What Kind of Honey is This?

By: Jim Thompson

Every flower has its own special honey unique in color, flavor and profile

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, honey has been divided into seven color classes. These classes are: Water White, Extra White, White, Extra Light Amber, Light Amber, Amber, and Dark Amber. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, honey has been divided into seven color classes. These classes are: Water White, Extra White, White, Extra Light Amber, Light Amber, Amber, and Dark Amber.

That may not mean anything, until you are trying to get ready for a honey show and you must decide which class is the proper color class for the honey. Honey can be as clear as a glass of water and vary in color all the way up to being as dark as road tar. The color of honey is determined by the flower that supplied the nectar, the soil conditions, and the weather during the season. Thus a yellow sweet clover plant producing nectar in Ohio will have a different color and slightly different flavor from a yellow sweet clover plant that is in Colorado, Connecticut, or California or any other state.

To add to the confusion, there are 241 different cultivars or varieties of clover plants. There are various amounts of nectar produced by the specific varieties and some varieties like the Red clover have florets that are normally too long for a honey bee to stick her proboscis in to gather nectar. However on a dry year the flower may not grow as full and the honey bee will be able to get some Red Clover nectar. Honey bees show a preference of going to those flowers that contain nectar with higher sugar content or concentration. This is exemplified by honey bees that prefer robbing honey from weak hives rather than searching out nectar from plants.

If I look up the varieties of dandelion plants, there are two types listed, a single flower and a double flower. However there are other varieties of dandelions mentioned that have white and also pink flowers. This indicates that even the botanists are unsure of how many cultivars there are.

I was always told that there were seven varieties of Buckwheat and according to botanists at Cornell there are: Koto, Manisota, Manor, Common, Kevkett, Koban, and Springfield. However the botanists at Michigan University claim that there are: Mancan, Pennquad, Manor, Common, Tempest, Tokyo, and Winsor Royal, which also is a list of seven. Only two of the varieties on both lists have the same name. Other sources reveal five other varieties: Emka, Kora, Hruszowska, Krupinka, and Pyra. So who knows how many varieties there are? Buckwheat is grown for flour, animal feed which has been found inferior to corn, and honey production. Some varieties of buckwheat are not good nectar producers. Buckwheat prefers wet, cold weather and dislikes hot and dry weather. Thus most buckwheat blooms late in the season (September) from approximately 9:30 A.M. to almost noon. Since it is cold for the bees to start flying, they get about an hour each day that the buckwheat is blooming to gather Buckwheat nectar. When a plant stops producing nectar, the honey bees stop going to those plants and start gathering nectar from other sources. Just after a rain storm, you will notice that the bees are not visiting the blossoms because the rain washes the nectar out of the flowers.

During the time that the bees are collecting the nectar from (buckwheat), they bring the nectar back to the hive and share some of it with other foragers and do the proper dance to let them know where it can be gathered. The rest of the nectar is put in the cells where honey is to be stored. If you would happen to hold a frame that holds buckwheat nectar up to the light, you may see a dark patch of the buckwheat nectar surrounded by the colors of the other different nectars. The general rule is that spring honeys are usually light in color and the fall honeys are usually dark. When one is going to extract the honey, they will usually get a mixture of the honeys that are in that frame. The only way to get a single source honey would be to have the hive in an area where only one floral source is available to the bees or possibly extract frames quite often, immediately after the specific plants have bloomed. This makes sorting of the frames by color before uncapping helpful in getting light colored honey.

You may think that the flavor of the honey will be that of the source that has the highest percentage of honey of the batch, but sometimes that is not true. For instance, just a little bit of Buckwheat honey will not only affect the taste of the honey but make it dark in color too, causing you to believe that the entire batch is buckwheat honey.

How can one identify the source of honey?

1. If you have access to the equipment, you can separate out the pollen grains and identify the plants that supplied the nectar.

2. If there was a wide network of DNA data on the different cultivars and their climates, you could run a DNA test on the honey and compare the results.

3. If you knew the plants that were in bloom when your bees were there, you would have a good idea what the sources were.

4. Finally you could taste the honey and make an educated guess what the honey was from your experience. The taste test is the least accurate and most often used test for identifying honey.

There can be many sugars in honey, but all of the honeys have two primary sugars. These two sugars are Glucose and Fructose. Every flower has a different percentage of these sugars and that same cultivar can have different percentage of sugars because of the various soil conditions. If the two primary sugars are close to each other percentage wise, the honey will tend to granulate quickly. If one of the primary sugars is far apart from the other percentage wise, the honey tends to stay liquid. Thus we notice Canola and Goldenrod honey granulating quickly and Tupelo and California Sage staying liquid for years. When another floral source is mixed in, you notice honey that granulation rates change due to the percentage rates of the two primary sugars.

Honey that has been allowed to sit for a long period of time with a low or acceptable moisture level may separate into layers of different colors, representing the floral sources of that honey. If honey is allowed to sit for a period of over a year, you may notice that the total color of the honey darkens.

When the honey is harvested and extracted without paying attention to the density of the honey, a situation can exist where the two sugars in the honey separate in the jar and the Glucose (Dextrose) goes to the bottom and the Fructose (Levulose) rises to the top. The Glucose yields moisture to the Fructose, resulting in a higher moisture level. If this moisture level is above 18.6% and the yeasts and temperature are conducive there is a good chance that the honey may start fermenting. Since bees cap the honey cells when the density is 18%, it is important to harvest frames of fully capped honey. This is on the high end of the moisture spectrum so to have a longer shelf life of the liquid honey the beekeeper should do something to reduce the moisture level of the honey. The honey that is starting to ferment has an extremely sweet taste and to those that are unaccustomed to its taste, it might be mistaken for another form of honey. A later stage of fermentation process will reveal the presence of alcohol.

In order for the hobby beekeeper to remove some of the moisture from the honey, it must be done while the honey is still capped in the comb. A plan to stack the supers up over a light bulb or small heat source and force warm, dry air up through the supers is one way this can be done. Some beekeepers have built special rooms called hot rooms where warm air is circulated through the supers. For the first day, the moisture can be reduced approximately one percent. However the percentage gets less after that and because of the beetle situation, three days is probably all one should try to reduce the moisture.

Some believe that the use of a dehumidifier is the way to remove moisture and forget that honey is hygroscopic and adsorbs just about as much moisture as the dehumidifier is removing from the air. Heating honey to remove moisture is also a poor idea as a good share of the time the honey is over heated and develops a burned or scorched taste and a darker color.

If the honey has a low density level when the two sugars separate, there is a very good chance that the honey will granulate. The ideal temperature for granulation to occur is 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Granulation usually occurs at the bottom of the jar and works its way upward. By heating the honey to 150 degrees and destroying the yeasts and storing the honey at room temperatures will help keep the honey liquid.

The normal method to liquefy honey is to put the jar of honey in a hot water bath and warm it up slowly.  If you do this procedure correctly, you will not overheat the honey and ruin the flavor, but be prepared to do it again until the honey is consumed. Some people have used the microwave to liquefy honey but find that it can over heat the honey and cause the plastic containers, if they are being used, to be misshaped.

A few terms or thoughts used in reference to honeys may be incorrect. Honey is not graded by the color of the honey, thus Water White honey is not the highest grade possible. Grade A honey pertains to the straining or filtering of the honey and not a factor of taste or quality. Pasteurized honey is a process where the honey has been heated to a certain temperature and held there for a period of one half hour. This destroys the yeasts making the honey unable to ferment. It does not necessarily mean that the honey is safer to use for infants. Raw honey means several things to many beekeepers. What they want to say is that honey is neither heated nor filtered but it usually ends up in a questioning match as to what is the highest temperature permitted. My definition of raw honey is honey that is still in the comb. Organic honey is a term used to reflect that no pesticides or chemical fertilizers were used around the hive and there are many unanswered questions. There are no United States standards to define organic honey however a company producing less than $5,000 of honey might use the USDA/ORGANIC label. The label may invite an inspection by a governmental team and if found to not comply could result in a $10,000 fine. Some of the items that the team would be looking at would be: the forage area, the hive and foundation, what the beekeeper feeds the bees, how the bees are treated for parasites, how honey is processed, how the honey is labeled, and the records kept by the beekeeper.

Still there is the problem of what to call the honey and be correct. If you are sure of the specific floral source or know the predominate flavor, you could label it that particular flavor or simply label it honey. However many beekeepers are tending to use terms like: wild flower, spring, summer, or fall harvest honey.

Jim Thompson is a Honey Judge, and Beekeeping Historian living in Ohio.

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