Got Questions? Phil Knows!!

By: Phil Craft

Q:

A beekeeper in Pennsylvania writes: 
I have a question on storing raw honey. What is the optimum temperature to help prevent crystallization? In the past we’ve kept some in the freezer with no crystallization after 6 months. Do you have any ideas on reheating crystallized honey that we would keep it classified as “raw honey”.

A:

Phil replies:
Honey tends to crystallize in a temperature range around 57 degrees F. Five or 10 degrees more or less can reduce the probability and rate of crystallization, but still be in the danger zone. Of course, honey from some nectar sources tends to crystallize more readily and in a wider range of temperatures than others. Canola honey is notorious in that respect, though it has a light, delicate flavor. I am always cautious when storing honey between 45 degrees and 70 degrees F.
I think you have already found the best solution; freezing honey before it crystallizes is the best, and likely the simplest way of dealing with the problem, as long as you have enough freezer space. Freezing prevents crystallization from occurring. A few days before the honey is needed, it can be removed and allowed to sit at room temperature until it returns to a liquid state, just as it was before you put it into the freezer. 
Your other question is more problematic, not because the process of de-crystallization is complicated, but because there is no accepted definition of “raw honey.” It is a marketing term, not a legal one. “Pennsylvania honey”, for instance, is specific. Logically, it means honey harvested in Pennsylvania, made from nectar sources within the state. Raw honey, on the other hand, can be interpreted variously. A customer might assume it to mean that the product is unfiltered, whereas the beekeeper intends to convey that it is lightly processed. The Phil Craft definition might be honey as it comes from the hive, without any processing at all – in other words, comb honey. After all, honey houses are considered food processing facilities and are regulated and inspected as such by the government in most states. By extension, if raw means unprocessed, it must also mean un-extracted. 
Most definitions of raw honey include some restriction on the maximum temperature to which it can be heated during processing. Purists go so far as to argue that heat should never be applied. If you have honey to de-crystallize, that poses a problem. The only way to return it to a liquid state is to heat it enough to melt the sugar crystals – to 100 degrees F at least. Though it’s true that excessive temperature can alter the subtle flavor of honey (that’s why most people prefer the taste of local honey to that of the commercially processed, flash heated, pressure filtered generic product available in stores), there’s no agreement on what is excessive. This group says that honey is not raw if it is heated, that one that it loses quality over 115 degrees F so anything less than that is OK. However, duringTexas Summers, honey supers can get hot, really hot. Does that mean that honey from Texas doesn’t qualify as raw even if it’s not processed? It’s a debate I don’t want to get into. I won’t even stand behind the Phil Craft definition which I offered tongue in cheek (though there is some logic to it.) I simply avoid using the adjective raw as applied to honey. 
I can only tell you how I handle processing and labeling my own honey. I produce and sell about 800 pounds a year. After extraction, I store it in five gallon buckets, and when it’s time to bottle I move it to a double-jacketed, water heated bottling tank. I always heat it to at least 100 degrees F to expedite the bottling process. (Warm honey flows more readily, which saves me a lot of time and eases the strain on my surgically repaired back.) If it has started to crystallize in the buckets, I turn the heat up to about 110 degrees to 120 degrees for a couple of days. This de-crystalizes it, without (in my opinion) harming the flavor. I label it as “Kentucky honey” or “local honey.” When asked, I describe it as lightly processed. If a customer is looking for raw or unprocessed honey, I encourage them to buy it from someone else.
If you really want to sell your honey as raw and unheated, and to avoid the crystallization problem, one solution might be to freeze as much as you can and consider making creamed honey with the rest. Creamed honey is a product of controlled crystallization and is the form in which most honey is consumed in some parts of the world. If you don’t already know how to make it, contact me again for suggestions. 

Q:

A beekeeper in Indiana writes: 
All of you experts tell us to treat for Varroa mites, but they also say to monitor for mites. Though all the beekeepers that I know who don’t lose most of their bees every year, treat EVERY year. So if we are going to treat anyway, why monitor? 

A:

Phil Replies:
Monitoring alerts beekeepers to high Varroa levels, but it accomplishes much more than that when done correctly. Let’s go back in time, to when Varroa mites first swept the U.S. with devastating results, to understand how monitoring  practices developed and how they have changed. When the first treatment was approved in the early 1990s beekeepers seized upon it eagerly. Monitoring was not common practice because there were really no decisions to be made. Mites were pervasive and there was only one registered product to control them: Apistan, containing the active ingredient fluvalinate. Not treating meant total colony loss. Varroa treatments were typically “by the calendar”, meaning an  application in early Spring and another in late Summer, without prior monitoring. This method was successful with the majority of mites – those susceptible to fluvalinate – but a few possessed a degree of natural resistance. They reproduced and passed on enhanced resistance to their numerous offspring in a process similar to that in which over-use of antibiotics in humans has created MERSA and various other drug resistant strains of bacteria.
Researchers feared that years of regular exposure to a single chemical agent would create a super strain of Varroa impervious to our only available weapon against them. They started urging beekeepers to monitor in order to assess the level of infestation in their hives and to treat only when necessary. Resistance developed despite their efforts with the result that, though still sold by suppliers and sometimes still effective, Apistan is now little used. Fortunately, by the time Varroa resistance to fluvalinate was widespread, Checkmite+ with coumaphos had been given emergency approval for use in beehives in most states. Experts continued to advise treatment only when indicated by regular monitoring. Like Apistan, Checkmite+ is available but seldom used against mites these days, both because of resistance and because of its toxicity to bees.
Thanks to the diligence of researchers and the commercial importance of honey bees, we now have a variety of tools to use against Varroa: some synthetic and some organic, some having an immediate effect and some which act over time to kill emerging as well as adult mites, (and also a few which are popular but ineffective). With all these options comes the need for solid data to enable individual beekeepers to make the best choices for their situations. Resistance is still a concern and reason enough to monitor, though alternating different types of treatments can mitigate the problem. But monitoring can also ensure timely treatment. Knowing the mite count in early Spring gives a beekeeper information to direct a strategy. A moderate to high number would indicate immediate treatment to save the colony, even if  that meant missing part or all of the honey flow, because most miticides cannot be used with supers in place. A beekeeper with a low or moderate count has more options. Depending on the number, he or she might decide to act at once, or to postpone treatment until supers are removed. MiteAway Quick Strips are registered for use with supers, but like other fumigant products (such as Apiguard and some applications of formic and oxalic acids) are not effective until average temperatures reach a certain range – thus not of use in much of the country until later in the Spring. An accurate mite count is invaluable in deciding whether it’s safe to wait that long. It should also be a part of hive assessment going into Winter. When it’s too chilly for fumigants and too late in the year for Apivar strips (because cold weather could prevent their timely removal) there’s still time for a flash treatment with oxalic acid if indicated by a high Fall count.
The fact that so many confusing choices exist highlights another reason for monitoring Varroa mites: to gauge the effectiveness of mite management strategies. Could Varroa be developing resistance to the chemical you’ve been using for years? Is the organic treatment you read about online really working? Many beekeepers feel safe because they conscientiously use some form of mite control. When their colonies die, they ascribe the losses to CCD, pesticides, or some other cause, and that may be the case. But. There is no way to know if a treatment is effective, or if it was employed in time, without monitoring both before and after.


Regular monitoring can also reveal sudden increases in Varroa loads, which may occur if your hives are located near those of other beekeepers. One small commercial beekeeper I know tells me that a hobby beekeeper placed some hives near one of his apiaries. The hobbyist doesn’t treat for Varroa. My friend can tell just by looking at mite counts which samples come from that apiary. His treated colonies, which rob his neighbor’s Varroa weakened ones, carry mites back with them and always show a higher mite count than those in his other, more isolated hives. He has to keep a closer watch on those. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for how often you should monitor any more than there is for how often to treat. It’s typical for commercial beekeepers to monitor once a month. For small beekeepers and hobbyists, I would suggest as a minimum checking in the early Spring, then after honey supers are pulled, after the completion of each treatment for Varroa, and again in the Fall. That sounds like a lot, but it isn’t always necessary to monitor each hive every time. If you have fewer than 10, I recommend checking them all, but in an apiary with more than that I suggest randomly sampling eight or so, including any which seem to be building up slowly or which give you other reasons for concern.
How high is too high? Interpreting the results of monitoring could be the subject of another column – or a short book. It depends on the monitoring method, the time of year at which samples are taken, and the region of the country in which the hives are located. The best guidance might come from your state apiarist or local association. Good information is also available at the websites of the Honey Bee Health Coalition: https://honeybeehealthcoalition.org/ and the Bee Informed Partnership: https://beeinformed.org/
Controlling Varroa is no longer as simple as treating by the calendar. It’s about knowing whether to treat, when to treat, and whether your treatment was effective. Monitoring is a tool you need to be successful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *