Canola – a tasteful upgrade

Canola: the yellow new food for the hungry masses

Canola is in peak bloom here this week. The cultivated oil-seed crop is a phenomenal honey producer. Canadian farmers plant just over 20 million acres of the crop each year. It yields about 100 pounds of honey per acre. If there were enough bees to collect it all, Canada would have a crop of 2 billion pounds of canola honey. As it is, we produce about 90 million pounds, but that includes alfalfa, sweet clover, fireweed, buckwheat, goldenrod, and a host of other exotics. I would guess Canada’s canola honey production is about 30 million pounds a year, hence leaving 98% of the nectar to drip to the ground for lack of honey bees. But canola is a crop that might have never existed. Except for a couple of earnest crop scientists and the magic of genetic manipulation.

Tisdale rape and honeyWhen I moved to western Canada about 40 years ago, the farmers were puzzling over a crop they called rape. Or rapeseed. The more discerning called it by its Latin name, rapa, which means turnip. A few said the stuff was big mustard, but they were wrong, although mustard seed is a distant cousin. I never liked the sound of the old name and I’m glad farmers no longer plant rape here. However, I have to wonder what happened to the old, odd sign I used to see upon entering the town of Tisdale, Saskatchewan: “Welcome to Tisdale, Land of Rape & Honey” – it was the sign that greeted me when I went to the honey co-op in that town back in the 1970s. The greeting was on that billboard because northern Saskatchewan was rife with those yellow unruly cultivars and bees made gold from their flowers. The sign, by the way, was inspirational fodder for the British band Ministry, a heavy-metal gang that released an album called “The Land of Rape and Honey” in 1988. But fortunately, political correctness and genetic engineering put an end to rapeseed.

Heart disease. Rape, as Brassica napus was known, began its domestic life in China as the vegetable yu choy, then arrived in Europe around 600 years ago. It became popular on the northern Canadian plains because it could be planted late and harvested early, beating the cold weather on both ends of the season. For quite a few years, it was used as an engine lubricant but was pushed off the market by cheap petro-substitutes. So people here started frying their perogies with the oil. When I came to be part of Saskatchewan’s landscape in the 1970s, Canadian government botanists had discovered that rapeseed – pressed and squeezed into cooking oil – contained erucic acid which caused heart disease. Rape was being phased out – worse, the government was hinting the crop might be banned by royal decree.

How to make a better oil. Keith Downey and Buldur Stefansson contravened the threatened ban by a bold move. They genetically coaxed rape into becoming canola. Canola (derived from the words CANadian OiL, A?) came about because Downey and Stefansson tediously cut the tiny seed’s endosperm from its embryo by using tiny scalpels. Then they analyzed the oil’s acids, selecting seeds that were the least erucic-ish. By 1974 the scientists ended up with a seed rich in oleic acid instead of harmful erucic. The result was the lowest content of saturated fat in any oil on the market. It was an immediate darling on health food shelves – and it found a place outside of everyone’s heart.

Not every beekeeper loves canola. Today I drove out to my daughter and son-in-law’s honey farm. I passed a few fields of canola before reaching their property, which is mostly in alfalfa and sweet clover ranch country. If they could, they would avoid canola as a nectar source for their bees. Although the honey is mild, white, and thick, it has one disagreeable attribute for the kids who are trying to make a living producing comb honey. Canola granulates, or crystallizes, really quickly. Within days. Even in pristine comb honey sections, much to the disappointment of the beekeepers. So, if someone is looking for a breeding project, perhaps canola that produces a non-granulating nectar could be the next thing to tackle.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Comb Honey, Culture, or lack thereof, Honey Plants, Strange, Odd Stuff and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Canola – a tasteful upgrade

  1. Pingback: Canola: Canada’s Yellow Carpet | Bad Beekeeping Blog

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