Types of Honey

Who knew there were so many ways to classify honey? Before I became a beekeeper, I sure didn’t! As I’ve studied more about my new hobby, I’ve discovered there are a lot of things that can be done during the production of honey that change not only the way you describe it, but actually can change the honey itself.

IMG_9384-001There’s “honey” or “pure honey” which can mean just about anything. This is what you generally buy at the grocery store from “local and imported” products. It’s typically a blend of whatever is cheapest on the market and has a very consistent look, feel and taste (consumers are our own worst enemy by expecting this). It’s definitely yummy and I’d never criticise it, but honey can be better.

There’s “raw honey” which means the honey hasn’t been heated during processing. The hive is always kept at 35 C so any honey heated above that really shouldn’t be called “raw”. Rumour has it that your normal store-bought honey can be heated to 75 C and pushed at high pressure through sieves to make sure it’s clear and doesn’t crystallise. When honey’s heated you can destroy a lot of the goodness that it naturally contains. Enzymes in the honey die and humans lose the benefit they provide (raw honey contains 18 of the 22 amino acids that humans cannot produce themselves). Over-sieving takes out pollen and can even break down the natural structure within honey. Raw honey seems like a good idea to me.

There’s “creamed honey” which is honey that has crystallised and been stirred to form a smooth, creamy texture. Nothing (not even cream or wax) is added to the honey, it’s just a different texture which makes spreading it on toast a lot easier. To produce this honey requires more (human) effort which is why it’s bound to cost a bit more.

IMG_9394-001There’s “varietal honey” which means “most” (I’ve read it’s at least 40% and I’ve read it’s at least 80%) of the honey comes from nectar from a single plant type. In order to achieve this you have to move your bees to an area where there’s only one plant in bloom for miles around (since bees can’t be trained to avoid really yummy flowers that aren’t on a jar’s label). There are definitely taste variations resulting from this kind of honey-husbandry and, for those who have a strong preference (not me), these honeys could be worth the effort and extra cost. I can’t help but wonder how happy the bees are in this environment though. Wouldn’t they benefit from variety in their diet in the same way humans do? For us broccoli is a very healthy vegetable, but we wouldn’t last long living on broccoli alone. Are we potentially harming bees if we force them to only consume one type of nectar? There is some evidence that this is so (thanks to Emily over at adventuresinbeeland.com for this link) .

There’s “medicinal honey” which is really a subset of varietal honey. Some studies have been done on some types of honey (eg manuka, tee tree) that seem to indicate they have medicinal properties (cure for the common cold perhaps?). All honey has medicinal properties (for example, they’re antiseptic) so, as with other varietal honeys, it is up to the consumer to decide if a specific medicinal honey variety is really worth it. And then there’s the whole happy-healthy-bee thing to consider.

There’s “organic honey” which means that there are no sources of chemicals (including town centres, rubbish tips, commercial farms, industry) within 5 kilometres of the beehive and the bees and hive are not managed with any chemicals. I understand the principle of this and applaud it but it does pretty much mean every backyard beekeeper would find it impossible to be certified organic. I absolutely put no chemicals in my hive or in my garden for that matter, but one of my neighbours (even a couple of kilometres away) could spray their rose bush and one of my bees just might pop over for a drink anyway.

IMG_9916-001Finally, there’s “wildflower/backyard/garden/… honey“. This honey is what bees produce when they are left to forage where they will, as they will. It can also be organic, raw or creamed but it won’t be varietal (including medicinal).

Our bees give us raw backyard honey (or that’s what we call it); they go where they will and deposit nectar in their cells as they see fit. Once the nectar’s converted into ripe honey, they cap it and it awaits our harvest. We don’t process our honey so (most of) it is raw. The exception is the honey that comes out of the solar beeswax melter. That’s heated above 35 C by the sun so some of the qualities of the honey may be modified. I use it for baking where the honey would be heated anyway and go for the raw stuff on my toast.

Like varietal honey, backyard honey can have huge variations in taste. With backyard honey however, the beekeeper doesn’t control the nectar choice, the bees do. Because of this, the difference between each harvest can be huge in colour, texture, aroma, taste and readiness to crystallise. I suppose the honey even varies in its make-up of vitamins and other components based on the plants visited during the bees’ flights. This makes honey a bit like wine, or wine without a vintner to pick the right time to harvest to get the most from the season’s press. Each jar is a surprise waiting to be enjoyed. The best part is that, unlike wine, I’ve never tasted a honey I didn’t like.

Same hives, different harvests, huge variety of honey

Same hives, different harvests, huge variety of honey

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About Laura Rittenhouse

I'm an American-Australian author, gardener and traveller. Go to my writing website: www.laurarittenhouse.com for more. If you're trying to find my gardening blog, it's here.
This entry was posted in bees, Garden, Nature, Sustainability and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Types of Honey

  1. krista says:

    wow, good to know for next time i need some!

    • It hopefully will at least help you figure out what the labels might be telling you. Before I got my own bees I had no idea how much most honey is processed (and, hence, loses some of its goodies).

  2. Even if I don’t become a beekeeper at some time in the future, I am at least becoming a much better consumer.

  3. Emily Heath says:

    A great description of all the different types of honey, I’m going to bookmark this. The only one I can think of which you didn’t mention is ‘honeydew’, the honey made by bees from sugar secreted by insects like ants. A delicacy in some parts of Europe, but lots of people find the idea kinda icky!

    • I haven’t ever heard of honeydew honey. I didn’t know bees collected the honeydew from ants (scale, aphids, whatever). I guess it would be classed as an odd sort of varietal.

      How in the world could a beekeeper actually control what the bees were collecting to ensure the honey actually came primarily from honeydew? And where do the bees get their protein since honeydew has no pollen? Surely the colony still needs pollen and so will forage for flowers that reward pollen and honey in addition to the honeydew.

      I’m intrigued!

      • Emily Heath says:

        I don’t know a lot about it either, but I’m thinking honeydew would be more likely to be collected by bees in forested areas where huge wood ant colonies live but not so many flowering plants are available.

        Don’t forget some bees will collect pollen only, so it would be possible for the bees to be collecting pollen without affecting the taste of the honeydew much. The beekeeper harvesting it would recognise the taste and dark colour.

        • Emily Heath says:

          From reading online, it also sounds like the beekeepers often provide the bees with pollen and other supplements, as honeydew does not contain the same nutrients as nectar and pollen do.

          • Okay, I guess that makes sense. I’m not convinced it is a great environment for bees but maybe they really like the honeydew and gladly collect it rather than something that offers broader nutrition for them. Is this the bee equivalent of fast food perhaps?

  4. Thanks for the explanations as the labels can be very confusing. I have problems keeping my bought honey as it tends to harden. I suppose the solution is to eat it quicker. Did you really mean 18 essential amino acids as the number usually given is 9 for the adult human?

    • I’ve read the number 18 in several sources (books and online). Even Wikipedia mentions that honey contains 18 amino acids. I think the difference is in the classification of some as “essential”. Honestly, this is well beyond my level of expertise. To me the thing that sticks with me is that heating honey kills off some of its goodness – exactly how much or what type of goodness is a bit too technical for me to get my head around. And probably varies a lot depending on what the bees have collected and how hot the honey gets and the season and….

      If your honey gets hard you can always set the jar in a bowl of warm water, it should liquefy pretty easily. Just don’t get it too hot (I’m not keen on microwaving it which many people do) because of that whole raw vs heated debate!

  5. cohutt says:

    Informative. Did you see this a couple days ago, re: health of colony vs variety in bees’ diet?
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2013/04/30/honey-may-be-bees-best-medicine-for-colony-collapse-disorder/#.UYJFD8p49qQ

    • I hadn’t read this article but it backs up a lot of others I’ve read. There’s really no substitute for letting nature do what nature does best. The more we intervene, the more the bees struggle. Thanks for the link, it’s encouraging that people are studying this and hopefully the bees will benefit in the long run.

  6. You must have a huge property for growing flowers in order to feed your bees! My grandpa was a bee keeper just like you, he taught me quite a bit about bees and bee keeping. Unfortunately after he passed away, my uncles, aunts and cousins no one want to continue so eventually these bees moved out.

    • Not at all, it’s a normal suburban back yard. It’s about 680 sq M (7300 sq ft). I don’t plant anything specifically for my bees, though now I do let all my veggies go to see so the bees get a little bonus. They forage around the suburb and find what is good to eat. It’s a very leafy suburb and most people have a variety of shrubs, flowers and trees for my bees to sample. Plus there are a couple of parks nearby where my bees can eat whatever grows wild. That’s the beauty of bees, you don’t need to provide for them, they provide for themselves! People even keep bees on the top of buildings in cities or on balconies of apartments. They are very self reliant.

      Too bad none of you wanted your gandpa’s bees, I’m sure you would have learned to enjoy them.

      • Your property size is very big for anyone who lives in the city for sure, good for you!

        Yes, it was too bad none of my relatives want to continue of beekeeping… My grandpa needed these bees’ help to pollinate his orchard, most of the orchard were star fruit. That is why he had to feed them sugar water in winter to keep them alive otherwise they might die, since in Taiwan bees they do not hibernate but there are not enough flowers around in winter.

        • I hear that’s the biggest danger for bees – warm weather but no food. If it’s cold they reduce their population and reduce their activity and can live on stores. If they are foraging they need a lot more food so I can see why he’d have to feed them.

          Yes, I’m really lucky here. A 42 story building is going up a 5 min walk from my home, I can see the cranes out my back window. So I live very much in an urban space with a real suburban feel.

          • Yes, you are very lucky!
            I still remember those bees were so hungry and shivering to get sugar water when my grandpa was feeding them one hive by one hive. They were so weak.

            Luckily, more green houses in Taiwan now, you can even rent bee hives for pollination! 🙂

  7. The wine analogy is especially apt for some local producers who just label their raw honey with the harvest/theft date or season and year. Also a great way to sidestep trying to determine what flowers contributed without entirely throwing hands in air and calling it multifloral-ish.

    • People always want to know what the main food source of my bees was (why? I wonder). Normally I say I have no idea. Sometimes there is a large bloom on a few local trees so I name them but would never label my honey as such. In fact, I think that would be illegal. To name a specific flower you really do have to move your bees to an area where they only get that type of plant and that’s a LOT of HARD work. I’m a lazy beekeeper – I let my bees do all the work 🙂

      I label my jars with the harvest month and year and leave the taste to nature.

  8. vuchickens says:

    So interesting! And very timely that today, my co-worker, who runs an animal rescue, told me about a cat they just rescued from a car crash with burn wounds that completely took off the skin from his front paw. When they took him to the vet, they slathered raw honey on it, bandaged him up, and sent him home until they decide what to do next. I had no idea! Do hospitals in general stock raw honey for such things? If not, it sounds like they should!

    • This is as fascinating subject. I know a woman who did research into the healing properties of honey for wounds. I’ve read a tiny bit about it and it seems slathering honey on any open cut, abrasion, burn works wonders. This woman tells me that she mixes salves for emergencies out of honey and butter. Recently I had a weird spider bite. I normally don’t react but this time got a nasty open wound. I smeared honey on it and put a gauze bandage over top (you can imagine how sticky it is!). The next day it was nearly healed and the itching was gone.

      I have heard that some hospitals keep honey on hand for treatments but I think it is one of those natural remedies that needs more research before it will be widely adopted.

      I hope the kitty is better! Thanks for sharing this story.

      • To the run-of-the-mill consumer (which I was years ago) there are two types of honey: the one that comes in the round bottle and the one that comes in the bear-shaped bottle. :-). Thank you for this educational post!

        • 🙂 I love it – so true. And that was me just a year ago. I’m really enjoying everything about my bees, especially learning how amazing the things they produce are. And, of course, sharing what I learn. I’m glad you discovered something new here.

  9. When I was growing up we had a honey man (no not the septic tank honeyman!) and used to have a regular monthly delivery of honey. The honey used to taste different in the different seasons, depending on what was in flower. That was a million years ago, and I still remember how wonderful that honey was. I bet yours is like that!

    • It probably is. I love harvest time just before we spin out the honey. We never know what will pour into our bucket and it’s like waiting for Christmas. I hope I never find it all rather hum drum. Right now I can’t imagine getting bored and losing the thrill of anticipation. Not to mention the pleasure of each new harvest’s taste!

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