So, I was at Trader Joe’s last night for some groceries. I grabbed a bottle of their “Turkish Honey” and was about to toss it in my cart when something on the label caught my eye. It read: “Produced by bees foraging nectar primarily from Rock Rose, Citrus, Wildflowers, & Turkish Pines.”
If you know anything about plants, your head may have just exploded.
If you don’t, let me explain. Pine trees belong to a branch of the plant lineage called conifers, and one of the defining characteristics of a conifer is that it doesn’t have flowers. Not ever. Not even a little. This group split off from the group known as angiosperms, which contains all flowering plants, before flowers even evolved. No flowers, no nectar. As a botanist, the suggestion that bees might be getting nectar from any kind of pine tree caused a minor meltdown in my circuits, right there in the dry goods aisle.
Naturally, I immediately made plans to write Trader Joe’s a scathing letter about their blatant disregard for both natural science and honesty in labeling. But before I tore them a new one, I wanted to make sure my facts were correct – just in case there was some kind of flowering tree known as a “Turkish pine” that wasn’t really a pine or something like that. Well, there’s not, but what I found out was much more interesting. Before I explain, let’s talk for a moment about how bees make honey.
Bees make honey primarily from nectar of flowers, which is mostly water with saccharides (sugars) in it. The bees eat the nectar, partially digest it, regurgitate it, and do it all over again several times to reduce the amount of water in it and transform it with their stomach and salivary enzymes into something that keeps virtually forever. After the final regurgitation, the honey is finished by being stored in the comb, as more water evaporates and the enzymes continue to do their their work outside of the bees’ tummies. Yup, honey is bee puke. You’re welcome. As such, honey is a bit little more than just syrup…not only does it have a distinct flavor profile gained from the volatile compound unique to the flowers from which the nectar was collected, but it also contains various enzymes from the bees and pollen from the flowers (in fact, legally, if your honey doesn’t contain pollen, it doesn’t count as honey because that’s the only way to chemically verify the origin of the product).
Unfortunately, producing high quality honey is difficult and expensive, and honey has long been subject to a lot of fakery. It’s possible to make something very close to honey in the lab using yeast from bee salivary glands, but this is even more expensive and really more of an academic pursuit. Usually fake honey is made with corn syrup, or another sugary syrup, and artificial honey flavor and either sold outright or used to adulterate real honey. A shockingly high percentage of grocery store honey has been ultra-filtered, which removes the pollen and makes it impossible to tell whether you have the real stuff or not. Some places will even add flavorings to their fake, lower grade, or adulterated honey and sell it as “orange blossom honey” or another single floral source honey (which should mean the bees that made it had access almost exclusively to flowers of that type within their foraging range). Another tactic is to boost honey production by feeding the bees sugar water or another artificial sweetener. This produces a very un-flavorful honey that is much cheaper to make, but is also not legally honey, and is likewise used to adulterate the good stuff.
But all this goes to show that bees can make honey from more than just nectar. They’ll try to work their magic on pretty much any sugary liquid they can get. Bearing that in mind, when I began my investigation, I thought maybe it was possible the bees in Turkey were collecting sap from the the pine trees, or perhaps even pollen from the cones (although pine pollen is protein-poor and not a great food source) that was getting into the honey. This was closer to the truth, but it wasn’t until I looked up “pine honey” that I got my answer.
You see, there’s a type of insect called a scale insect the feeds on the sap of plant. They have a squishy little body protected by a shell on top (like a limpit), and they affix themselves to the bark or leaves so they can feed under protection. Like their close relatives, aphids, some scale insects secrete a sweet substance called “honeydew” full of the excess sugars of the sap they consume (in fact, some ants “farm” aphids for this substance and some historians think honeydew is actually the “manna” described in the Bible). The scale insect Marchalina hellenica is native to the Mediterranean and mostly lives on Turkish pines (Pinus brutia). It produces honeydew in significant quantities. The local honey bees collect this sweet liquid as they would nectar, and use it to make honey that is dark and has a distinct, piney taste. Yes, it’s not bad enough that regular honey is basically bee vomit. Pine honey is insect poop, that has been eaten and regurgitated by another insect. And it’s quite delightful on toast.
Unsurprisingly, like civet poop coffee and other scatological delicacies, this honey is highly prized, expensive, and much in demand. It’s actually the primary type of honey produced in Turkey and Greece (and only one of many types of “honeydew honey” produced in the world), as well as in some neighboring countries. Unfortunately it is now causing a bit of an ecological crisis there. Scale insects, though small, can do serious damage to trees if there are enough of them – in fact invasive scale insects are decimating hemlock forests in the Eastern U.S. But if the scale insect is native to the area, like this one, they are usually adapted to the ecosystem and there are natural predators and defenses to keep them in check. But the demand for pine honey is so high that in parts of Greece beekeepers have artificially introduced the scale insect to pine forests at rates far above what would normally occur, or to pine forests that have never had them before. This has been a boon for the honey industry, but it’s not so great for the forest – the natural predators can’t keep up and the insects are overwhelming the trees and killing them, setting up them up for a potential economic and ecological collapse.
As a result of one trip to Trader Joe’s, I learned three big lessons. The first is to only buy your honey from a source you know, unless you don’t care that it might be a mysterious, soulless sugar concoction. The second is that insects are way cooler and grosser than even I realized (and I used to work in an entomology department!). And, finally, that is incredibly important to check your facts before writing an angry letter, lest you make a complete, self-righteous fool of yourself. Although given what we just talked about, I still think the word “nectar” on that honey label is a tad misleading…