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What Happened to My Honey?!

spoonful of crystallized honey with jar in background

You go to reach for your silky-smooth liquid gold honey only to find it’s turned into a cloudy and near-solid mass of goo! Has your honey gone bad? Should you toss it out?

Probably not.

If you’re unfamiliar with raw honey, you may be tempted to think your honey has gone bad. When thoroughly ripened and properly stored, honey can last forever.

The main reason honey isn’t prone to spoilage is because of it’s low moisture content (usually below 19%) and it’s low/acidic pH (3.9) make for an inhospitable environment for bacteria, molds and fungi. However, it is prone to crystallization—especially when certain factors are present.

Why does honey crystallize?

First, a brief chemistry lesson…

Honey is a solution of sugars, water and other minor components which has been forced (by the bees evaporation of water) into a supersaturation.

Because honey contains far more solute (sugars) than possible under normal conditions, it is considered unstable and tends to “fall out of solution” toward a state of equilibrium.

Crystallization is the process by which molecules, as they attempt to become “stable,” gather together in tightly-bonded groups known as a crystal lattice.

Crystal growth begins with the onset of nucleation. Nucleation can happen with the molecules themselves (homogenous/unassisted nucleation), or with the help of a surface from a solid particle already in the solution (heterogeneous/assisted nucleation).

Honey crystallization is influenced by three major factors:

  1. Particulates
  2. Temperature
  3. Floral Source

Let’s take a look at each one.

Particulates

Crystallization can be stimulated by the presence of tiny particles which are suspended in the honey.

Raw honey (unheated and unfiltered) has a lots of these particles in the form of pollen grains, bits of wax or propolis, and even air bubbles. Each particle becomes nuclei for crystals to grow from.

Filtering out the particles helps to delay crystallization, but you also lose some of the honey’s flavor and character when these particles are removed. Not to mention, finely-filtered honey is subject to high heat (which further damages quality) to aid in the flow rate as it is pressed through filters.

Temperature

Temperature also affects the rate of crystallization, with the fastest crystal growth occurring at a temperature of 57 °F.

Conversely, honey resists crystallization best when kept at about 70 °F. Honey will not crystallize below 41 °F.

Floral Source

The tendency of honey to crystallize depends primarily on it’s nectar origin collected by the bees.

Flower nectar is comprised of a combination of different sugars in their most natural forms. Each flower type has a unique composition of sugars (predominantly fruсtоѕе аnd gluсоѕе) which give honey it’s sweetness.

Once the nectar is changed (“ripened”) into honey, the glucose tend to separate from solution faster than fructose (which is more soluble in water). Therefore, honey high in glucose sugars with a low fructose-to-glucose ratio will crystallize more rapidly than honey with a lower glucose content.

In the beekeeping world, flower nectars with high glucose ratios are known as “crystallizers.”

High-Glucose Nectars (mainly forbs):

  • Alfalfa
  • Asters (e.g. goldenrod)
  • Brassicas (e.g. mustard, rapeseed)
  • Clover
  • Cotton
  • Dandelion
  • Lavender
  • Manzanita
  • Mesquite
  • Star thistle
Low-Glucose Nectars (mainly trees):

  • Acacia
  • Basswood/Linden
  • Blackberry
  • Black locust
  • Chestnut
  • Gallberry
  • Holly
  • Maple
  • Sage
  • Sourwood
  • Tupelo

How to re-liquify honey

Re-liquify honey in a pan of hot tap water.

Crystallized honey can be re-liquified by gently heating the container in a hot water bath. You can also heat honey on the stove (on low) in a double-boiler fashion, just take care not to boil or scorch the honey.

Overheating honey can change the flavor, aroma and other properties, so it’s best to do so at the lowest temperature possible for the shortest amount of time. (Overheating also defeats the purpose of buying raw, local honey.)

After “melting” the crystals, your honey will stay liquid for weeks to a month or more, but the supersaturated solution will eventually march back to a crystallized state.

…or not!

Crystallization needn’t be a problem to be solved.

Not only is crystallized honey delicious, it’s also a good sign you’ve got the real thing!

In fact, many people prefer crystallized honey to liquid honey for it’s spreadable, creamy consistency (which is why we sell jars of naturally crystallized honey). Simply scoop out what you need and spread on your toast or add to your tea!

jar of crystallized honey
Raw, crystallized honey is delicious to eat, but is prone to ferment if not consumed quickly.

In Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many parts of Europe, crystallized honey (in the form of “creamed” honey) is the norm of what you’ll find in stores.

Keep in mind, however, that crystallization and fermentation are closely related. Crystallized honey, if left crystallized for too long, can ferment. This is due to the additional water which is freed-up as glucose molecules separate from the liquid and become solid glucose crystals. If the water content becomes too great, it creates a favorable environment for the growth of wild yeast present, which may lead to fermentation.

Not sure what to do?

Already crystallized? Embrace it and consume it! If it will take you a long time to use, 1.) try cooking or baking with it, or 2.) re-liquify to minimize the chance of fermentation.

Not opening for a while? Store your honey at room temperature. The optimum temperature for storage is 70-80 °F. Avoid storing your honey in colder temperatures which speed the rate of crystallization (53–64°F). For long term storage, you can store honey in the freezer and preserve the original texture and flavor indefinitely.

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Honey Category at 2016 GFA

I was recently pointed to the Heritage Radio Network and their coverage of the 2016 Good Food Awards. which includes Carlo Petrini’s inspiring keynote and Sarah Wiener’s excellent closing remarks.

Deserving of special mention on this blog is Beth Conrey’s address on behalf of the honey category. A winner herself for Bee Squared Apiaries Rose Honey, Beth’s spot-on speech recognized the marvelousness of the honey bee, the state of honey in the U.S. and what actually makes the food produced by the honey category winners‘ “good.” Have a listen to her speech or read it below (shared with Beth’s permission).

Bees have been revered throughout human history because of their ability to produce honey—the nectar of the gods! The sound of humming bees is synonymous with tranquility and productivity. Every farm used to have a hive or two. But conventional agriculture was replaced by industrialized agriculture and with industrialized agriculture came industrialized apiculture. Pollination—especially almond pollination—became king and honey was no longer the primary source of pride and income for beekeepers.

The honey bee became just another form of livestock and the public became afraid of the most beneficial insect on the planet. The honey itself became “genericized” through the homogenization of varietals, pasteurization to improve the shelf life of the only food product on the planet without one, and ultra filtration to remove evidence of point of origin so that honey from countries with lower costs of production can enter the market without being traced by their pollens. Much honey, indeed all cheap honey, is not even honey at all as there is no national standard of identity for it. Honey is simply called honey. But all honey is not equal. The apiaries represented here this evening embody this higher standard of production and animal care. Their websites are dotted with adjectives that make your mouth water: exquisite, raw, delicious, artisanal, sustainably-harvested, treatment–free, unadulterated, local, pure, unpasteurized.

These beekeepers have revived varietal honey. I urge each and every one of you to taste the honey from each and every one of us so that your palate will learn and appreciate the varietals we produce: buckwheat, saw palmetto, quince, wildflower, clover, sage, mesquite and orange blossom to name just a few. These honeys all taste like the flowers that produced the nectar that the bees collected. And none of them taste like any other of them or like what you find on the shelf at a national grocer. These beekeepers are stewards of their insects but they do not stop there. Many of them are also active in their regional and national associations and generously share their beekeeping knowledge and passion within these organizations and with the general public.

I encourage all of you to:

B-e- e supportive of our efforts with your purchases.
B-e- e considerate. Plant flowers for pollinators and cease pesticide use.
B-e- e the change you want to see in global food production and consumption.

Thank you.

There is also an excellent TEDxCSU Talk by Beth entitled, BEE-have so we can BEE-have, which is worth a watch/listen.

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Winner at Good Food Awards

Good Food Awards Finalist Seal 2016Two Million Blooms, winner of a 2016 Good Food Awards Two Million Blooms is thrilled to be recognized as a winner of the 2016 Good Food Awards.

After receiving top scores in the Blind Tasting in September followed by a rigorous vetting process to verify we met the sustainability and social responsibility criteria, our raw honey emerged as one of only 14 winners in the honey category.

This year’s competition received 1,937 submissions from 33 states. There were 242 winners across 13 categories: beer, charcuterie, cheese, chocolate, cider, confections, coffee, honey, pantry, pickles, preserves, oils and spirits.

We were fortunate enough to attend the Good Food Awards ceremony (described as the ‘Golden Globes of craft food’) on Friday along with 800 other farmers, chefs, journalists, and activists to celebrate the exceptional food crafters.

We were especially inspired by Slow Food visionary and founder, Carlo Petrini, who traveled from Italy to deliver the opening remarks. And who could forget the food and drinks (with the winning products) at the following reception? To describe them as merely ‘good’ would be a incredible understatement.

About the Good Food Awards
The Good Food Awards is the first national initiative to recognize food producers based on both taste and sustainability criteria. The Awards distinguish food producers committed to strengthening the sustainable food industry through the creation of ‘tasty, authentic, and responsible’ foods.

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Honey Bee Poetry

Our nine-year-old has recently taken to the spontaneous creation of poems, perhaps an after effect of the Shel Silverstein binge she was on from late summer through early fall. It’s been fun, since it’s something she’s doing on her own—not something that’s been demanded of her. Below is one such poem, used with permission of the author.

As she’s developing as a writer, she’s also gaining an awareness of economics and an entrepreneurial spirit, as evidenced by the final stanza.

bee
Bees

Bees, bees, they’re everywhere.
Bees, bees, they’re in your hair.

They’re in the attic.
They might be static.
They’re on the deck.
Oh man! Oh heck!

But…

When they’re asleep,
what fun, what a treat!

You get some honey!

And that’s why we’re here,
to give you some honey!
(All you have to do
is give us some money.)

bee

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Good Food Awards Finalist


Good Food Awards Finalist Seal 2016
Two Million Blooms has just been named a 2016 Good Food Awards Finalist. We are honored to be recognized by this prestigious craft food competition.

Our raw honey distinguished itself through a Blind Tasting event followed by a rigorous vetting to confirm that it meets or exceeds the Good Food Awards standards around sustainability, production and social responsibility practices.

This year, 263 finalists were chosen among 1,937 entries in 13 different categories. In the honey category, 24 products were selected as finalists in the following subcategories: Liquid or Naturally Crystallized Honey, Creamed Honey, Comb Honey, and Infused Honey.

Winners will be announced Friday, January 15, 2016, at a gala Awards Ceremony at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture in San Francisco, California. Opening remarks will be delivered by the father of the food movement, Slow Food Founder Carlo Petrini. Medals will be bestowed by renowned chef and activist Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and organics pioneer Nell Newman of Newman’s Own Organics.

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What Do Bees Do in Winter?

Two bee hives in winter with stow piled atop

It’s a bone-chilling 9°F (the high for today) as I write this post.

Not 11 days ago, we had a taunting peek at Spring. It was 57°F and sunny when I snapped these photos and sent them to family.

Young urban farmerscleansingflights

Replies ranged from a (jestful) “Global warming?” to our growing and “leggy” 5-year old. And, not surprisingly…

“What are the bees doing, with no flowers to visit?”

Great question, it’s the middle of February.

So, what do bees do in winter? It’s a question I’ve heard from several friends over the past months. The answer is one I still find fascinating…

Bee Warm

Whereas many insect adults die, migrate, or hibernate through winter, the honey bee colony remains active.

By itself, a singular honey bee is exothermic (cold-blooded). Collectively, the colony becomes an endothermic “superorganism,” maintaining a relatively constant temperature to support survival of the whole.

By huddling together as a “winter cluster,” bees on the outside of the cluster act as an insulating shell, trapping the heat of the cluster. The colder the temps, the tighter the cluster. And when cuddling isn’t enough to stay warm, the cluster can crank up the heat by vibrating their wing muscles. This shivering comes at a cost. More fuel (honey) is consumed and metabolized, but this was already planned for. Despite what some might think, honey bees don’t store up honey for you and me, but as a cache to make it through the winter months when nectar and pollen aren’t available. In temperate zones (like Illinois) bees consume between 60–80 pounds of honey to get them through winter.

But what about those occasional warm winter days. What do they do then?

In short…winter chores.

Bring out yer dead!

Honey bees are extremely clean and known for their hygienic behaviors. This is usually associated with the removal of dead, dying or diseased brood through the productive months, but bees will jump at any chance to clean house. Even in the dead of winter. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Here’s video I took of an “undertaker” bee hauling out her dead sister on that 57°F day.

Personally, I can’t observe this activity without thinking of the equivalent scene from the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But I’m weird like that.

The sight of hundreds of dead bees outside the hive entrance could be cause for alarm for a beekeeper, but in most cases, it is just natural attrition. Depending on climate, the size of a colony could drop from 60,000 bees at the peak of summer, down to 10,000 by the start of spring. Of course, if numbers get too small or they run out of food stores, a colony runs the risk of being overwhelmed by the cold temps resulting in a “dead-out.”

Potty Break

Carcasses and droppings (yellow spots) litter the snow—a sign the bees are alive and well.

Another task occurring on warmer days in winter are “cleansing flights.” Honey bees are extremely hygienic and will not defecate in the hive unless they can hold it no longer (or are sick with dysentery). When ambient air temps allow, bees will briefly leave the cluster in order to void themselves immediately outside the hive. This frass (the technical term for insect poop) is especially apparent when there is snow on the ground. What is relief to the bees is also a strangely delightful sight for the beekeeper. They’re still alive!

Many cite 50°F (10ºC) as the temperature which prohibits flying, but I’ve witnessed a daring bee make a cleansing flight at 26°F (and return to the hive). (It’s a risky move. A moment too long and the flight muscles seize up, leaving one less body to create and share warmth.) But when you gotta go, you gotta go!

But when you gotta go, you gotta go!

Make More Bees!

Except for a brief egg-laying respite (termed the “broodless period”) during November and December, the queen’s principal duty resumes in late December, regardless of outside temps. Sensing the longer hours of sunlight following the Winter Solstice (December 20–23), the winter cluster raises the core temperature from a broodless 75°F to a brood nest temperature of 94°F. This added warmth, along with increased feeding of the queen, stimulates her to begin laying again—though just a few eggs at first.

Maintaining a constant brood rearing temperature requires greater food consumption. This can become problematic especially when food stores are getting low. If food is not withing reach of the cluster a colony will perish, as the colony will not leave the brood to the elements and will remain “stuck on brood.” This can happen when there is a small population which is unable to cover their stores adequately.