5 Things You Need To Know About Honey by Marina Marchese

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C. Marina Marchese is the designer and beekeeper behind the beloved brand Red Bee Honey, and the author of Honeybee: Lessons from An Accidental Beekeeper and co-author of The Honey Connoisseur: Selecting, Tasting, and Pairing Honey. She is a member of The Italian National Registry of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey and founder of The American Honey Tasting Society. You can meet Marina at our Honey Harvest Festival on September 14th, where she will participate in our Q&A panel. If you have any questions about honey, you’re welcome to email her at marina@redbee.com.

September is upon us and it is the time of the year when beekeepers celebrate the ancient ritual of honey harvest. It is also National Honey Month! Who can resist a thick, gooey honey BBQ sauce, lip-smacking bee-themed cocktails and the custom of dipping apples in honey during Rosh Hashanah? Once reserved exclusively for the wealthy elite and royals, honey was so valuable that it was used to pay taxes during Julius Caesar’s reign. As far back as 8,000 years ago, honey hunters were depicted on the walls of the Araña Caves or the Spider caves in Valencia, Spain. Later, the ancient Egyptians pioneered using honey as medicine, wound care, and even to preserve mummies. Today, beekeeping is sweeping the nation and those who don’t keep a hive of bees are embracing pollinator gardens - all responsible for elevating honey into an artisan food superstar.

Who does not love honey? If you don’t, it’s time to check out the good stuff at your local farmers market - you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how sublime the real deal is. Although honey is nature’s oldest and only truly raw sweetener, native Americans never tasted the joys of honey until honeybees and their favorite honey plants were brought to the United States by the colonists in 1622. Honey is made from the nectar of flowers, a sugary liquid secreted by plants - not to be confused with pollen, that golden dust that makes us sneeze each spring. Nectar is specifically designed to lure hungry bees to pollinate their flowers so they can produce hundreds of foods we consume every day like coffee, chocolate, apples, nuts and vegetables among many other edibles. The alchemy begins with a female worker bee, who becomes a forager in the last 3 weeks of her life. She will scout for flowers within a 4-mile radius from her hive. Having a keen sense of smell, she will land inside the nectary of a fragrant flower, unroll her straw-like tongue called a proboscis (similar to an elephant’s trunk) then sip up its nectar. Once her honey crop, or stomach, is full, she will carry it back to the hive. It is during the flight back that the magical process that turns nectar into honey begins! She will add some of her own enzymes specifically invertase, which breaks down the sucrose rich nectar into fructose and glucose. When she arrives at the entrance to her hive, she will transfer her bounty to a younger worker house bee, who will add more enzymes then place the nectar into a hexagonal beeswax cell that make up honeycomb. The final step is when workers create ventilation by flapping their wings which reduces the water content of the nectar to a perfect 17-18%. Once the nectar is completely transformed into honey, workers will close or cap the cell with more beeswax to keep it safe and clean until it is needed to feed the colony during winter or when there is no natural nectar available. Since a honeybee colony lives year-round, they rely on honey as a source of carbohydrate and pollen as their protein.

In the US, there are hundreds of nectar baring plants and thousands more around the world. Consider that when honeybees gather nectar from different flowers, the honey takes on different qualities, and since different flowers bloom at different times and in different locations, every drop of honey will be slightly different in color, aroma and flavor. If you’re a wine drinker, this just might sound familiar – different grapes make different wines, just as different flowers make up different honeys. Honey is truly a product of nature and the environmental variables or terroir – floral source, region, climate and soil, affect the characteristics of the honey produced. It may come as a surprise to you that a bee produces a mere 1/12th teaspoon of honey in her entire lifetime, so pure honey is quite rare and precious - perhaps the reason it has been dubbed “liquid gold!” Most people think that honey is honey is honey, but it’s not. Here are some of the common terms you might come across when navigating the vast world of honey. Look for honey that is not just sweet, it should also have good flavor. Some are more complex than others. In the end, the best honey is the one that you like and that tastes the best to you!

1. What is Raw Honey?

Raw simply means unheated or not pasteurized. Honey in its purest form is naturally a raw and a stable food. Inside the beehive, bees maintain temperature on average at 95F, to keep their brood warm. When honey is heated above 140F for extended periods of time, it will caramelize losing its delicate flavor notes but also its beneficial enzymes. It’s simply not necessary to heat honey and most beekeepers do not, why would we add more work to an already sticky and labor-intensive process? Unless you are purchasing your honey from a commercial brand or producer, there’s little need to worry if your honey from a beekeeper was overly heated. Honey can last forever if stored properly – in a cool, dry place, yet it will lose its delicate flavors and health benefits over time.

2. Local Honey: is it true?

Local is relative, some say 50 miles and others extend to 100 miles. If it’s the local pollen you are concerned with, Fairfield County has pretty much the same flowers and pollen as Litchfield and New Haven Counties. And similar species even carry over throughout New England and across the nation. In truth, the total amount of pollen in any honey sample rarely tops 0.5 percent. Pollen in honey is a good thing, but your real benefits are coming from the actual quality of the honey. One thing for sure is that all honey has the same inherent chemical composition that qualify its health benefits:

  • low pH environment where most bacterial cannot survive

  • hygroscopic properties meaning moisture absorbing (robbing bacterial of essential water to survive) also perfect for baking

  • an enzyme added by bees called glucose oxidase which yields hydrogen peroxide giving honey its temporary anti-microbial properties.

    What you should be most concerned with is getting your hands on the freshest, unheated honey. And if it was produced in your own town or county, even better to support your local beekeeper and economy!

3. Organic: What’s the buzz here?

There are many different criteria for organic honey depending upon the organization that offers its certification. There are two things to consider about honey that is labeled organic. First, since bees travel up to four miles to gather nectar, can a beekeeper know for sure or control the immediate environment where their bees gather nectar? Second, ask your beekeeper how they manage their colonies. Honeybees are agricultural livestock, so pest and diseases must be managed. Organic honey is produced in some remote areas of the U.S. that are relatively chemical free and also in some countries like Brazil, Mexico and the E.U. Until we can say we have a chemical-free environment, we will not taste organic honey in our area any time soon.

4. Honeycomb: Can I eat the wax?

Honeycomb is simply honey in beeswax, exactly how the bees made it. Honeybees secrete beeswax to make their hexagon shaped cells in order to store their honey. Beeswax is plant based and edible. Look for fresh, clean white wax that is emollient enough to spread on bread. Slicing into honeycomb pops open the beeswax cells to reveal the freshest, most delicate flavored honey that is being exposed to the air since the bees made it. Enjoy honeycomb on a platter of cheese, sliced apples, dates with nuts and crusty bread – and yes, you can eat the wax!

5. Why does my Honey Crystallize and does it mean it’s gone bad?

Most honey will crystallize over time – some quicker than others and there are only a few varietals that will not - tupelo, sage and black locust. Honey is approximately 80% sugars, so when the glucose content is higher than the fructose, it will crystallize fairly quickly. Cooler temperatures accelerate the natural process. Look for honey that crystallizes completely and evenly, be concerned if it separates into layers this could mean the glucose has separated from the water upsetting the water to sugar ratio and may begin fermenting. If it begins to smell like baked bread or ale, time to toss it out. This past summer, I visited with some beekeepers in the Napa Valley who were selling their limited harvest fermented honey to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry as a delicacy. The reason honey ferments is because its water contents is above the stable 17%. Under normal circumstances, crystallization is a sign of quality and it means your honey has not been mixed with other sweeteners. If you must make it liquid again, place your honey jar in a pot of very hot water, and stir often until it melts, it will eventually crystallize again. Why not spread it on warm toast with butter and cinnamon, you’ll be glad you did!