As this column goes to press, I plan to be winging my way to Israel, the proverbial “land of milk and honey.” That saying of course is not limited to the Jewish state; it reflects thousands perhaps millions of years of relationship between humans and the honey bee in the Levant. Much of that area is encompassed by my journey from Istanbul to Tel Aviv, for I will have just presented two talks at the Pine Honey Congress in Mugla, southwest Turkey.
When I first received the invitation, it struck me as strange. Pine honey to my knowledge does not exist. The raw material for honey is nectar and that is only secreted by flowering plants. This is modified into honey through chemical changes and evaporation of water facilitated by the honey bee. Pines have no flowers. So it is remarkable to suggest that honey could be produced from them.
It turns out that this part of the world is known for another product called honeydew. This is also collected and modified by the honey bee, but not directly from plants. Several types of plant-sucking insects can exist on pines and other trees and bushes. They literally are plugged into the plant’s vascular system and happily ingest juices the produced. These often very sweet materials, however, are not very nutritious. It takes a lot of sucking, therefore, to get enough of the correct nutrients. In the process, the insects must dispense a lot of excess liquid. Usually it is discarded in any way possible. It is this material the bees collect to produce honey dew.
Two types of insects are generally known for their ability to injest and then expel sweet juices from their plant hosts. These are scales and aphids in the order of insects known as Hemiptera, the “true” bugs. Scales are not flashy organisms and often escape detection by humans, but they are responsible for a lot of misery for farmers and others because of their feeding activity. They often do not move and the sweet juices they excrete are problematic. They can fall on leaves or fruits and then become the food for various fungi, which are the cause of black or “sooty” mold that are not desirable on valuable food crops.
Aphids may also be a problem in certain circumstances, but usually move about much more than scales. These insects often have two pipe-like organs that extend from their backs called “cornicules,” through which they excrete the left-over juice. Aphids are sometime called “ant cows.” Much like humans manage dairy cattle, ants may herd and protect certain aphids and in return have exclusive access to their sweet excess.
Honeydew can be quite different than honey. In certain parts of the world, humans in fact prefer the former over the latter for its distinct flavors. Famous honeydews are produced in Germany’s Black Forest and on the U.S. West coast from abundant conifer forests. A special one is found in New Zealand, where the raw material is so thick it often appears as a slime or glassine on the tree’s trunk. I am not familiar with the honeydew in Turkey, but I can be sure to hear a lot about it and the insect producing this raw material at the Pine Honey Congress.
Beyond pines, however, other plants are known for their production of honey dew. Oaks in Florida’s panhandle, for example, are relied on by beekeepers to ensure their bees have abundant stores for the winter. Because it is consumed by the bees and a surplus production is not possible, Florida honeydew never makes it to market. Oaks are flowering plants, but produce little nectar in their blooms, thus, one never sees “oak” honey; the same is true for maples. Their tree cousins like tupelo, tulip poplar and citrus, however, produce vast quantities of nectar in their flowers, which can be found for sale as honey in roadside and other markets around the state.
Honeydew is a coveted brand name. Perhaps most notably it is the American name for the White Antibes melon cultivar, which has been grown for many years in southern France and Algeria according to the open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia.org. The site also says that in China, honeydews are known as the Bailan melon. These were introduced by Henry A. Wallace, Vice president of the United States under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had a background in agriculture and had founded a major seed company, Pioneer Hi-Bred. Other brand names include Honeydew Intimates and Honeydew Donuts. I probably won’t see those at the Pine Honey Congress.