A viral Reddit post is teaching thousands of people what North Carolina beekeepers have known for decades: We have purple (and blue) honey. And that’s an incredibly rare boast.
Purple honey, also known as blue honey, is known to come from honeybees in various regions of North Carolina. Local beekeepers and beekeepers have seen it in various parts of the state, but as far as they know, it’s a phenomenon unique to North Carolina.
What gives honey its blue color? This is an old question.
“There aren’t many real secrets—science tends to give us yes or no answers. “However, no one really understood why,” he said.
Where to find purple, blue honey in NC
Purple honey seems to be concentrated in the Sandhills in the southwestern corner of North Carolina’s Coastal Plain, but it’s not impossible to find outside of that area, said David Tarpy, a beekeeping professor at NC State University and Extension.
Beekeepers know that there are other parts of North Carolina outside of the Sandhills where bees produce purple honey. Burns said you can find more bluebells in the Coastal Plain.
Other beekeepers say that blue honey is found in the Piedmont and purple honey in the mountains.
David Auman, president of the Richmond County Beekeepers Association, got into the beekeeping business specifically to learn how to make purple products.
“Purple honey – I call it purple because mine is purple – is why I got into beekeeping. An old gentleman lived about 10 miles from me and his bees made purple honey. He taught me how to do it too,” he said.
Auma has two or three hives at a time, although only one hive will produce purple honey. He usually buys a little each year, although every few years he buys enough to harvest, package and sell.
His purple honey comes in late July, and when he has enough honey to sell, he’ll fetch a few dollars more than the gold variety.
“It takes more time to separate, and I’ve learned there’s a demand for it,” he said. “Non-purple honey is $12 a pint, and my purple honey is $15.”
Most beekeepers in the Richmond group don’t buy purple honey, although they keep bees year-round in the Sandhills region of the state. Auman said the few who do will package and sell it locally.
You have to make friends with the beekeepers to get some, he said.
What does purple (or blue) honey taste like?
“Kind of fruity,” Auman said. “My daughter doesn’t care about honey, but she loves purple.”
Dark honeys usually have stronger flavors, but purple honey is full of sweetness.
The pale yellow to dark brown shade of golden honey depends on the type of flower the nectar comes from, Burns said. Alfalfa honey is light in color, while buckwheat honey can appear almost black.
What makes purple honey purple (or blue)?
John Ambrose, a longtime professor of beekeeping at NC State and past president of the NC State Beekeepers Association, conducted an experiment in the 1970s to try to learn the answer.
He found that honeybees returning nectar to blue-honeycombs did not have blue stomachs (returning nectar to their hives), but bees exiting the hives did.
“It tells us something is happening to the nectar once it gets to the hive to change color,” Ambrose told Us State in 2010.
Experts don’t have an agreed-upon answer, but there are several theories:
• Sour tree: Only one study has been done on this phenomenon, Tarpy said. The former NC State researchers concluded that the color is caused by a combination of several factors, including nectar produced by sourwood trees growing on high-aluminum soils under drought conditions.
It hasn’t been confirmed, and sorrel is more common in the mountains than in the dunes, but sorrel’s mid-summer flowering keeps the theory consistent, Tarpy said.
Hydrangea flowers turn blue when planted in acidic soil, Burns said, which is similar to this hypothesis.
“Bees get nectar from flowers that grow in acidic soil, and aluminum is converted in the process of making honey. But this situation does not change – our soil is always acidic, and flowers grow in acidic soil. So why not drink blue honey more regularly?” he said. “There must be a trigger, but what is it?”
• Titi plants: Blue honey and blue honey are associated with these plants, pronounced “tie”.
Blue brood are honey bee larvae with blue or purple stripes running through their clear intestines, Tarpy said. Many local Sandhills residents swear by titi plants that bloom in midsummer, but there is no hard evidence.
• Kudzu: These Japanese flowers (abundant in North Carolina) are purple in color, and some argue the color comes from the nectar of a noxious invasive, Tarpy said. As far as he knows, there is no connection between kudzu and blue honey.
• fruit juice: According to Tarpin, it has been argued, but never confirmed, that honey bees that collect nectar from birch and berries turn the honey purple.
“In the heat of summer, bees can use places where they can collect sugar sources, but that seems unlikely to me,” he said.
• Mushroom: A researcher from the NC Department of Agriculture once claimed to have found a particular fungus growing on blue honey, and samples were sent for testing, Tarpy said.
It wasn’t confirmed, though that doesn’t mean it’s a negative, he said. Most microbes, including fungi, cannot grow in honey, although blue honey tends to spoil more quickly than others.
• Human waste sugars: “Bees can make all kinds of vividly colored honey every time. Often it’s from the syrups used for Icees or sno cones, and the grape flavor can make it very purple, but it’s usually not the only color available,” he said.
Still, he thinks NC’s purple honey comes from a natural, not human, source.
French honey bees are known to produce lime green, chocolate brown and vibrant blue honey. Local beekeepers discovered that the bees weren’t gathering nectar from nearby flowers, but were instead eating leftover M&M candy shells processed by a candy factory three miles away (the factory, not the M&M-growing tree).
In 2010, Brooklyn bees were making red honey in a fire truck. The culprit: maraschino cherries.
This story was originally published September 14, 2022 at 7:30 AM.