North Carolina beekeepers see purple and blue honey, but it’s rare

What is old is new again.

A Reddit post has gone viral for pointing out a fact many North Carolinaians already knew: The state has purple and blue honey, which is rare and not seen in other states.

Timberlake-based Zombees Honey from NC co-owner Whitney Barnes first saw purple honey in 2017.

“North Carolina is so funny in the way that things that people think are fascinating and new are actually” [a] really old best kept secret,” Barnes said. “What do you mean you didn’t know?”

“That’s how we know you’re not really from here, because you didn’t know. To me, purple honey is the epitome of North Carolina.”

However, Barnes insists she is not an expert on purple honey.

Aberdeen-based Dees Bees Apiary owner Donald Dees explained what it’s like to find the sweet stuff in his beehives.

“It’s like finding a gold nugget or a small piece of jewelry on the beach,” Dees said. “It is something special that you find in your hive that you know that the bees have been there, and whatever circumstances or circumstances that have created the environment for the bees to make this honey has occurred in your area and they have it brought into your hive. ”

What Causes Purple or Blue Honey?

Beekeepers don’t know what causes the honey to turn purple or blue. The late John Ambrose, a former beekeeping professor at North Carolina State University and former president of the NC State Beekeepers Association, conducted a series of tests in the 1970s to find the answer.

As described in an April 2010 story published by Our State, Ambrose found that honeybees that returned nectar to the beehives with blue honey never had blue in their stomachs, but the bees that left the hive did.

Still, there is no definitive answer to what causes purple or blue honey.

“I think one of the reasons it’s a mystery is that the way bees’ digestive juices change the character of the pigment and/or substrate that’s brought in,” Dees said.

Dees offered his best guess as the cause of the purple honey. He pointed out that from mid-June to mid-September, bees don’t have many flowering plants to feed on. However, he said that during that time honeybees will gather from blueberries, bilberries and blackberries on the vine.

“My thought is that the bees go to that fruit, chew it, get the juice, it goes into their honey stomach, those bees have a separate stomach than their digestive stomach,” Dees said. ‘They have a honey stomach for the transport of nectar, and they contain enzymes.

“When the bees collect that fruit juice, if you will, and it’s modified by the enzymes in the bees’ stomachs. And it comes back and goes into the hive, and at that point it’s concentrated, just like honey is passed from bee to bee to bee, which enriches that fruity taste, so it (the blue or purple honey) doesn’t really taste like blueberries or blackberries or bilberries, but it does have a fruity taste.”

The Sandhills’ hot and dry summer contributed to nectar plants drying up faster than usual, Dees said.

Barnes said her apiary determines the nectar source based on the “preponderance of evidence” at her site. She said her main nectar source is Tulip Poplar. Barnes also said trees are the main sources of honey for bees, not flowers and plants on the ground.

In June 2017 and June 2018, Barnes said she had purple honey in her hives in Granville and Person counties.

“A big misnomer that I really hope we can bring to the public is that it’s not kudzu,” Barnes said. “And the reason I know it’s not kudzu is because when it appears in the hives is earlier than when kudzu blooms.”

Dees mentioned two other theories he’s heard of, but explained why he doesn’t think they make sense:

The first was granite outcroppings, but Dees said they are not found in the Sandhills.

He also dismissed aluminum in the soil as the cause of purple honey, saying his apiary would produce it every year if it did.

Barnes said she wanted to see a DNA pollen database developed to perform chemical analysis on the nectar sources.

“We don’t know what purple honey is,” Barnes said.

Dees and Barnes agreed that purple honey is sporadic and the color is natural.

Barnes mentioned how honey comes in different shades, from clear to almost pitch black.

“It has an absolutely distinctive gravy taste that’s not like any other… it’s definitely different from the other honeys,” Barnes said of the purple honey.

Dees said he gets questions about whether the purple honey tastes like regular honey.

“It does in a way,” Dees said. “It’s sweet. It’s produced by the bees, but it has a fruity undertone.

“It kind of matches the unusual character of the honey which is purple. It’s a fruity taste that really no one can identify.”

Dees Bees Apiary owner Donald Dees said he had to shut down his website for a few days to make sure he could fulfill the purple honey orders.

Where to Buy Purple Honey in North Carolina

Barnes said she is a proponent of trying to solve the mystery about the cause of purple honey.

“North Carolina isn’t the only place in the world that has bizarre honey,” Barnes said. “There’s a place in the Middle East with red honey.”

Barnes said she sold the purple honey for $20 in two-ounce jars ($10 an ounce), but she sold out as of Wednesday. She also said that inflation has forced her to raise prices.

“I’m trying to find people and connect with more people who have it so that when it happens, I can work to connect people,” Barnes said.

Barnes said she keeps a small amount of the purple honey for herself.

“I feel like if I never save at least a little bit, I’ll still have people insisting it’s not real,” Barnes said.

From Wednesday Dees was also out of the purple honey. The high demand for it, given the September 10 Reddit post, caused the Barnes and Dees websites to temporarily freeze.

“I’ve put it on hold,” Dees said of the purple honey orders. “I still have a few orders to fill.”

When in stock, Dees packs the purple honey in 1.9-ounce and 3-ounce jars. He said he has sent orders of the special honey to Italy and several states, including California, Texas and Nebraska.

“I couldn’t keep up with the orders there for three or four days,” Dees said. “I mean, I had to shut down the website so I could track orders to make sure I didn’t sell more than I had.”

WRAL News will add to this story the apiaries that sell blue or purple honey.

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