad, right?
Image Copyright, 2010

Image Copyright, 2010

That's when David arrived. David Selig, who is named (and pictured!) in the New York Times article, is one of many beekeepers in Red Hook, but he has the distinction of maintaining what are probably the hives closest to Dell's Maraschino Cherry Factory. I think it was David who first suggested that the source of the red syrup might be the maraschino manufacturing plant around the block from his hives. It quickly became the leading theory. I really liked my ethylene glycol idea, but his just made more sense. He asked if I'd be interested in coming to take a look and get samples from his hives as well. We finished getting what we needed and closed up the hives we had open, and I followed David to his building.

Would you like some artificial sweetener in your coffee, sir?
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I thought the hives at the farm were red. They had nothing on David's hives. Within sight of the factory, each of his two rooftop hives were teeming with the stuff. Both hives had filled at least a complete deep brood chamber with the syrup. For the non-beekeepers, that's about 100 lbs. Each. The sheer volume contained in David's hives reinforced the maraschino theory . Bees, like many of us, go for the fast and easy option. They prefer food sources that are closer to home—the trips are shorter, and thus more efficient. If you were to make a map of the hives in Red Hook and chart how much of the red syrup each one had, you would see that (in general) the further you got from the factory, the less red there was in the hives.

The ladies, they love it.  You can see where I cut out samples of the "honey" in the background.
Image Copyright, 2010

Yup.  That sure is red.
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It was a bit sad. The hives David had spent so much time and effort on were full of beautifully capped frames of cherry juice. I cut out a few tubes worth to send to the lab and headed to the post office.

Part 3 . . .

Part 1 . . .

1 comment:

  1. you and this site are fascinating. I know nothing about bees but now want to learn.

    Thank you