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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Cotton Honey, From the Bee Folks, Mount Airy, MD

I came across a reference to cotton honey recently, and until then I never really thought about cotton flowers being a source for honey, but it makes sense. Cotton has flowers, after all. I’ve since read that cotton is one of the leading honey plants in the southern United States, which makes a lot of sense given how much cotton is grown there.

Cotton bolls
Why hadn’t I come across cotton honey before? Why isn’t it as common as clover honey? Well, the fact is that it may be, although it isn’t advertised as cotton honey; cotton honey is often blended with clover and wildflower honeys to make “generic” honey- honey that has a taste that reflects what most Americans think of as “honey” (think supermarket honey in the plastic bear containers). About 70% of cotton honey in Texas is sold this way.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. First, here is a bit of information about the cotton plant: The cotton plant, part of the mallow family (related to okra, hibiscus, hollyhock and cocoa), is a tropical shrub that varies in size between 2 to 6 feet tall, depending on the variety. It has been grown for thousands of years for its fiber, and cotton seed oil and meal. It does well in warm temperate climates and is grown in the Arkansas Delta, Texas and Southern California (among other hot places) in the states. Of note, the Black Prairie area of Texas produces so much cotton that between one-half to one-fifth of all honey in the state produced is cotton honey.
States that grow cotton and produce cotton honey

Cotton blossoms are large and start out white turning to yellow, and then after a day turn to pink, then fuschia red. They look a little like hibiscus flowers. Of interest, bees collect nectar from both internal (i.e. from inside the flower- the usual way) and external sources (i.e. from secretions along the underside of the leaf and outside the base of the flower). I found this really interesting. I’ve never heard of external sources of nectar before. When the cotton flower is white or yellow, bees collect nectar from internal sources and when the flower turns pink, they move to external sources.  Flowering starts in June and continues until the first frost, at which time the plant dies. This makes for a very long flowering season and offers a nectar source for bees at times of the year when not much else is flowering, at least not in the southern states (late summer through fall). As one southern beekeeper put it on a beekeeper’s forum, “We had a lot of cotton honey this year--as there is absolutely nothing else blooming in South Alabama in July and August.”
Cotton plant showing white and fuschia flowers

However, cotton is not a very hardy plant and hard to grow organically. Farmers often rely heavily on herbicides and insecticides. In fact, I read that more pesticides are used on cotton in the Unites States than any other single crop. This is a BIG problem for bees and the source of much discussion on beekeeper forums. One question I had was why cotton farmers don’t limit chemical use to protect the honey bees that are pollinating their crop? They rely on having healthy honey bees for a crop, don’t they? Well, yes and no. Cotton farmers don’t have the same relationship with honey bees that farmers of others crops do (like almond farmers who completely rely on honey bees for pollination, for instance). Yes, honey bees can pollinate their crops but they aren’t the only pollinators, and some suggest that “cotton needs little assistance from insects.” And if farmers don’t use chemicals, they don’t have a crop to pollinate, so it is a trade-off, with chemicals generally winning.
Cotton Fields

Reading through archives of beekeeping forums on the subject showed that beekeepers are talking a lot about the use of chemicals in cotton production. But it is a little more complicated than just chemicals; genetically modified (GM) types of cotton are also available that make cotton resistant to the chemicals and/or insects. While chemicals are toxic to honey bees, the GM varieties may affect nectar yields, with some varieties producing next to zero nectar. Here are a few examples from the beekeepers forum to give you an idea of what they are saying:

“I believe the new Round Up [pesticide] tolerant Pima yields nearly zero nectar.”

“I can’t speak to Roundup Ready cotton [GM cotton that provides resistance to pesticides], but I know that local farmers are using BT-cotton [GM cotton that provides resistance to boll weevil] and the nectar yields seems great.”

“In California I spoke with a guy who specifically avoided placing hives near cotton. He felt that the honey was fine enough but it was a good way to poison your bees. He was alluding to the frequent use of insecticides in the Central valley.”

“My bees seem to ignore the cotton. Most cotton in my area is now BT cotton and Round up ready. The cotton blooms a long time but I never noticed much bee activity.”

“I used to get cotton honey but haven’t for the last 3 years. I assume it is because of the engineered cotton being used these days.”

“Putting bees on cotton here is pretty much a death sentence. They still spray here for the boll weevil. Which you’re OK unless they find a weevil in the trap. Then it’s an all out aerial attack.”

To minimize chemical exposures of their bees, beekeepers develop working relationships with cotton farmers so they are told when sprays are happening and then can move their hives. ‘The farmers that I put them on let me know if they spray and I come in and move them out for a few days. They don’t have to spray much but they do spray from time to time.”

Thankfully, with the introduction of insect-resistant (GM) varieties of cotton, and boll weevil eradication programs, there may be less need for chemical spraying. This may be good news for cotton honey producers, if the new varieties also have nectar flows.

“I talked to a cotton farmer here in the Texas panhandle and he plants BT cotton. He told me he hasn’t sprayed cotton in 4-5 years. Just doesn’t need it. I plan on putting my hives on the cotton and work a relationship with him that IF he sprays he’ll tell me first.” 

If the chemicals and genetic engineering doesn’t make it complicated enough, there are other reasons that make cotton a less than ideal crop for honey producers, specifically, its nectar flow is also very sensitive to soil conditions, climate and weather, making it an “unreliable” source of honey.
“[You can] make honey on BT cotton but it depends on the soil. Sandy soil works, Georgia red clay doesn’t produce.”

So, between chemical use that is toxic to bees, genetically modified varieties of cotton that may produce no nectar, and soil and weather conditions that may also negatively affect nectar, it is complicated to produce cotton honey. But if the stars are aligned, cotton does produce a good amount of honey, and it has a unique taste and quality.  For one, cotton honey is high in dextrose sugars that encourage fine granulation, making it a natural for creamed or whipped honey. In addition, some have stated that the flavor of cotton honey “matures.” It starts out tasting like the sap of the cotton plant (a pleasant earthy flavor a bit like cut grass) and then it develops a mild buttery flavor, with creamy tones and a tang. It is “sweet and a bit sassy.” Others have commented that is has subtle notes of cinnamon and anise.

Cotton Honey

I got my cotton honey online from the Bee Folks out of Maryland. I’ve bought from them before and have never been disappointed by the service or the quality of honey. Neither the website nor the jar have information about where it was collected, but it is an American honey, so somewhere down south. It is a very thin amber-yellow color. My honey hasn’t started to crystalize and is very runny. It has a smooth texture. It is very sweet with a slightly molasses, smoky flavor at the end, maybe this is the “tang” that other have mentioned. It is possible, as evidenced by no crystal formation, that my honey is still young and I’m at the “early flavor” phase, and that with time I’ll get more of a buttery flavor and creamy tones. In any case, it is a very nice honey that would work particularly well in baking and anywhere else that a sweeter honey is needed.