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OREM — “Red” honey is turning up in commercial hives in multiple counties in Utah, causing losses already in the tens of thousands of dollars for business owners and prompting a state investigation.
State inspectors Wednesday said it is believed a yet-to-be-named large beekeeping operation began “open-feeding” bees with a concoction of crushed, rehydrated candy canes and other candy materials. Other bees discovered the caches and returned contaminated to surrounding bee yards.
“The way we’re looking at it, it’s just a little over $50,000,” said Orem-based 3 Bee Honey owner Chris Spencer. “The impact could be bigger.”
Spencer said he began to notice the red honey showing up in July and already has had to dump 30 to 40 pounds of it. The totals, he said, could rise to hundreds of pounds by the end of the year.
Additionally, he said “breeder queens” have had to be removed for evaluation, and he has observed problems with brood production, as well as collecting genetic material from drones.
“It’s been contaminated,” Spencer said. “The dye’s actually in the genetic material, which it shouldn’t be.”
Inspectors said red honey cases have already shown up in Salt Lake, Davis, Utah and Washington counties around sites for the open-feeding.
“They put a trough out, or a 55-gallon barrel out, and just poured this liquid into it,” said William Burnett, Utah County bee inspector.
Burnett said he is resigning as county bee inspector as of Friday, citing fatigue stemming from the ordeal.
It’s not believed any of the red honey has made it to the marketplace.
We know that it makes terrible tasting honey, and we know that it looks awful.
–William Burnett, Utah County bee inspector
“We know that it makes terrible tasting honey, and we know that it looks awful,” Burnett said.
Beekeepers said the honey at best tasted like peppermint, coconut or cherry.
Because of the red dye involved, Burnett said it may be possible the red honey contained more lead than its traditional counterpart.
Scientists with BYU and the state are taking a closer look at the substance for that possibility, he said.
Officials at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food downplayed the potential health risk of the tainted honey, saying they were simply trying to confirm what they believed — that the honey would not cause harm to humans.
“We’re coming together with the beekeepers, the industry and our experts to determine what is the situation: Is it severe or is it not severe?” department spokesman Larry Lewis said.
Lewis characterized the toll to this point as being an economic one.
State health officials have called on beekeepers not to mix any red honey supplies with traditional honey stores.
Spencer said he's taking steps to try to mitigate his losses over the next couple weeks, though he's skeptical that will happen to a significant degree.
“We don’t know what kind of lasting impact it will have on what we’ve been breeding,” he said.
Lewis said the red honey may be in violation of the Utah Honey Standard of Identity Act, which identifies honey as a product that originates from a plant source.