Honey is so familiar to almost all of us as Americans, that there’s really no reason to go into a in-depth explanation of what honey actually is…most of us already know that honey is primarily produced by bees gathering nectar from nearby flowers and storing it in wax structures called honeycombs.
And the 20,000 to 40,000 female worker bees and seasonally variable number of male drone bees available to “fertilize” new queens all work together with one goal in mind—to keep the one and only single female queen bee happy.
Kinda like the bride preparing for a wedding…right, Bridezilla?!
But a few interesting facts about honey that I recently learned include…
- It typically requires drinking the nectar of over a thousand flowers over a timespan of more than an hour to gather the average of 3Tbsp that the bee gathers before returning to the hive.
- The amount of nectar that he gathers is about half of the bee’s initial weight.
- Once the forager bees return to the hive, they transfer nectar to the hive bees by regurgitating it. Then the hive bees “share” this nectar between themselves in a process that typically takes as long as twenty minutes.
- There is a specific bird called a “honeyguide bird” that leads beekeepers to wild bee nests.
- Beekeepers use the smoke that you typically imagine them using mainly to pacify the bees and make them think that there is an actual fire that requires them to attempt to save the hive and obscures the pheromones the bees use to communicate.
But even more interesting to me is the myriad of honey found on the market and knowing which one(s) to actually buy.
High-quality honey varies and can be distinguished by a number of factors—including absence of defects, clarity, color, natural sugar and microorganism content, water content, flavor, aroma, pH, additives used, strain of yeast used to process the honey, and consistency.
1. Quality...First of all there are differences in the quality of the honey available.
Although the USDA does actually require inspection and grading in actual honey manufacturing places to ensure that honey meets specific USDA standards. a grading system is accepted by these manufacturers to help consumers know the quality of the honey that they are purchasing.
The American scale for grading honey is basically as follows…
- Good—”has a good, normal flavor and aroma for the predominant floral source or, when blended, a good flavor for the blend of floral sources and the honey is free from caramelized flavor or objectionable flavor caused by fermentation, smoke, chemicals, or other causes with the exception of the predominant floral source”
- Practically free—”contains practically no defects that affect the appearance or edibility of the product”…Clear—”may contain air bubbles which do not materially affect the appearance of the product and may contain a trace of pollen grains or other finely divided particles of suspended material which do not affect the appearance of the product”…B…≥ 81.4%…
- Reasonably good—”has a reasonably good, normal flavor and aroma for the predominant floral source or, when blended, a reasonably good flavor for the blend of floral sources and the honey is practically free from caramelized flavor and is free from objectionable flavor caused by fermentation, smoke, chemicals, or other causes with the exception of the predominant floral source”…
- Reasonably free—”may contain defects which do not materially affect the appearance or edibility of the product”
- Reasonably clear—”may contain air bubbles, pollen grains, or other finely divided particles of suspended material which do not materially affect the appearance of the product”…C…≥ 80.0%…
- Fairly good—”has a fairly good, normal flavor and aroma for the predominant floral source or, when blended, a fairly good flavor for the blend of floral sources and the honey is reasonably free from caramelized flavor and is free from objectionable flavor caused by fermentation, smoke, chemicals, or other causes with the exception of the predominant floral source”…
- Fairly free—”may contain defects which do not seriously affect the appearance or edibility of the product”…
- Fairly clear—”may contain air bubbles, pollen grains, or other finely divided particles of suspended material which do not seriously affect the appearance of the product”
- Substandard…Fails Grade C
2. Color…Next there are differences in the colors of various honey. The USDA has established a Pfund scale which set standards for grading honey based on its color and optical density…such as 0 for “water white” honey to more than 114 for “dark amber” honey.
3. Form…Next there are other forms of honey available, other than the typically expected liquid form of honey, based on how the honey has been processed. These include…
- Chunk honey…widemouth containers consisting of one or more pieces of comb honey immersed in extracted liquid
- Comb honey…honey that is still in the honeybees’ wax comb by cutting out chunks of honey from the wooded frames used in beekeeping.
- Creamed honey, (also called whipped honey, spun honey, churned honey, honey fondant, and set honey)…honey that has been processed to control crystallization. Creamed honey contains a large number of small crystals, which prevent the formation of larger crystals that can occur in unprocessed honey and produces a honey with a smooth, spreadable consistency.
- Crystallized honey, also called granulated honey or candied honey…honey that has had some of the glucose crystallized
- Dried honey…honey that has had the moisture extracted from liquid honey to create completely solid, nonsticky granules….typically used in baked goods and for garnishing desserts.
- Filtered honey…honey that has been filtered so that all or most of the fine particles, pollen grains, air bubbles, or other materials normally found in suspension, have been removed. Thi process typically involves heating the honey to 150–170 °F. Filtered honey is very clear and will not crystallize as quickly, making it preferred by the supermarket trade.
- Pasteurized honey…honey that has been heated in a pasteurization process which requires temperatures of 161 °F or higher in order to destroy any yeast cells and liquefy any microcrystals.
- Raw honey…honey that still remains as it was when first collected—without any other processing involved…Raw honey contains some pollen and may contain small particles of wax
- Strained honey…honey that has been passed through a mesh material to remove particulate material—including pieces of wax, propolis, and other defects—without removing pollen, minerals, or enzymes
- Ultrasonicated honey…honey that has been processed by ultrasonication, a nonthermal processing alternative that destroys most of the yeast cells originally found in the honey, reduces the rate of honey fermentation substantially, eliminates existing crystals, and inhibits further crystallization.
4. Source…But the main difference between the different types of honey available is the major plant source of nectar that the bees have used to make the honey.
Basically there are two types of honey based on source—
- Polyfloral honey, also known as wildflower honey, is derived from the nectar of many types of flowers. The taste, aroma, and flavor may vary from year to year, depending on which flowers are most available for the bees to gather nectar from.
- Monofloral honey, on the other hand, is made primarily from the nectar of one specific type of flower. These different honeys each have its own different, distinctive flavor and color because of differences between their principal nectar sources.
In the next post, we will look at the different monofloral honeys available and the uses and qualities of each…