SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah agriculture officials are slowly getting to the bottom of the beehive state's red honey whodunit.
The mystery began in August when several beekeepers in northern Utah began seeing red honey in their hives, said Larry Lewis of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. After some investigation, they found the culprit: a Utah County beekeeper who was trying to fatten up his bees for the long winter.
Turns out the man - whose name they aren't releasing - created a red, sugary syrup made of crushed up candy canes and water, Lewis said.
The man put that in a large trough for the bees. The sweet treat caught the attention of other bees, too, and soon red honey was showing up in hives in several northern counties.
Though none of the red honey is believed to have made it to the shelves of any Utah stores, the first concern for state agriculture officials was whether it was safe. They worried it would be harmful to bees and consumers if it hit the market.
So, they tested the red honey, the sugary syrup and the crushed candy canes. The results came back this week and all were found to be clean of any lead.
Now the questions remains: Is it really honey?
If it meets the legal description of honey - which states it must come from a plant and meet certain ratios of sugars and other ingredients - then beekeepers can sell it.
Can you imagine the possibilities? Valentine's Day toast glazed with red honey. Christmas morning tea with red honey. Fourth of July cupcakes made with red honey.
For now, beekeepers have been instructed not to mix the red honey with their normal honey. Officials are scheduled to meet Monday to discuss the issue.
"Is it all just from the sugary juice or is it a mixture of honey from plants?" Lewis said. "That's what still needs to be determined."
Lewis said the integrity of true honey must be upheld. If it's determined this red goo is in fact a fraudulent honey made primarily of candy canes, then it can't be sold or marketed as honey.
"We're responsible for truth in the marketplace," Lewis said.
It's not the first time colored honey has appeared in bee hives. In France in 2012, beekeepers discovered blue and green honey that apparently was created by bees eating M&M candy shell crumbs, National Geographic reported. In Brooklyn in 2010, red honey appeared when bees began partaking from the vats of a nearby company that made maraschino cherries, The New York Times reported.
At least one beekeeper is upset over the mess.
Chris Spencer, owner of 3 Bee Honey in Orem, told KSL-TV that he has already had to dump 30 to 40 pounds of red honey since it started showing up in his hives this summer, and probably will to get rid of many more pounds. He said breeder queens have also had also to be removed for evaluation.
"The way we're looking at it, it's just a little over $50,000," Spencer. "The impact could be bigger."
As far as the beekeeper behind the red honey outbreak, Lewis says he's not necessarily facing any punishment. He's been cooperating with them, and didn't intend to cause such a stir.
"It was an accident," Lewis said. "It was merely a food to nourish his bees over the winter time."