That incongruous belief that “Honey is bee vomit” is resurfacing on a number of YouTube channels, opinion pieces and other Internet posts. It's usually said with great glee: “Honey is bee vomit! It's bee puke! It's bee barf!”
Is it #FakeNews?
We asked noted honey bee guru Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist emeritus at the University of California, Davis, whose career in bee education spans four decades, to settle the issue. Although he retired in 2014, he keeps active. Last year he completed a term--his sixth--as president of the Western Apicultural Society. He maintains an office in Briggs Hall.
And he continues to answer questions about bees and honey.
“As for the bees and vomit issue, the explanation requires quite a bit of knowledge,” Mussen says. It's about an "expandable pouch called 'the honey stomach' (which we humans do not have) and a valve called the "proventriculus" (which we humans do not have)."
“As most people know, honey begins as a dilute sugar solution secreted by ‘nectaries,' sugar syrup-secreting glands which are located in flowers or in extra-floral nectaries,” Mussen explains. “Pollen is not a natural constituent of nectar. The nectar is sucked up by honey bees and it passes into an expandable pouch called the ‘honey stomach.' This is the pre-digestive part of the part of the digestive tract that honey bees use to bring water and nectar to the hive. In honey bees and other insects, this ‘crop' precedes the portions of the digestive tract used for digesting food. There is a unique valve between the crop and the ventriculus (midgut), called the ‘proventriculus,' that has rake-like projections that constantly pull particulates, like pollen grains, from the crop contents and push them along for digestion.”
“Then the film is again exposed to the air. That process repeats itself until the moisture content of the syrup falls below 20 percent. Evaporation is influenced significantly by the relative humidity. Since honey will ferment at moisture contents above 20 percent, it is important to leave the honey with the bees until it can be immediately processed in locations with high humidity. That honey will seem to be thin. During the summer in California, the ambient relative humidity is quite low--15 percent or less. In that case, honey produced in the Central Valley can have a moisture content of 13 to 13.5 percent. That honey is quite thick.”
As an aside, “pollen grains are likely to be found in honey,” Mussen says. “Wind-blown pollens can fall into flowers that are open faced. Pollen grains are collected by hairs on the bees' bodies. They can get onto the mouthparts and become consumed with the nectar. Nectar-processing bees may have eaten some pollen in the hive before processing the honey. This is how the pollen grains get into honey. They do not necessarily get consumed with the fresh nectar. Physical contaminants of honey have to be quite small, like pollen grains, since the bees ingest all their food by drinking it through a straw-like proboscis with a very small opening at the tip. Most of the physical contaminants are removed by the proventriculus.”
And here's the point: “Since honey never is mixed with digesting food in the intestinal tract, it is inaccurate to refer to honey as ‘bee vomit.' A dictionary definition of vomit includes ‘disgorging the stomach contents through the mouth.' Since a human does not have a crop, the stomach is in direct contact with the esophagus and mouth. In a bee, the proventriculus and crop are in direct contact with the mouth. The digestion of solid foods in bees begins in the ventriculus and there is no way that a honey bee can bring that food back through the proventriculus, or ‘vomit.'
Which begs the question: Why can't we enjoy honey for what it is, not for what it isn't?
We can. Mark your calendar to attend these two events: the second annual California Honey Festival on May 5 in downtown Woodland (it's held in partnership with the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center) and the fourth annual UC Davis Bee Symposium: Keeping Bees Healthy (hosted by the Honey and Pollination Center and the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology) on March 3 in the UC Davis Conference Center. The Bee Symposium will feature keynote speaker Thomas Seeley, the Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell University, New York.
Interested in beekeeping? UC Davis Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño and her lab will teach a number of classes this spring, beginning March 24, at the Harry H.Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, UC Davis campus.
The schedule and links to the capsule information:
- Planning Ahead for Your First Hives: Saturday, March 24
- Working Your Colonies: Sunday, March 25
- Queen-Rearing Techniques Short Course: Saturday and Sunday, April 21-22 course; Saturday and Sunday, April 28-29 course
- Bee-Breeding Basics: Saturday, June 9
- Varroa Management Strategies: Saturday, June 16
The cherry laurel, Prunus caroliniana, a member of the rose family, draws honey bees as if there's no tomorrow. Native to the southeastern United States, it can double as a 15-to-36-feet-tall hedge, screening neighbors from neighbors, as well as providing ample food for birds when the tiny black cherrylike fruit develops.
But the bees...the bees...if you've ever seen bees work the spring blossoms, gathering the cream-colored pollen and the nectar to take back to their colonies, you know how frenetic they can be.
Back at the hive, the nectar turns into cherry-laurel honey....hmmm.
Speaking of honey, the so-called "nectar of the gods," how much honey does an average California colony produce?
California Extension apiculturist (emeritus) Eric Mussen, whose career spanned 38 years, was recently asked that question. When he joined the faculty at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology--that was during the 1976-77 drought--he was told that the average honey production per hive was around 29 to 35 pounds. Today the figure often quoted is 60 pounds.
But that depends.
"Later I learned that the 'average' honey production--years with "normal" rain--is not average across all our beekeepers," Mussen related. "The queen and bulk bee producers in northern California have never made much of any honey, especially after yellow starthistle fell victim to the USDA biocontrol program.
"The San Joaquin Valley beekeepers were more likely to approach the state average. They could obtain some honey from the crops they were pollinating and some from the wildflowers, especially in the hills surrounding the valley. It was the Southern California beekeepers who made up the difference. Production of 100-plus pounds could be common."
What about honey production today, in the throes of the California drought? "For the last few years, we have been having 1976-77-type crops," Mussen said. "The northern beekeepers basically have no honey unless they take their colonies out of state. The San Joaquin Valley beekeepers probably are averaging around 30 pounds or so, and the southern beekeepers would be lucky to be getting around 60."
The few years when California experienced high rain and floods--back in the 1980s and 1990s--beekeepers throughout the state reported an average of 90-plus pounds per colony. "Even the northern beekeepers produced a little," Mussen said. "However, even if we have a horrendous El Niño event, it probably won't make a huge difference in honey production this coming year. The seed bank has been terribly diminished by so many consecutive years of drought."
"While we can never predict exactly who is going to get the honey and how much, this is the way things generally tend to go in California," Mussen noted. "Our bees, and our beekeepers, are really hurting for nectar and honey right now."
There's not much blooming right now. But for those "lucky" honey bees with access to a 30-foot-high hedge of luxuriant cherry laurel, as in our yard, life is good.
That's when life is just a bowl of cherries (cherry laurels).
You're in luck.
The UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center is hosting an educational honey tasting on Wednesday night, Jan. 27 in the Sensory Theater of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science on Old Davis Road. If you'd like to enroll, you need to register today (Monday, Jan. 20), To register, access this site.
The event, conducted by Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center, will take place from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and will feature California honeys. Extension apiculturist Elina Niño of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology will talk about bees, honey and beekeeping.
Harris calls the event "a unique tasting experience, complemented with a short lecture delving into related beekeeping practices and issues." The cost is $30 (general), $25 (UC Davis affiliates), $12.50 (students).
The Honey Flavor Wheel production involved six months of research and development. “We brought together a group of 20 people--trained tasters, beekeepers and food enthusiasts--who worked together with a sensory scientist to come up with almost 100 descriptors,” Harris recently said. “This wheel will prove invaluable to those who love honey and want to celebrate its nuances.”
"Honey is honey, it's just that simple," according to the National Honey Board. "A bottle of pure honey contains the natural sweet substance produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants or secretions of living parts of plants. Nothing else." The 60,000 or so bees in a hive may "collectively travel as much as 55,000 miles and visit more than two million flowers to gather enough nectar to make just a pound of honey!"
The United States is home to more than 300 unique kinds of honey, according to the National Honey Board. Among the most popular? Clover and orange blossom.
You've heard "The 12 Days of Christmas," beginning with a single "partridge in a pear tree" and ending with "12 drummers drumming." In between: two turtle doves, three french hens, four calling birds, five gold rings, six geese-a-laying, seven swans-a-swimming, eight maids-a-milking, nine ladies dancing, 10 lords-a-leaping, and 11 pipers piping.
But have you heard "The 13 Bugs of Christmas?"
Back in 2010, Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology (now the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology) and yours truly came up with a song about "The 13 Bugs of Christmas." Presented at the Department of Entomology's holiday party, it drew roaring applause. Then U.S. News featured it when reporter Paul Bedard picked it up.
It's still making the rounds, via social media, and it's also appeared in number of pubications, including a pest control magazine.
"The 13 Bugs of Christmas" is about a psyllid in a pear tree, six lice a'laying, 10 locusts leaping and 11 queen bees piping. Beekeepers know that distinctive sound of a queen bee piping.
"We attempted to keep the wording as close as possible for ‘The 12 Bugs of Christmas' and then we opted to spotlight some new agricultural pests in the next stanza," said Mussen, who retired in June 2014 after 38 years of service.
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a psyllid in a pear tree.
On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, two tortoises beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, three French flies, two tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, four calling cicadas, three French flies, two tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me five golden bees, four calling cicadas, three French flies, two tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me six lice a'laying, five golden bees, four calling cicadas, three French flies, two tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven boatmen swimming, six lice a'laying, five golden bees, four calling cicadas, three French flies, two tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eight ants a'milking, seven boatmen swimming, six lice a'laying, five golden bees, four calling cicadas, three French flies, two tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me nine mayflies dancing, eight ants a'milking, seven boatmen swimming, six lice a'laying, five golden bees, four calling cicadas, three French flies, two tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 10 locusts leaping, nine mayflies dancing, eight ants a'milking, seven boatmen swimming, six lice a'laying, five golden bees, four calling cicadas, three French flies, two tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the 11th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 11 queen bees piping, 10 locusts leaping, nine mayflies dancing, eight ants a'milking, seven boatmen swimming, six lice a'laying, five golden bees, four calling cicadas, three French flies, two tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 12 deathwatch beetles drumming, 11 queen bees piping, 10 locusts leaping, nine mayflies dancing, eight ants a'milking, seven boatmen swimming, six lice a'laying, five golden bees, four calling cicadas, three French flies, two tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
Knowing the agony that Californians experience with the seemingly unending flood of pests, Mussen felt it "bugworthy" to add this verse:
"On the 13th day of Christmas, Californians woke to see: 13 Kaphra beetles, 12 Diaprepes weevils, 11 citrus psyllids, 10 Tropilaelaps clareae, nine melon fruitflies, eight Aedes aegypti, seven ash tree borers, six spotted-wing Drosophila, five gypsy moths, four Japanese beetles, three imported fire ants, two brown apple moths, and a medfly in a pear tree."
Mussen noted that Tropilaelaps clareae is a honey bee mite from Asia, as is the well-known varroa mite (Varroa destructor), which was first detected in the United States (Wisconsin) in 1987 and is now beekeepers' No. 1 problem.
It's unlikely, however, that Tropilaelaps clareae and Varroa destructor will become part of any other Christmas song...but you never know...
The new UC California Cooperative Extension apiculturist, Elina Lastro Niño, has moved it to her website now that Eric Mussen has retired. Mussen, now Extension apiculturist emeritus, wrote the newsletter from 1976 to 2014 and loaded it on his UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology website. The editions are now archived.
The new home? It's on the elninobeelab website.
It's available online for free, of course. The newsletter is published bimonthly: in February, April, June, August, October and December. Niño relates: "If you wish to have this newsletter sent directly to your email address, please follow the instructions below. Enter this URL into your browser: https://lists.ucdavis.edu/sympa/subscribe/ucdavisbeenews. When it opens, it should relate to subscribing to this newsletter. Enter your email address and then click submit. It is time to decide whether to continue your hard copy subscription. The mailed subscription rate is now $25 per year (six issues). If you'd still like to continue this subscription please send a check by April 10, 2015 payable to the UC Regents and mailed to Elina L. Niño at the address in the signature block. Be sure to include your name and mailing address. If the check is not received you will not receive the next issue of the newsletter as a hard copy. This, of course, does not apply to those who have already prepaid for a certain time period."
In the newest edition, published today, you'll learn about how to treat those nasty Varroa mites, known far and wide (except in Australia, which doesn't have them) as beekeepers' Public Enemy No. 1.
Niño writes about HopGuard® II, "basically an 'old' product developed by BetaTec Hop Products, Inc., but it has an improved delivery system."
You'll also learn
- what Niño said when she addressed the the Avocado Pollination Seminar series
- that EPA is registering a new insecticide, flupyradifuron
- about exciting upcoming events, including a bee symposium, open house, and queen-rearing workshops, and
- some great information about how honey bees collect nectar.
How honey bees collect nectar is her Kids' Corner feature. "Usually after about three weeks of life as a house bee, all healthy honey bees in a normal, healthy colony become foragers," she writes. "They start every morning by going out into the world looking for the best sources of sugary nectar and protein-rich pollen. Some of them even collect water. Now, I'm sure you've seen these friendly ladies just buzzing along visiting flowers in your back yard. By the way, just a reminder, forager bees will not attack unless they feel threatened so just make sure you don't bother them and you should be fine (and tell your friends too!). "
Niño goes on to explain the process, and points out, as Mussen emphasizes, that honey is "not actually bee vomit as it never goes through a digestion (breakdown) process in the digestive tract of a honey bee." (Mussen officially retired in June 2014 after 38-years of service, but he continues to maintain an office in Briggs Hall and assists wherever he can, including writing a few articles for the newsletter.)
Niño, who joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology on Sept. 1, 2014 from Pennsylvania State University—2600 miles away--is as busy as the proverbial worker bee.
“California is a good place to bee,” she told us recently. “I just wish I could have brought some of that Pennsylvania rain with me to help out California's drought."
Niño operates her field lab at Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus, and at her lab in Briggs Hall, on the central campus. Her aims: to conduct practical, problem-solving research projects; to support the state's beekeepers through research, extension and outreach; and to address beekeeper and industry concerns.
The mission of her program is "to provide support to California beekeepers and other relevant stakeholders through research, extension and outreach." Niño studies honey bee biology, health, reproduction, pollination biology, insect ecology, evolution, genomics and chemical ecology.