When “Honey-Colored” Means Blue
Her honey-colored hair makes the boiling waters sweet
–Honey Colour by Saku Egon Evon
by Sherri Talbot Honey-colored is a term common in songs, poems, and romance novels. In general, writers mean the beautiful golden color often associated with honey, a rich shade of blond that catches the light and makes us think of sweetness and luxury. However, as those who keep bees know, honey is not always this glorious shade of yellow. It can vary in shades, depending on the plants the bees have accessed and the time of year. Spring honey is often light and pale, while fall honey is darker and more complex due to the difference in available blossoms. Honey made from buckwheat plants will have a dark, earthy color and flavor, with a different nutritional makeup than its paler, less textured counterparts.
The color of honey comes, in part, from the color of pollen. And while many of us think of pollen as only the yellow dust that coats our cars each spring, pollen also comes in a variety of hues. While lilacs, goldenrod, and honeysuckle produce the yellow pollen we often think of, dandelions and buttercups have vivid orange pollen. Many fruit trees produce yellow or orange pollen as well. Even the Oxford Language dictionary begins its definition for “pollen” as “a fine, powdery substance, typically yellow…”
However, don’t think that Mother Nature stopped at anything as common as just these few colors! White sweet clover can produce a deep auburn red color. Poppies produce pollen in a blue/grey coloring, sage will give you white pollen, and the heat-loving phacelia will create brilliant blue pollen that bees love. One of the flower’s primary uses is to attract pollinators to your garden.
Still, many common flowers do indeed have yellow pollen. White clover, as mentioned above, produces deep red pollen but will also produce yellow. Why is yellow such a standard color for pollen? Because it is one that bees can see most easily. In the case of the white clover, red pollen will attract pollinators like hummingbirds. However, bees cannot see the color red, so the flower produces yellow pollen to draw in another favorite pollinator and keep its reproductive options open.
This isn’t to say bees will never land on a red flower, but they have difficulty separating the red flowers from the green foliage, so blue or yellow flowers are a more attractive target. They are less likely to gather red pollen from a flower, no matter the flower’s color, simply because they cannot see the pollen.
So how much does the pollen color relate to the color of the honey it produces? It’s hard to say. Since yellow and orange are the most common colors of pollen, in most cases, this makes up the majority of the hive stores. A single haul of blue pollen is unlikely to make much of a difference, and we could not find any case of honey made with purely blue pollen. However, buckwheat honey has a very distinct, dark coloring compared to other types and is made entirely with the green pollen that buckwheat plants produce. This suggests that while the color of pollen makes a difference — if it is present in large enough quantities — it may not be in ways we would expect.
Does that mean blue honey will forever be a topic of fiction? Well, not exactly! In 2014, a town in France called Ribeauvillé had a rash of cases where the bees produced green and blue honey. Since few in the area were willing to buy such oddly colored honey, this was a problem for the local beekeepers.
Eventually, they traced the source back to a nearby factory that made M&Ms. The bees were feeding on waste from the plant, resulting in a strange-colored concoction.
Purple honey — or blue honey as it is sometimes called — has also been found in other parts of the world. However, in these cases, the cause of the strange coloring is much debated. Unlike the factory case, these appear to be cases where the bees make purple/blue honey with no interference from Mars Chocolates. Some possible causes explored have included local fruits – huckleberries, elderberries, or blackberries, to name a few options — chemicals in the soil that the plants have absorbed or the choice of blooms and how the pollen is “worked” by the bees. Whatever the cause, those who have tasted it describe it as having a flavor unlike anything else.
Bess, like so much else in nature, are complex. The more we know about them, the more questions we have. And isn’t that half the fun?
In the meantime, you can enjoy complimenting the purple-haired girl at the grocery store on her “honey-colored” locks and knowing you are technically correct.
Originally published in the April/May 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.