PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — In the world of honeybees, it’s all the buzz: an agricultural mystery as complex as a beehive.
“There seems to be no end in sight,” beekeeper Don Shump said. “It's never boring.”
For 10 years, Shump, the owner of the Philadelphia Bee Company, has faithfully tended to beehives, selling the honey they produced to the public.
Then, one day, something changed.
“I walked into my honey house and one of my workers was cracking open a container of honey,” Shump recalled. “And I walked in and I said, ‘Who's eating maple bacon?’”
No one was. The unusual smell was coming from the honey.
“I'd given it a taste, and I was like, ‘I don't know what this is,’” Shump said.
Other beekeepers in the area started noticing the same thing in their honey.
“We sent our honey samples up to the labs to determine what it is, to try to do some sleuthing,” Shump said.
They turned to agricultural detective Robyn Underwood of Penn State University for help.
“We launched an investigation into where this strange new honey was coming from,” she said.
After multiple tests, including running a DNA profile on the honey, the culprit turned out to be the Asian lanternfly.
It’s an invasive species that began appearing in the Philadelphia area several years ago and has now spread to multiple states. Lanternflies can be destructive, potentially responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural damage.
“What they’re really interested in is sucking out plant sap,” Underwood said.
That is where the honeybees come in; they access what the lanternflies have left behind and add it to their honey.
“We do know that it’s safe for people to eat, and it’s safe for honeybees as well,” Underwood said.
The middle of Philadelphia isn’t exactly the kind of place where you would expect an agricultural drama to play out, but that’s exactly what happened, and the result has been delicious.
“It got paired with the blue cheese, and people went nuts over it. They loved it,” Shump said. “And at that point, I said, ‘Well, we might have something here.’”
The Philadelphia Bee Company calls the new honey flavor the “Doom Bloom.” Yet, there’s no love lost for the lowly lanternfly.
“They're a horrible invasive species, and they're not something we want around here,” Shump said. “However, you know, if we can take advantage of them, however we can until we can get rid of them, then we'll make good on a bad thing.”
It’s a bad thing that turned out to be pretty tasty.