March 21st marked the first day of spring and here in the mountains the warm early spring temperatures have begun to prompt the native bees to wake from their hibernation. Like many creatures, most native bees store up food during the warm months in preparation for a cold long winter.
The first thing waking bees do is perform a cleansing flight, they expel any excrement that has accumulated during their winter’s rest.
The next thing they do is search for food. Its not hard to see that there are no trees and flowers in bloom as the snow begins to melt and once again bare ground is exposed.
So what do these amazing little creatures do to survive until blossoms appear? Unlike colony-building honeybees, solitary bees don’t stockpile honey for times when blossoms are scarce.
Native bees are not without resources when nectar is scarce, bees can tap into another source of sweet stuff: the droppings left behind by other insects called honeydew. Honeydew honey or forest honey is a type of honey made—not from blossom nectar—but from honeydew excreted by plant sucking insects such as aphids and is an important part of their survival until blooms appear.
Honeydew is scentless and colorless, but bees have found a way to identify its location: the bees seek out trees and shrubs sporting sooty mold – a fungus that thrives on honeydew. This sweet treat is usually produced from trees, both conifers and deciduous, although it may also be produced from grasses and plants. In fact, this strong-tasting, mineral-rich, savory honey is the result of a relationship between aphids and bees that is common throughout the world, yet unbeknownst to most people. Honeydew flow is often strong in late dry summers. It may be also known as Forest or Tree Honey but also by the name of the particular source plant, “Fir Honey,” “Pine Honey,” “Lime Tree Honey,” “Oak Honey” etc. Even today many people believe this honey is created from sap secreted directly from the tree itself. This is not the case. Only about 1% of the time do plants exude a honeydew-like substance directly that bees will use, and this is usually as the result of an injury or shock to the plant.
Honeydew honey is highly appreciated in certain parts of the world by honey lovers for its strong flavor and healthful properties. It is especially well known in European countries like Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Greece, and Turkey as well as New Zealand. While honeydew is produced in North America, the honey is not particularly common. It was prized as White Cedar honey in California, made from honeydew of the Incense Cedar and by the scale insect, and from Hawaii, honeydew was made by the sugar cane leaf-hopper that produced hundreds of tons of honeydew honey in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although it was considered a lower quality “bakers honey,” it helped launch the honey production industry of Hawaii. Honeydew is dark to very dark, honey colored, sometimes with green fluorescence. It has a medium, woody and warm taste with a moderate sweetness with weak acidity. Honeydew is eaten by a wide variety of insects and animals, and by humans. It is so prized by ants they actually tend their ‘herds’ of aphids and protect them from predators to harvest their honeydew.
Plant sap is largely composed of water and sugars with a small amount of amino acids. It turns out that while aphids use some of the sugars and other nutrients in the plant sap, they must process a large amount of sap to get usable amounts of proteins. Plant sap only contains about 1-2% of proteins. The rest is expelled and actually ejected away from the insect to land on leaves or needles, branches and the ground below. If an aphid-covered branch is suddenly jostled they will release their honeydew in a fine misty spray. It will then dry and in this form, when produced in enough quantity, it is traditionally collected and eaten. It is considered by some to be the “manna” described in the bible as the food used by the Israelites in the desert. Many animals and insects, including bees, collect this off the plant or tree itself and off the ground below. There has been some research that indicates that honeydew honey also has higher than average antibiotic properties due to higher levels of glucose oxidase which leads to the production of hydrogen peroxide.
This sugary snack lends a helping hand where honeydew is plentiful but bees can’t do without pollen from trees and flowers. Native bees need pollen which is a crucial source of protein and is needed to rear future generations and will discontinue collecting this substance when the trees begin to bloom. Nature has an amazing way of adapting to the conditions of the seasons here in the mountains and are a true example of resilience and fortitude.
An aphid excreting honeydew, courtesy of Jackie Woodcock