What Makes Honey Honey?

We get a lot of questions about honey here at The Bee Store.  Apparently, there are a lot of really bad sources of information out there, so we thought we’d help with some of the common questions.   One very common question or concern that we hear is about crystallized honey, which we discussed in November.  So here are some very typical questions –

In a word…Nectar.  Flowering plants produce a sweet sugary liquid called nectar. The only reason they do is to attract pollinators like honey bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  Nectar is made up of sugars, amino acids, and other chemicals that attract (or repel in some cases) pollinators.  The color and composition of nectar depend on the type of flower.

Attracted by the sweet nectar, honey bees visit the flowers when they are in bloom.  They slurp up the liquid and hold it in a special “honey stomach” or crop to carry it back to the hive.  When the nectar is in the crop, it mixes with various enzymes which help break the sugars down into glucose and fructose.  The nectar is not digested in the honey stomach.

Once inside the beehive, the nectar is deposited into a honeycomb cell.  Worker bees will suck up the nectar and spit it back into the cell over and over.  This adds more enzymes into the nectar and adds air bubbles that help dehydrate the nectar.  Other bees will fan the liquid nectar with their wings to help bring down the moisture.  Once the nectar is reduced to below 18% moisture, the bees will cap it with beeswax, storing it for future use.

What’s up with all the labels?

Marketing is a part of life that is so pervasive that we barely recognize it anymore.  A short walk through a “health food” store is proof positive that marketing works! When it comes to honey, the most common labels are RAW, ORGANIC, or LOCAL.  So, let’s talk about these since it can be a bit confusing.

Raw Honey

Raw honey is honey that has not been processed and contains no additives.  Processing usually means heating or pasteurizing and super-filtering.   There is some disagreement about “heating.”  Some beekeepers feel that ANY additional heat negates the “RAW” label, while most believe that heating to temps below 100 F is acceptable.   However, we can all agree that pasteurizing at temps above 140 effectively destroys the important enzymes that give honey its healthy qualities.

Filtering is another carefully tread word.  When extracting honey from the comb, beekeepers will let the honey run through a series of strainers.  This removes bits of wax, bee parts, and other “hive trash” that we don’t want in the honey.  This does not remove the pollen particles or other components that make honey, well…honey.

Commercial honey producers will often pasteurize and super-filter their honey in order to preserve the clear appearance on the grocery store shelves.

Organic Honey

Organic honey is a label that gives most beekeepers a good chuckle.   According to the USDA,  organic products must be free from synthetic fertilizers and chemical (pesticide/herbicide) free among many other things.  Consider that the forage area for a honey bee is about a 5-mile radius from the hive.  That means that bees have about 80 square miles in which to forage.  That means nothing within that 80 square miles can use synthetic fertilizer or chemicals.

Many beekeepers recognize the marketing value of the “organic” label and exploit the very vague organic labeling standards regarding honey.  Some feel that if they go “treatment free” they have “organic” honey.  Not so at all.  Not only must the forage area be organic, but the lineage of the bees must be organic.

Basically, it’s pretty hard to claim organic honey unless you are in a biosphere or some sort of organic island.

Local Honey

Local honey is honey produced in the same area that you live in.  Of course, “local” is a completely relative term.  We get lots of customers who ask us over the internet if our honey is local.  Heh…well that depends on where you are in the world eh?  I digress.  There are many myths about how local honey should be for health benefits.  As with everything in beekeeping, it depends.

Bees forage from flowers and trees within 5 miles from their hive.   That is a pretty large area, and generally at the 6-mile mark, not much changes.  Local honey in the Northern Virginia area could easily be considered regional honey since the same vegetation is common throughout the region.  There may be some small variances, but the maples, poplars, flowering fruit trees, locusts, etc can be found from Richmond to Baltimore and out as far as Winchester.

What’s up with all the different types of honey?

You’ve seen them at the grocery store…Clover honey, Wildflower Honey, Orange Blossom Honey.  Van Morrison sings about Tupelo Honey.  Articles have been written about Manuka Honey.  What is the deal with all these kinds of honey?  Glad you asked!

Different types of honey are called “varietals,” and there are many!  In the United States alone there are around 300 varieties.  Honey gets its flavor and color from the type of flower from which the bees gather nectar.  Generally, the lighter the honey, the lighter the flavor, ranging from almost clear in color and mildly sweet to very dark and bold in flavor.

Honey is produced in every state, but due to specific habitats of some flower varieties only grow in – thus only those honey varietals come from –  certain regions.   A prime example is Tupelo honey.  Tupelo honey is a product of Northwest Florida and the region surrounding the Apalachicola River where the tupelo trees grow.  Manuka honey, famous for its healing properties, comes from the nectar of the Manuka tree native to New Zealand and parts of Australia.  Both of these kinds of honey are considered mono-florals since the majority of the honey comes from a single flower source.  Other very common mono-floral varieties include:

  • Clover
  • Orange Blossom
  • Buckwheat
  • Blueberry
  • Sourwood
  • Star Thistle

Often, you might find a variety such as Orange Blossom Honey with a label that says “Made in Virginia” and wonder, ‘how is that possible?’  This is very common actually.  Beekeepers make money by moving their bees to pollinate crops.  They then bring the beehives back home and extract and bottle the honey.  Just a note, since I know someone will call me out here, honey bees do not pollinate oranges.  Beekeepers often move bees to Florida and other warmer locations to overwinter.  The bees feed off the orange trees that blossom over the winter and produce a lovely, slightly-orange, and mildly citrus honey.

Regardless of where you are in the world, you can almost always find a variety of honey called Wildflower.  Wildflower honey is a poly-floral variety, meaning the honey is the product of multiple flower sources.  Many backyard or hobbyist beekeepers don’t move bees for pollination, so the bees just gather everything in the area and bring it back to the hive.  Wildflower is usually darker in color with a rich, full flavor.

So, there you have it.   We welcome you to come to check out the many varieties of honey we carry at The Bee Store.   You can find Tupelo, Black Sage, Lavender, Acacia (comb honey), and Orange Blossom from Savannah Bee Company, Clover ‘chunk’ honey from Crooked Run Apiary, and our very own Wildflower.