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By Sherri Talbot Honey, to most people, is a golden, amber colored syrup that comes wrapped in tiny, hexagonal segments wrapped in wax and contained in everything from artificially constructed boxes to barn walls to tree trunks. Fans of buckwheat honey know that color can vary a lot from the normal color people tend to think of. Readers of the article, “When Honey-Colored Means Blue” (Backyard Beekeeping April/May of 2022) know that bees can produce some really strange honeys!
Some of these tiny pollinators live just to mess with your expectations though. Changing the color of our honey? That’s an amateur move! We can do better than that!
Let’s start by making honey without hives. Elvish honey comes from Turkey and is currently the most expensive honey in the world. It is harvested from only one spot — a cave that requires professional climbers to access it. The bees involved in this endeavor do not build hives, instead, they store their honey directly into the mineral-rich walls.
The owner of this cave and the only current seller of Elvish honey, Gunay Gunduz, says that the location and the minerals give the sweet syrup a taste unlike any you will find in the world. However, you will pay for that rare sip — Elvish Honey costs more than $3,000 per pound.
How about making honey without flowers? The vulture bee can do that! This obstinate little insect insists on living in an area where almost no flowers grow, so they have to find another source to make food. So how does one make honey without pollen?
Meat. Carrion to be exact. Vulture bees get their name from their practice of using dead animals to make honey. Vulture bee honey is thicker than the vision of honey that people usually have, and is reported to not taste terribly good to people. Namely because people expect honey to be sweet, and honey made from carrion is not.
How is this accomplished? Rather than having stingers, Vulture bees have teeth to break down and carry off bits of the rotting flesh for processing. Also, rather than returning to the hive to dance the location of the find — like honeybees do — vulture bees remain at the site and release pheromones to summon the rest of the hive. While waiting for its companions, it will chase off flies and other competing insects to protect its “treasure.”
This isn’t the only reason there isn’t really a market for carrion honey. Despite it’s rather disgusting source, vulture bees also make their honey difficult to gather, starting with their tendency of dropping a bee larva into each separate storage cell. Also, unlike honeybees who make tons of extra honey, vulture bees make barely enough to feed their own hive. Collecting honey from them, therefore, would be sentencing the entire hive to death.
Want a real challenge? How about making honey without bees? Despite the impression of bees being the only insects that make honey, both the Mexican honey wasp and honeypot ants also use pollen to make a sweet nectar that feeds their brethren.
Mexican honey wasps
Mexican honey wasps are actually a number of wasps-types living mostly in Mexico, but one type has been found in Texas as well. They are a tiny wasp, smaller than the bees who’s lifestyle they imitate. They develop paper nests the way other wasps do, but unlike many species of wasp, they are frequently harmless unless the nest is threatened.
Their colonies are smaller than that of bees. Bees can have anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 bees in a hive, while Mexican honey wasps tend to hold steady at around 18,000 in a colony but can have as few as 4,000 insects in a small nest. They also produce honey in a much smaller quantity as bees. They are dual-purpose for some crops however, not only pollinating, but eating harmful insects that might damage plants.
The honey made by these wasps is said by some sources to be identical to that created by bees — which makes sense, since it often comes from the same plants. Others who have tried it say it is more comparable to maple syrup in taste and consistency. Despite producing smaller amounts, the honey is quite edible to those who want to dare the process of gathering it, and the wasp larvae are considered a delicacy in part of Mexico.
Honeypot ants are another insect that use pollen to make honey. Unlike bees and wasps that store the results in their nests, these ants store the honey in their bodies, increasing their girth to amazing size until they cannot walk. When full, they hang themselves from the roof and walls of their colony and wait until they are needed. If the ant colony has a shortage of food, these living food depots regurgitate the nutritious syrup for the rest of the brood. Honeypots are a job — rather than a species — that only exist within certain ant-types. Only about 35 of the around 35,000 known ant species have honeypots ants in their hierarchies.
Honeypot ants are found most often in the hotter, drier parts of the world, including Australia, Mexico, and the Southwestern United States. In both Australia and Mexico, the tiny, sweet insects are considered a delicacy and incorporated into the food chain. Like bees and wasps, this is a limited, emergency food source, so those harvesting the ants need to be careful not to take too many.
Honeypot ants are eaten whole and are compared to eating a small grape. The ant is crushed between the top of the mouth and the tongue to give a burst of sweet flavor. In other cases, they may be incorporated into desserts. In parts of Mexico, honeypots were used in a fermented recipe to make alcoholic drinks and the ants were also considered to be an ingredient in medicines.
What does it taste like? Opinions differ. Some claim it is sweet like the honey we know and love. Others report it has more of a sour taste mixed in — describing it as “lemony,” “vinegar,” or “sweet and sour.” No matter what the taste, the novice ant-eater will have the interesting experience of getting used to the legs.
SHERRI TALBOT is the co-owner and operator of Saffron and Honey Homestead in Windsor, Maine. She raises endangered, heritage breed livestock and hopes someday to make education and writing on conservation breeding her full-time job. Details can be found at SaffronandHoneyHomestead.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SaffronandHoneyHomestead.
Originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.