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Crystallized Honey and More
By: Stephanie Rinaldi
There are many reasons to care for and about honeybees, and this blog will explore them all eventually, but perhaps the most common reason is in the name: honey! Whether you put it in your tea, use it for baking, or eat it by the spoonful, honey is what these pollinators are known for. But what do you know about honey, really? If you’re like me before writing this blog, you know it’s golden, delicious, and… that’s about it.
As it turns out, there is a heck of a lot to know about this sticky sweetness. To write this post, I pulled out my trusty copy of The Beekeeper’s Bible–which, admittedly, I bought solely for its beautiful cover–and flipped to the index in search of “honey.”
There were nearly a hundred entries.
I hate to break it to you, dear reader, but I will not be covering all of those entries in this post. Alas, we have time only for a few of them, and because I’m writing this, I get to pick which ones. (But, if you read this whole post and still have questions about honey, please do write to us and ask!)
Here we go:
Forager honeybees collect nectar from plants. They bring it home and pass it off to their sisters inside the hive, and those bees do a couple of things to it before nectar becomes honey.
First, they regurgitate it and manipulate it with their mouthparts. Multiple times. I know how that sounds, but they’re regurgitating it from their ‘honey stomach,’ so let’s just think of it as a little pouch they pull the nectar out of. It’s a much nicer image, even if scientifically questionable.
This first step, during which the bee introduces a couple of key enzymes, begins a process of evaporation that is continued when the bees deposit the substance into the comb and continually fan it with their wings. Evaporating water out of the nectar is what transforms it into the honey we know and devour. When enough water has been evaporated (those girls are so smart), they cap off the comb to store the honey.
Ok, we’ve covered the basics. Onward to golden goodness.
Once the honey is extracted from the comb (we have classes that teach how to do this!), it initially takes liquid form. This is what we’re used to seeing on store shelves and in the jars of your honey that SPC provides to you. But through some pretty cool science, raw honey slowly crystalizes. According to The Beekeeper’s Bible, “a network of crystals forms throughout the honey, making it lighter in color because glucose crystals are white.”
The cool thing about this is that the crystallization process changes nothing about the honey itself. All its properties and constituent parts are still there, just in a slightly different form. In fact, only about 15% of crystallized honey is actually solid. Again, the trusty Beek’s Bible: “the mesh of crystals hold[s] liquid honey within it.” You can use crystallized honey in exactly the same ways as fully liquid honey!
Alright, we’ve got the basics, and we’ve got the texture. What’s left?
Color and Flavor
If you’re an SPC client and have been around long enough to receive multiple honey harvests, you may remember those honeys having very different qualities. Maybe one was dark and rich while another was light and fruity, even though your beeyard never moved. As you may have guessed, different nectars produce those variations.
Nectars of different plants have different sugar and mineral contents, and some honeybees even forage honeydew, which is different still. Those differences reveal themselves in the color and flavor of the honey. Darker honeys, for example, generally have higher mineral contents. So, while all honeys were created equal, the end product is never the same. (Unless we’re talking about monofloral honeys, which we’re not but perhaps will in the future).
I am endlessly impressed by honeybees’ abilities. They take small drops of nectar, process it through their specialized bodies, prepare it for storage by removing water, and make their own wax to store it in. And that’s just how they make honey! There’s so much more that they do, and I can’t wait to nerd out about it all with you.