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Honey 101

Just about everyone knows that honey is made by bees and collected out of beehives, but just how do they do it? What affects the quality and taste of the honey? Is honey simply another kind of sugar, but messier?

The fact is, the way honey is made and the actual source of nectar (type of plant) collected by the bees make a huge difference in the taste, aroma, texture, appearance and even the health benefits of honey!

Bees make honey mainly from flower nectar, but they also use other plant saps and honeydew. The bee sucks the liquid up through its proboscis and stores it in its honey sac, it adds specialized enzymes, and some of the water in the nectar is evaporated. The enzymes convert the nectar into different types of sugars. The bee flies back to the hive and places the liquid nectar into cells in the honeycomb and further evaporate water from the nectar with their wings and the warm temperature of the hive (95 degrees F.). When the water content is less than 20%, the bees seal the cell with a wax capping. The honey is now ‘ripe’ and will not spoil or ferment.

Honey is rich in nutrients, in addition to glucose, fructose and water (usually 17-20%) it contains at least 16 antioxidants, bioflavonoids, and other plant substances such as pollen. Also small amounts of other sugars, vitamins, amino acids, minerals and enzymes added by the bee. These components contribute to the different flavors and aromas that honey can have, and make honey a nutritious food loved by millions around the globe.

How is honey produced.
The quality of honey is highly dependent upon the way it is produced. The methods for collecting honey from the hive and processing it range from manual to highly mechanized. Small or hobbyist farmers with a few hives may do everything by hand. Looking at this simple process illustrates all the normal steps for producing honey.

  1. Honey comb frames are removed from the hive and taken to the honey shack or processing room where the wax caps are shaved off of the comb with a hot knife to let the honey escape.
  2. Removing the honey from the comb is simply a matter of letting honey drain out of the comb over night in a warm room, or use a manual centrifugal extractor. A small extractor holds two frames of honey and is spun with a crank by hand. At this point, the collected honey can be bottled for sale. This honey is minimally processed and delicious. Some people prefer honey produced this way.
  3. Because honey will contain small bits of wax, bee parts and other things from the frame that may be visible, it is usually filtered or strained prior to bottling. Honey is poured into a fine pore sieve, cheese cloth or metal filter and let flow through where it is collected. As long as the filter is not too fine, this method will result in pollen and organic matter intrinsic to the honey getting through and the larger visible bits removed. Pollen is an important ingredient in honey, both for identification purposes and taste. Pollen sizes are 20 – 100 microns, so the filtering method must let this size particle through. Honey that is heated flows through faster, but it is important that honey is not heated above 95 degrees F. as this permanently changes the honey and degrades the taste and aroma.
  4. At this point the honey can be bottled, although it is usually left for a week or so to allow air bubbles to rise out and clear the honey. This is called ‘ripening’ but is a misnomer because there is no change to the honey at all.

The result is raw, unfiltered (with pollen) honey. This usually results in the healthiest form of honey as it possesses all the characteristics of pure, natural honey. Honey will naturally crystallize after some period of time. This does not change the quality of the honey and it may be reliquefied with gentle warming. Honey may be kept sealed and unrefrigerated indefinitely as it one of the few naturally stable foods.

Mechanized processing methods have the same steps to process honey as the manual method above but utilize an assembly line method of handling the honey comb frames for decapping and extraction and pumps for handling honey for filtering and storage. These producers may have thousands of hives and produce thousands of gallons of honey per day stored in large sealed drums prior to bottling. Done correctly, honey produced this way should be excellent!

How not to process honey, or “How to Turn a Silk Purse into a Sow’s Ear.”
Whether processed manually or automatically, honey is a natural product with flavor, aroma and texture that can easily be destroyed or lost if done incorrectly.

  • Heat the honey past 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This is done to make it flow faster and speed up the filtering process, also to kill yeast which can cause fermentation in honey with a high moisture content, or maybe to lower moisture content to stop spoilage (high moisture content is often the result of extracting honey from the hive before it has been ripened and “capped” by the bees-again to speed up the process). The result is evaporation of the aromatic constituents that give flavor and the destruction of healthful enzymes.
  • Ultra fine filtering to produce a very clear honey that crystallizes slowly (pollen and very small particles speed up the crystallization process). The result is honey with healthful pollen removed.
  • Harvest the honey from uncapped combs before it is ripe to speed the extraction process. This leads to a higher moisture content, this increases the chance of spoilage and fermentation. The standard way to fix this is to heat the honey under vacuum and evaporate the water, see the first point.
  • Blend honey from various sources to produce a consistent flavor, color and texture. The result is bland, boring, honey robbed of its unique flavor, individuality and interest. Basically a sugar substitute.
  • Add other ingredients such as sugar or corn syrup to cheaply increase the volume of honey. Of course this is not revealed on the label and is therefore a kind of fraud. This “honey” is not honey at all!

How to buy honey:

The best quality honey can be found by buying your honey directly from the bee farmer. You can find them at local farmers markets or by following the signs on the side of the road that declare, “Honey for Sale”. Strike up a conversation and ask them, “How is the honey flowing?” and how they process their honey. You may find the experience enlightening and fun. If they have a website, read about their honey and collection process. There are many excellent bee farms that sell honey online.

Next: What types of honey are there?

4 comments to Honey 101

  • I’m a beginner in beekeeping knowledge, especially in maximizing the benefits of minimally processed/natural, healthy honey.

    1. Regarding Step #2, how warm should the room get to properly extract the honey? What other conditions must be considered?

    2. Is the quality of the honey affected if extracted manually (using step 2) as opposed to employing mechanized extractors? For instance, if the honeycombs are always reused, what effect, if any, does that have on the honey’s quality?

    3. How does one inexpensively build a manual extractor? What are the pros and cons of using such device?

    Many thanks for your helpful and quick reply, in advance.

  • HT

    Hi Denise:

    Fantastic! I hope you find the experience fun and rewarding. For questions about beekeeping I highly recommend the following resources. You will find beekeepers on these forums very helpful. The fun part is that there isn’t one ‘right’ way to keep bees and everyone has different experiences and methods. You can save yourself a lot of time and avoid mishaps with their advice. Most beekeepers are hobbyists and keep bees for the sheer love of it. Typically questions you have will be answered quickly once you sign up.

    http://www.beesource.com/how-to-start-beekeeping/

    Good book: “A Practical Manual of Beekeeping” by David Cramp (ISBN 978-1-905862-23-8). Oriented more towards the commercial side of beekeeping, and filled with excellent advice.

    Forums of very helpful beekeepers:
    http://www.beesource.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?275-How-to-Start-Beekeeping
    http://pets.groups.yahoo.com/group/Organicbeekeepers/

    I am in the planning stages myself and am starting two top bar hives in the spring in our suburban back yard in Illinois. If you don’t have your bees yet, order now, they go quickly.

    To give you my opinion.
    1. The honey should not be heated over 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the temperature in the hive.
    2. Manual or mechanical extraction methods are equivalent as long as the honey is strained, not finely filtered.
    3. For a small amount of honey, less than five hives, by far, the simplest method is to simply put the honey frame over your cheesecloth-topped bucket and dig out/crush the comb with your hands. It all falls into the cheesecloth and drains into the bucket. This destroys the wax honeycomb, but you can then ‘harvest’ the wax. For other methods, such as building your own extractor, I recommend asking in the forums above.

  • ana chassoul

    Hi, I was wondering if you knew where I can take a class to learn how to judge honey.Thank you for your time.

  • HT

    Hi Ana:

    An excellent place to learn how to judge honey is at the University of Georgia at the Young Harris Beekeeping Institute. They have partnered with the renowned Welsh Beekeeping Institute to offer honey judge licensing. If you attend, please be sure to update us on your experience with the program! Here is a PDF document with details about the 2012 honey bee program.

    …Scott

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