Ivy League (12th October 2020)

If there’s two words together guaranteed to divide a room full of beekeepers, it’s ‘ivy honey’.

Ivy (Herea helix) flowers

Ivy honey is produced by honeybees foraging on nectar from the flowers of the ivy plant (hedera helix). Abundant from late summer through autumn into early winter, ivy provides valuable late-season food for honeybees and other pollinating insects, in the form of pollen (protein) and nectar (carbohydrate). As food for humans, ivy honey has a distinct and delicious taste, with medicinal properties in the same league as Manuka, making it especially helpful as expectorant cough remedy and anti-inflammatory treatment for respiratory disease.

Yet many (most?!) beekeepers deride the stuff. Largely because it crystalises (sets) really quickly in the cells of the comb, making it impossible to transfer from hive to jar without a whole load of extra work. But mainly because (so they will tell you) it smells and tastes different to other honeys – and (so they will tell you) not in a good way. (It actually doesn’t. But more on this later). Some will even tell you that it’s bad for the bees (and here I quote an actual beekeeping tutor, with half a century’s beekeeping experience) ‘because it sets hard in their stomach and kills them’ ….

I’ve often puzzled over this particular nugget of misinformation; why would honeybees (in all other ways super-intelligent) make such an effort, deliberately collecting and storing food that will kill them?! Did none of them (not even one, out of the average 50,000 living together in a hive ) ever notice their myriad sisters’ dropping dead after lunch… and make the connection?? And, if eating ivy honey does kill them, how have they survived, as a species, this last 30million+ years??

Fresh honeycomb, with crystalised ivy honey, and polyfloral honey still liquid.

Of course, I now know this particular beekeeper’s myth to be exactly that – a myth. Ivy honey does not kill honeybees. It does, however, set really solid, really quickly, in the cells of the comb, meaning a whole load more faff than usual for the beekeeper, hoping to get it out of the comb and into the jar. Which is, I suspect, the real reason so many beekeepers do not like the stuff. This, together with the characteristic smell and alleged odd taste …

… All of which turn out to be additional knobbly nuggets of beekeeping folklore.

Yes, it is true that, freshly packed by the bees into their hexagonal comb cells, ivy honey does have a distinctive sweet & tangy floral aroma; the same fragrance as ivy flowers themselves (Walk past an expanse of ivy in flower on a warm sunny afternoon, and there it is). In the enclosed, warm space of a beehive, that aroma is unmistakable. And does indeed hit you full-force, when those frames of honey are lifted, fresh, from the hive. But here’s the thing … that smell (or ‘stench’ as I’ve heard some beekeeper’s call it!) very soon mellows – as does the taste, transmuting into something altogether more delicious – or, it would, if you bothered to keep it long enough to find out.

And therein lies the key. Many beekeeper’s have never eaten ivy honey. Why? Because they’ve heard the ‘tastes bad’ myth from other beekeepers (who heard it from other beekeepers …) … meaning the ivy honey gets left on the hive or (if they believe in the ‘kills bees’ myth) is removed and discarded (yes, really). Or else they’ve stuck a finger into a fresh frame of ivy honey, straight from the hive, straight into their mouth, and found the hit of unfamiliar flavour to be just too much. Thus the idea perpetuates, that ivy honey is not worth the bother, on account of the distinct smell, the odd taste, and the extra work (oh, and, of course, it’s legendary bee-killing powers …).

Soft-set ivy honey.

But, oh – what a treat they’re missing!

As I have just found out, when I gave ivy honey a go myself for the first time this week; just a couple of frames from my two strongest hives – leaving most still there for the bees.

Yes, it took a bit (erm, quite a lot) more work. Because, whereas most honeys run like liquid gold out of the frame, flowing freely, ivy honey (set hard in the comb cells) has to be coaxed out, gently but determinedly in a step by step process that does take a while (and creates quite a bit of washing up). Indeed, quite a faff. But the result? Several jars of creamy-smooth, delicious soft-set ivy honey. And not a whiff of bad taste about it.

I’ll be spreading it on toast and stashing a jar or three away for the inevitable winter cold and flu season. Because this is where ivy honey’s greatest value lies – in it’s manuka-like medicinal powers. Which, unlike the ‘tastes-bad-&-kills-bees’ is not a myth but a reality supported by an increasing body of scientific research, demonstrating ivy honey’s antibacterial, anti-inflammatory qualities. Plus of course, the simple fact that it tastes good (although, shhhh … don’t say this out loud in a room full of beekeepers …).

2 Comments

  1. Hi. I’m a natural beekeeper. I think the real reason ivy is “bad for bees” may be that if it crystallises in the hive, even if the girls have got its average moisture content down to the 17-21% range of most honey, the crystals are lower in water content but the liquid between them is higher, thus yeasts are no longer in stasis but can multiply. That gives the bees dysentry (sore tums / diahorrea).

    Remember, honey isn’t sterile…

    Ever smelled honey that’s fermented? A sort of yeasty, alcoholic smell. Offputting.

    (This argument should apply to OSR too, it sets quickly, I must research that.)

    I note ny bees used to be keen on ivy but the last few years, have ignored it. I suspect it may be a ‘forage of last resort’. Old books and some recent research by Torben Fischer indicate bees stop foraging once they have ‘enough’ stores, about 20 lbs fir a skep colony.

  2. Thank you. That is really helpful information. Makes far more sense than the ‘sets hard in their stomach and kills them’ theory! I am interested to learn more about ‘natural beekeeping’, and although using Nationals I feel I’m moving naturally towards this myself – for example, I now do not add manufactured foundation sheets to my frames (instead I provide empty frames with wooden BBQ skewer ‘downrods’ into which they build their own natural comb). Continual learning curve.
    Thank you again, for your input.

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