Honey 101: The buzz on one of our favourite syrups

Oh honey, honey — from the bees to the honeycomb to the store, here’s a primer on this sweet nectar.

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bees

We love it stirred into tea, and spread over toast with butter (and bears love it too!). Here are some facts behind this sweet and sticky syrup.

Where does honey come from?
Female honey bees (“worker bees”) drink and collect nectar, a sugar-rich liquid produced by flowers, to store inside the wax honeycomb cells in their hives. (On bee farms, they build the cells inside honeycomb frames.) By process of enzyme action in the bees’ stomachs, regurgitation and constant fanning of their wings, evaporation takes place and turns the nectar into thick, sweet honey. When a cell is filled, the worker bees will cap it with beeswax, sealing in the honey for later consumption.

What are some common forms of honey?
When honey is ready to be harvested from the hives, beekeepers will collect the honeycomb frames and scrape off the beeswax cap. The honey can then be commonly purchased in these three forms:

Honeycomb
The beekeepers will cut the honeycomb out of the frames, then cut them down to size to fit into packages. The beeswax comb is edible!

We love it in: Honeycombs make a great presentation when using honey as a dip or spread, such as sesame-haloumi bites.

Liquid Honey
The frames are placed in a centrifugal extractor — a machine that spins the frame, forcing the honey out of the cells. The honey is then strained to remove any bits and pieces of wax and other particles before bottling.

We love it in: Everything from salad dressings to marinades to cocktails and more!

Creamed Honey
To produce creamed honey, a small amount of creamed honey is mixed with liquid honey, churned to a creamy texture, then cooled. The creamed honey is then packed into individual packages.

We love it in: Our homemade granola bars, or spread over toast.

What is the difference between raw and pasteurized liquid honey?
Raw honey is natural honey — after it has been extracted from the honeycomb and strained. And, unless it’s marked “raw”, it has been pasteurized. Honey pasteurization is a heating process that destroys naturally-occuring yeasts in a high-moisture (18% to 19%) environment. (The yeast can ferment the honey and cause it to spoil.) In addition, pasteurizing will slow down honey’s crystallization process and keep it in a liquid state for longer.

There is some backlash again pasteurization because many nutrition experts claim that the process also kills flavours, antioxidants and nutrients and other functional properties found in raw honey. There have also been reports that some large-scale producers from China add water and corn syrup to their honey, which requires pasteurization due to the high moisture content. So, if you’re looking for pure, raw honey, it’s best to purchase them directly from farmer’s markets and beekeepers.

What are the functional properties of honey?
Raw Manuka honey is highly regarded as one of the best alternative medicines with purported anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities. It is made from bees that pollinate the manuka bush, native to New Zealand and Australia. Manuka honey has a very strong earthy flavour, and a cloudy, creamy appearance. There are claims that this honey can assist in wound healing, and can also soothe a cough or sore throat. (Claims that honey can cure pollen allergies are yet unproven.)

We love it in: Manuka honey adds a subtle sweetness to chia and coconut pudding and blueberry and cheese blintzes.

Why does honey come in so many shades?
The colour and flavour of honey differs depending on the honey bees’ nectar source. Honey bees can collect nectar from pollinated flowers. Canada has a grading system for honey, categorized by clarity, colour, flavour and moisture content, but in general, a lighter honey is mild in flavour, while darker honeys are usually taste more robust.

Some common honey varietals are clover, buckwheat, lavender and wildflower. Beekeepers may keep their hives around singular plants to make special varietals of honey (ie. pure blueberry honey, made from the tiny white flowers of the blueberry bush). Packages simply labeled “honey” or usually a combination of honey from different sources. A very clear and bright honey has also likely been ultra-filtered to remove debris, beeswax, pollen and propolis.

How long can I keep honey for?
When stored safely in moisture-resistant containers, honey can be kept for years. The high-glucose and -fructose environment can keep honey bacteria-free, provided the packaging is well-sealed, there is no cross-contamination, and moisture level remains low (below 18%). Honey can crystallize over time, but can easily be re-liquified by warming the jar in a pan of hot tap water. If scattered white crystals or bubbles appear in your honey, or foam forms on top, your honey has likely been spoiled by fermentation. Discard it immediately.

What’s all the fuss about keeping honey bees alive?
In addition to gathering nectar to make honey, honey bees can also produce beeswax, royal jelly (which they use to feed the queen) and propolis (an anti-bacterial, -fungal and -viral substance used to disinfect and protect the hive). In the process of collecting nectar, honey bees also perform a vital function called cross-pollination — when bees transfer pollen from one flower to another, allowing them to fertilize and bear fruit. About 1/3 of the human diet comes from insect–pollinated plants (this includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts), and honey bees are responsible for the majority of this pollination.

Did you know? 
Honey bees are some of the hardest-working and efficient living creatures on earth: Honey bees in a beehive may collectively travel as much as 50,000 miles and visit about two million flowers to gather enough nectar to make just a pound of honey! They are also brilliant mathematicians, having engineered one of the most economical and organized structures in nature. Bees create their honeycomb homes by producing beeswax to form the shape of perfect hexagons (no rulers required!). These hexagons are built on the basis of using the minimum amount of beeswax to create maximum space. Each cell then provides multiple purposes as honey and pollen storages and brooding quarters.

Related:
Help save the bees with these gardening tips
10 things you didn’t know about the man behind Burt’s Bees
The buzz behind our need for bees