Honey is a natural product that starts in a liquid form and frequently ends up crystallized. This is entirely natural, but it is also often misunderstood. While some people prefer eating honey that has crystallized, many assume that there is something wrong with honey that is no longer liquid. The opposite is more likely to be true, with runny honey more likely to have been adulterated.
Commercial manufacturers of honey know that most shoppers are more likely to buy liquid honey, so they process the raw honey to deliver what the consumer wants. While this may be frustrating for beekeepers when sharing or selling their honey, a little knowledge will help them to be confident about their product.
The balance of sugars in the honey will determine the level of crystallization it undergoes. This balance of sugars is determined by the plant source that bees collected from.
What is Honey Made Of?
Honey is a compound of ingredients that the bees have collected from the environment they have visited around their hive. The types of plants that are growing and the time of year are big factors in how the honey looks and behaves. In a rural area, the composition of honey is determined by what crops farmers choose to plant. Honey also changes with the seasons as different plants come into flower.
The color, flavor, aroma, and texture of every super in your hive will be slightly different. Of course, when you extract the honey from your supers, you will likely mix it all together. The main ingredient of honey is sugar, and an average composition looks like this:
- Fructose 40%
- Glucose 35%
- Water 18%
- Other sugars 4%
- Other substances 3%.
Much of the value of honey lies in the smaller ‘other substances’ part, which includes about 15 organic acids, 12 mineral elements, 17 free amino acids, and four or more proteins. It also has a built-in antibacterial substance.
How All These Goodies are Bundled Together
Another property of honey is it is hygroscopic, which means it will take up water from the air unless it is kept in an airtight container. Bees keep honey in airtight hexagonal wax cells to avoid crystallization.
To think about what is happening to the honey, imagine you have a container of water and you add sugar to this water. You keep on adding sugar until it stops dissolving and you are left with solid sugar. The temperature of the water will influence the volume of sugar that is absorbed. The higher the temperature, the more sugar it can hold while remaining liquid. The point where no more sugar can be added is the saturation point.
As more sugar is absorbed into the water, its consistency changes. It becomes more viscose and flows more slowly.
Thus, while the average honey has 79% sugar and 3% other things dissolved in 18% water, the honey that your bees have made can have more or less sugar in it, which has implications for how easily it will crystallize. There is no quality difference between very liquid honey and gel-like honey. They are simply the result of a different mix of natural ingredients.
Why Different Kinds of Honey Behave Differently
Several things contribute to how liquid a honey is, and one of the most important factors is the balance between fructose and glucose in the honey. The more glucose content, the greater the potential of the honey to crystallize. This is because glucose is much less soluble.
On average, in 100g of honey, you might expect 22g of glucose to crystallize with 2g of water. In your container, you will now have a quarter of the honey in a solid form and the remaining liquid honey will be much more liquid than before.
Thus the balance of sugars will determine the level of crystallization. And the balance of sugars is determined by the plant source that bees collected from. On the one hand, honey with a high concentration of oilseed rape will rapidly crystallize. On the other, honey from Robinia will rarely crystallize.
Crystallization is greatest at temperatures of between 10ºC and 15ºC. Below that it happens more slowly. At temperatures above 25ºC, it will resist crystallization. By heating honey, the crystals will turn back to liquid. But honey is damaged at temperatures of 40ºC or higher.
Another thing that contributes to the appearance of the honey is the presence of pollen, dust, and little bits of beeswax. While naturally occurring, these all encourage crystallization.
As a result, because liquid honey sells better than solid honey, commercial manufacturers filter and heat the honey they process and package. In doing this, their honey often loses many of the amino and organic acids, minerals, and vitamins that are so prized.
While it sets people’s expectations for what they believe honey should look like, it also allows beekeepers to stand out with a natural product that is better for the consumer.
Things To Do To Keep Your Honey Liquid
- Use a filter when you are extracting your honey to remove small particles such as pollen and wax.
- Do store in tightly closed containers. Make sure that these are sterilized and that you fill them in an appropriately clean environment.
- Do not store honey in a refrigerator.
- Avoid storing the honey at temperatures of 10ºC and 15ºC.
- If honey has crystallized in its jars, heat it gently.
- Be thorough in how you keep your frames and supers. After extraction, ensure they are cleaned and return them to the hive so the bees can finish the job. Residue from the previous year can encourage crystallization.
If you are asked by a friend about the appearance of honey that is crystallized, you should now be confident to explain this is natural. It only affects the color and texture of the honey, not the quality of the honey.
Most pure or raw honey will crystallize over time because of the sugar content of the plants that the bees visited. By not heating the honey its natural goodness is maintained.
If your honey has crystallized in the jars, some gentle warming can return it to a liquid state before consumption. But do not overheat it.