What Is Honey? (A Guide For Beginning Beekeepers)

What is honey?

Updated on October 7th, 2021

Although several insects make honey, it is mainly associated with the western honey bee (Apis mellifera). The western honey bee is the most common species of honey bee used for honey production worldwide.

Honey is a sweet, viscous, naturally produced food. Honey bees collect plant nectar, alter its chemical makeup using enzymes, and store it in wax comb cells. By dehydrating nectar, bees create honey, a supersaturated product with significantly more sugar than water. Once converted, bees cap honey with wax for storage.

Thus, honey is a “naturally available product and is the only concentrated sweetener that can be found in nature.” [1]

Bees store honey as their primary food source. Beekeepers harvest the bees’ surplus honey for human consumption as food or as an additive to other products.

Harvesting honey is one of the primary reasons for being a beekeeper. Everyone knows honey is a thick, liquid sweetener. Besides that, though, what is honey?

This article is a beginning beekeeper’s guide to this fantastic hive product including information on why and how bees make honey.

See our article about beekeeping as a hobby for reasons to enjoy beekeeping other than honey harvesting.

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Why Do Bees Make Honey?

Honey bee diets consist of honey, beebread, and royal jelly, which they make from harvested pollen, nectar, and water.

Nurse bees feed Bee bread and royal jelly to developing bee larvae. Honey is the primary food source for adult bees.

By making honey, bees have a high-energy food source that lasts for extended periods without spoiling. In addition, capped honey is available to the bees when other food sources are not, especially during winter and summer nectar dearth.

Learn more! See our article What Do Honey Bees Eat? for more information about the honey bee’s diet.

How Do Bees Make Honey?

The primary building block of honey is the nectar produced by flowering plants.

Nectar is a watery, sweet liquid containing sugars and other components, including amino acids, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, pigments, and aroma sources. [2]

Nectar attracts bees (and other pollinators) to flowers. While gathering nectar and pollen, a honey bee inadvertently pollinates plants. This transfer of pollen aids the plant’s reproduction.

Foraging bees gather nectar with a tongue-like proboscis and store it in a “honey stomach,” which mixes the nectar with bacteria and enzymes. This process changes the chemical makeup of the nectar as it breaks down a complex sugar (sucrose) into simple sugars (glucose and fructose).

Upon arriving at the hive, foragers transfer the nectar mixture to house bees, who continue the conversion process. House bees regurgitate some of the nectar to evaporate water content.

Eventually, the nectar is placed in wax comb cells to continue the evaporation process. Evaporation reduces the water content to about 15 – 18% and increases the sugar content to about 70%. Thus, the original runny nectar liquid becomes honey, a supersaturated sugar solution.

Bees on a frame with capped honey
Bees on a frame with capped honey

This reduced level of water content combined with the high sugar content and some other components make honey antibacterial and capable of being stored for long periods without spoiling.

Once the bees determine that nectar becomes honey, they enclose it with wax cappings. These caps prevent honey from running during periods of high heat or absorbing additional moisture.

Although honey contains trace amounts of pollen, pollen is not part of the honey-making process.

Also, note that while feeding sugar syrup to honey bees can supplement a colony’s food resources, the syrup cannot make honey because sugar syrup lacks components found in nectar that are essential to the creation of honey.

Is Honey Bee Vomit Or Bee Poop?

No, honey is neither bee vomit nor bee poop.

While nectar is “regurgitated” as part of the honey-making process, a bee stores it in a particular “honey stomach.” The honey stomach is separate and distinct from the bee’s stomach in the digestive tract.

Regurgitated nectar was never in the bee’s digestive tract and thus is neither vomit nor poop.

Why Is Honey Called Supersaturated?

Honey is a solution consisting primarily of sugar and water. The dissolved sugar content relative to water is higher than normal at its stored temperature. This state is called “supersaturated.” As a supersaturated solution, some sugar will precipitate out of the solution (separate from water), causing the honey to crystallize.

Raw Honey vs. Processed Honey

Raw honey is honey in the condition the bees made it with minimal processing. Therefore, without the application of significant heat, the chemical properties of raw honey are unaltered.

Raw honey may contain trace amounts of pollen, propolis, and other materials.

Assume that any honey not labeled as raw has most likely been pasteurized and heavily filtered.

Mass producers process honey primarily for marketing purposes. Processing honey retards crystallization (described below), impedes fermentation, and controls color, giving honey an appealing look on the shelf for the average consumer.

Learn more! See our article What Is Raw Honey? (Besides Delicious) for detailed information about the differences between raw and processed honey.

What Are The Different Forms Of Honey?

There are five primary forms of honey under a variety of names:

  1. Liquid honey (also referred to as extracted honey)
  2. Crystallized honey (which starts as raw, liquid honey)
  3. Comb honey (sometimes called cut comb honey or honeycomb)
  4. Creamed honey (also called whipped or spun honey, among other things)
  5. Chunk honey

Liquid Honey

Honey stored by bees under wax cappings is in liquid form. Most honey is harvested and extracted from was comb as a liquid.

Beekeepers harvest frames of capped honey from the hive. After removing the caps, honey can be extracted from the comb by several methods. (Hence the reference to extracted honey.)

For small harvests, comb and honey can be scraped off the foundation to be crushed and strained. This straining process separates the honey from the wax and removes any large particles that may exist.

For larger harvests, centrifugal extractors extract honey. These extractors spin at high speeds forcing honey out of the comb. This honey is also strained to remove and large items.

As mentioned above, large producers may also heat and filter honey further as part of the process.

Liquid honey is thick but pourable and packaged in glass or plastic bottles.

Crystallized Honey

As a supersaturated solution, liquid honey may “crystallize” as sugar separates from the water. Crystallizing honey becomes cloudy, loses viscosity, and eventually becomes a gritty solid.

Raw honey has traces of pollen and other material that sugar can attach to and separate from the water.

Despite its appearance, crystallization does not mean that honey has spoiled. Crystallized honey retains the flavor and other attributes of liquid honey but in a different form. Crystallization indicates that you have real honey, not an adulterated sweetener.

To reverse crystallization, simply bathe the container in hot water. You can also heat crystallized honey in a microwave, but that runs the risk of overheating the honey.

Comb Honey

Comb honey is liquid honey encased in its wax comb. Extracted from the hive precisely as the bees made it makes it the rawest form of honey available. Despite its appearance, comb honey is edible in its entirety, including the wax.

Comb honey is raw honey
Harvested comb honey

Learn more! See our article about how to eat honeycomb for more information about comb honey, including some of its benefits and risks. Also, learn why comb honey is more expensive than its liquid counterpart.

Creamed Honey

Creamed honey is a form of crystallized honey.

Natural crystallization produces large sugar granules. Creamed honey processing controls the crystallization process, thereby creating smaller crystals.

 With many small sugar granules, creamed honey is smoother and less gritty than solid, naturally crystallized honey.

Creamed honey is a sweetener, just like liquid honey. However, the consistency of creamed honey means you can spread it on bread, fruit, or any other food you choose.

Note: Creamed honey goes by various adjectives in place of creamed, such as whipped, spun, granulated, churned, or fondant. I have even seen it referred to as honey butter. I have not determined why all these name variations appear, but I suspect they reflect some regional differences.

Creamed honey can be made by a couple of different process.

The first process, called the Dyce Method, named for Elton James Dyce who patented the process in 1931, requires a process of pasteurization. The application of heat needed for pasteurization will affect the chemical composition of the honey meaning it is no longer “raw.”

However, creamed honey is also made by a different process that does not require significant heat, thus keeping the properties of raw honey.

Learn more! See our article on creamed honey for more details, including how to make creamed honey from your hive’s raw honey harvest.

Chunk Honey

Chunk honey is made by placing a piece of comb honey in a jar of liquid honey. Chunk honey seems to be primarily an attractive marketing presentation to consumers.

Chunk honey
Adding extracted honey to a jar with comb honey to make “chunk honey”

If you have not tried honey in its various forms, check out these suggestions:

Types Of Honey (Honey Varietals)

According to the National Honey Board, “more than 300 unique types of honey available in the United States” are naturally produced (which excludes honey with infused flavors). These different types of honey are often called “varietals.”

Honey varietals differ in terms of flavor, color, aroma, and texture.

Differences in attributes among kinds of honey stem primarily from the floral sources of the nectar.

Location, climate, and processing methods also impact variations among types of honey and even for the same kind of honey from different seasons.

Polyfloral vs. Monofloral Honey

Polyfloral is the identifying term used for honey produced from the nectar of many different plants. Polyfloral honey is also called wildflower honey. (Our honey, and that of many backyard beekeepers, is polyfloral.)

Flavor and other attributes of polyfloral honey can vary widely depending on the variety of plants available within the foraging range of the hive during a particular season.

Monofloral honey has distinctive attributes that result from nectar being sourced overwhelmingly from a particular plant species.

Since bees have wide foraging ranges, the production of monofloral honey requires a location dominated by a particular plant as a nectar source. In addition, beekeepers need to time their honey harvesting to coincide with the nectar flow from that plant.

Honey varietals on store shelf.
Honey varietals on a grocer’s shelf

Some examples of monofloral honey are Orange Blossom Honey, Clover Honey, and Manuka Honey.

The National Honey Board published a Honey Varietal Guide describing 20 of the most popular monofloral honey plus wildflower honey. The guide outlines each honey’s nectar source, attributes, and geography, along with recommended uses.

Try some honey varietals. See if you can identify the different attributes. Here are some suggestions:

What Is Honey Used For?

Honey As A Sweetener

As mentioned above, honey is a sweet food product. It is commonly consumed directly or added to other food as a sweetener.

Honey contains about 40% fructose and 30 – 35% glucose, which are simple sugars. Fructose, also known as fruit sugar, “is the sweetest of the naturally occurring caloric sweeteners.”[3]

Honey’s high fructose content combined with its vitamins, antioxidants, and other nutrients, make it an excellent sweetening choice relative to other options.

Honey And Health

Health Benefits Of Honey

Honey has long “been known to possess antimicrobial property as well as wound-healing activity” as a result of “the fact that it offers antibacterial activity.”[4]

Honey is often used as a cough suppressant.

Research indicates that the natural antioxidants in honey may have a “promising pharmacological role in preventing cardiovascular diseases.[5]

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Evidence suggests honey might help relieve gastrointestinal tract conditions such as diarrhea associated with gastroenteritis. Honey might also be effective as part of oral rehydration therapy.”

Health Risks Of Honey

Honey is relatively high in sugar and calories. As a result, excess consumption of honey carries an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Do not feed honey to children under one year old. Infants that young have not developed the beneficial bacteria to protect them from spores that cause botulism. (See How can I protect my baby from infant botulism? on the Mayo Clinic website.) Also, some recommend avoiding honey during pregnancy for similar reasons.

If you are allergic to bees or pollen, you may want to avoid comb honey. Despite the minimal amounts of pollen and other materials, comb honey could trigger an allergic reaction.

Although beeswax is edible, overeating comb honey wax can potentially cause stomach or intestinal blockage. The Mayo Clinic says, “seek immediate medical care if you have severe abdominal pain or other symptoms of intestinal obstruction,” such as abdominal pain, constipation or swelling of the abdomen and others (see Intestinal Obstruction on the Mayo Clinic website).

Use Of Honey In Domestic Crafts

Honey can be used in a variety of domestic crafts.

Mead, also known as honey wine, may be the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world. According to Liquor.com, “mead fermentation predates both wine and beer.” Fermented honey is the primary ingredient in mead.

Honey can be used in homemade beauty supplies such as lotions and soaps. If you’re interested in these types of uses, check out the book Beehive Alchemy by Petra Ahnert for ideas and instructions.

Conclusion

Honey is a thick, natural, sweet food product of the beehive. While it is the primary food source for honey bees, beekeepers harvest surplus honey for human consumption.

Due to its unique chemical composition, honey does not spoil over extended periods, provides various health benefits, and is used as an additive for non-food products.

Beekeepers offer honey in various forms and types.

Familiarize yourself with this amazing hive product to get the most out of backyard beekeeping.

Additional Reading

The Chemistry of Honey by Sharla Riddle in Bee Culture magazine


[1] Albaridi NA. Antibacterial Potency of Honey. Int J Microbiol. 2019;2019:2464507. Published 2019 Jun 2. doi:10.1155/2019/2464507

[2] Sources: What’s the Secret of Nectar by Michael Ellis in Bay Nature magazine and Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping by Dewey M. Caron with Lawrence John Connor available here on Amazon

[3] Is fructose bad for you? – Medical News Today

[4] Mandal MD, Mandal S. Honey: its medicinal property and antibacterial activity. Asian Pac J Trop Biomed. 2011;1(2):154-160. doi:10.1016/S2221-1691(11)60016-6

[5] Khalil MI, Sulaiman SA. The potential role of honey and its polyphenols in preventing heart diseases: a review. Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. 2010;7(4):315-321. doi:10.4314/ajtcam.v7i4.56693

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