Rebuttal: bees turn sugar into honey

I firmly believe that syrup made from refined sugar cannot be changed into honey, but not everyone agrees. Bees do indeed break down sugar (sucrose) into its component parts (fructose and glucose). But that enzymatic process does not make honey, just as adding invertase to sugar syrup does not make honey.

Although honey is mostly fructose and glucose, it is all the other stuff that gives honey its flavor, aroma, color and nutritional benefits. Honey bees thrive on honey in part because of the nutrients, antioxidants, amino acids, protein, flavonoids, minerals, and pollen that it contains. Yes, these are small in quantity, but they are vital, just as the vitamins and minerals in human food is vital to us.

At any rate, I thought I would let you read the rebuttal and decide for yourself. This comment arrived this week attached to a different post on the same subject, “What’s really in the bottle?” but it rebuts my most recent post “Is your honey cut with sugar syrup?” in the same way. I deleted references to other commenters for their privacy.


If sugar and corn syrup and HFCS does not come from a plant, where, pray tell, does it come from???

Rusty, while you may be attributed with having the patience of Job, your love of bees is more in question.

We highly discourage ANY supplemental sweetener other than PURE CANE sugar (not “pure sugar,” nor corn syrup in any form, because of the pesticides used on those plants, as well as genetic modifications to the plants (sugar beets and corn) used to produce other products.

We (as well as many beekeepers the world over) feed our bees sweetened water throughout the year, particularly during the early spring and autumn months, for the VERY simple reason that the BEES (not the beekeepers) need this sweetened water to LIVE.

The bees are well able to convert this PLANT sweetened water into HONEY, regardless the pedantic arguments, and the hive utilizes this honey throughout the winter months, to survive and live.

Now, in regards to the “clear color” of honey, or non-nectar honey – this is a prime example of people over-thinking nature.

Clear honey (or bee-product), is simply honey that has not aged. Like fine wines, honey ages, due to the bacteria and enzymes in the bees’ pre-digestion. Honey that is in uncapped honeycomb cells has not sufficiently dehydrated enough to be capped and age.

Once capped, the “bee-product” darkens over time. Our sugar-syrup fed bee colonies produce HONEY from early spring, as soon as the worker bees can get out and find some sweet liquids to bring back to the hive. They then make honey until the cold temperatures force them to ball up and keep the queen warm over the winter, when the cycle continues. During this period, the bees consume the honey stores they have produced since early spring.

Honeycomb that we have harvested in fall (we have top bar, not Langstroth hives) shows all shades of color, from pale and almost water clear, to deep amber, almost brown. This is not due to the chemical make up of the honey, be it nectar or sugar produced. This is due to the aging of the bee product itself, and uncapped honey cells that contain a higher water content. Please stop over-thinking the color situation. Pure nectar honey would display the same thing.

If sugar water (from plants), did not make honey, the BEES would not be able to survive winter. The fact that humans harvest the food that these insects produce for their personal survival is secondary, regardless the monetized commercialization of the product.

I, along with [deleted], would love to see the chemical breakdown of the supposed “bee product,” in comparison with “nectar honey,” as I suspect little to no difference, beyond the aforementioned minerals and protein content.

I would also love to see the survival rate of bees on the planet increase, not for the consumption of honey or “other bee product,” but for the survival of humans and plants. Any efforts that contribute to bee populations should be encouraged, not discouraged over the semantics and sources of the sweetened liquid bees consume to produce HONEY.

While I cannot speak for any large, commercial operations attempting to sell and profit from “non-plant sweeetner-fed bee product” (and while there is “sugar-free honey,” this discussion is not about that), I can, as a private, small-scale, beekeeper, speak for the bees, in that sugar water (and ONLY pure cane sugar water) is FAR from being a money maker. Thirsty bees can drink gallons a day, and at a 1:1 ratio, a 50# bag of sugar only makes a little over 6 gallons of sugar water.

That sugar water then has to dehydrate and be capped by the bees, and then age to become honey. Time is money, you know.

And not all of the honey produced can be harvested. Sufficient stores of the sugar-water produced honey must be left for the hive to consume over the winter.

Harvested honey then has to be processed, whether by centrifuge, as is the case for Langstroth hives, or by crushing the comb, for top bar hives. Labor is money. So, the snarky worry about profiteering from sugar-water fed bees is utterly needless.

Bottom line, folks, if you are beekeeping in any form, it should, first and foremost be for the bees. Wasting your energies over stupid semantics, instead of focusing on the bees is not helping the cause.

Evil profiteers will always be evil. But looking for evil in every little thing, and pedantically castigating sugar water feeding as not being honey, or somehow contributing to the evil men do in the name of money is truly missing the forest for a chipped piece of bark on a very small tree.

Love bees.

Is your honey cut with sugar syrup?

Adulteration of honey with sugar syrup and corn syrup has been a problem for a long time. An unscrupulous beekeeper can feed his colonies these products and extract them like honey, or he can add them later, after extraction. The financial incentive is obvious because syrup is cheap and readily available.

Naturally, importers of honey and large-scale purchasers of honey for manufacturing purposes have always been interested in knowing if the liquid they are paying for is pure, or if it has been “cut” with syrups from non-floral sources.

Cane and corn are C4 plants

It turns out that most plants can be identified as either C3 or C4 plants. Roughly 90% of all plants are C3 and about 5% are C4. The names C3 and C4 come from the first compound produced by the plants during the CO2 fixation stage of photosynthesis.

In a C3 plant, the first compound produced has three carbons, and in a C4 plant, the first compound produced has four carbons. A third type of photosynthesis called CAM is found in about 5% of plants, mostly succulents. Since many of these can switch between CAM and C3, they are sometimes included with the C3 species.

The C4 cycle is an adaptation of plants that evolved in very hot and dry climates. They are able to use CO2 more efficiently and they lose much less water due to transpiration, so they can thrive in sere conditions. Most C4 plants are grasses, including sugar cane, maize, and sorghum, and most are wind-pollinated.

Honey is made from the nectar of flowers

By definition, honey is made from the nectar of flowers. Nectar is secreted by nectaries, which are glands located in flowers, and the secretions are especially designed to attract pollinating insects. Some definitions also include secretions from extra-floral nectaries and the excretions of plant-sucking insects (honeydew) as honey sources.

However, the C4 plants maize (corn) and sugar cane do not have nectaries and are not known for producing honeydew. Sweet liquids pressed from the leaves, stems, or other herbaceous parts of a plant are not considered nectar for the purposes of honey, especially after they are refined by industry.

Isotope profiles can identify C4 syrup

C3 and C4 plants contain different ratios of the stable isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-13. Isotopes are different forms of an element. Each isotope of an element has the same number of protons but differing numbers of neutrons in the nucleus. Since extra neutrons affect the weight, they are easily detected

A carbon-12 atom has 6 neutrons and a carbon-13 atom has 7 neutrons, but they both act like carbon. These isotopes do not decay and are not radioactive, hence they are “stable” as opposed to the unstable type that decay and are radioactive. A carbon isotope we have all heard of is carbon-14, which is a radioactive isotope with a very long half-life of 5730 years. By measuring how much of this isotope remains in a very old object, we can determine its age.

In any case, since these heavy carbon atoms are measurable, it is easy to discover if a sample of honey is adulterated with syrups derived from sugar cane or corn by measuring the ratio of the stable isotopes, 13C/12C.

Sugar beets are C3 plants

However, a problem occurs when syrup is derived from beet sugar. Beets are C3 plants and have the normal ratio of stable isotopes found in most nectar-producing plants. So honey contaminated with sugar beet syrup is not detectable with this method.

As you can see, contamination with syrup is an unresolved problem. Isotope analysis is not readily available to the average consumer, and beet sugar adulteration cannot be found in any case. If you are concerned about the content of your honey, it is best to know your beekeeper. . .and know him well.


Pearlescent honey

Robert Lunsford from down in Louisiana wanted to know what was up with his honey, so he sent the following three photos of shimmery, iridescent honey that seems to glow from within. Awesome looking stuff!

My theory is simply this: I think he had at least two different types of honey in the pot. One of the types was much higher in glucose than the other, so it began to granulate much more quickly.

It looks to me like they were not thoroughly combined, but just stirred a little bit—the way you would make a marble cake or strawberry swirl ice cream. The result was ripples of granulated honey suspended in liquid honey. Because honey becomes lighter in color when it granulates, the nearly white but opaque crystals could easily be seen through the darker, but still translucent liquid honey.

I figured that it would all soon granulate, especially since it was now seeded with crystals. Sure enough, by the time I requested permission to use the photos, Robert reported that it had all granulated into a fine-grained, silky smooth, and creamy consistency.

Has anyone else seen this? I thought the photos were great.

Thanks, Robert!


Iridescent honey. © Robert Lunsford.
You can see the swirls where it was stirred. © Robert Lunsford.
It seems like magic. © Robert Lunsford.

Is my honey safe to eat?

Is it safe to eat honey from a hive with mites?

Is it safe to eat honey after my bees absconded?

Is the honey from a dead hive safe to eat?

A moth was on the honey comb. How can I sterilize it?

Is it safe to eat a jar of honey with comb inside?

Help! There’s a bug in my honey. Will I be sick??? Please get back to me right away!!!

Is it safe to eat honey from a hive that had mice?

Some variation of the “is it safe” query pops up every day. The questions often concern insects or mites, as if a stray wing may sicken us.

In my generous mood, I patiently explain. In my catty mood, I want to say it is entirely unfit for consumption, and if they’ll send it to me, I’ll take care of it. In my impatient mood, I want to know what they’re smoking.

Why are we so afraid of insects? Furthermore, why is food from a store or restaurant deemed perfectly safe while food directly from nature is suspect? People will eat mystery meat out of a can—or a shiny apple containing 37 different pesticides—without a thought. But those same people will panic at the idea of eating something a mite may have stepped on.

When I read these questions, I get the feeling that people don’t realize how many contaminants are in their food. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) publishes a handy-dandy little guide called the “Defect Levels Handbook,” which lists the allowable number of insect parts and rodent hairs in all different types of food. For example:

  • Peanut butter may legally contain up to 30 insect parts per 100 grams. My jar of Organic Crunchy Peanut Butter says a serving size is 2 tablespoons or 32 g. So that’s 10 insect parts per serving. Yum. Furthermore, the reason for the restriction is listed as aesthetic. In other words, those parts won’t hurt you, they just look bad.
  • Broccoli is always interesting. Frozen broccoli may contain up to 60 aphids and/or thrips and/or mites per 100 grams. That’s about 3/4 cup. Reason: aesthetic.
  • Canned mushrooms should not contain more than 20 maggots of any size per 100 grams of drained product, nor should they contain more than 75 mites per 100 grams of drained product. Reason: aesthetic.
  • Wheat flour should average less than 75 insect fragments per 50 grams. Reason: aesthetic. And you thought you were vegetarian? Think again.

When I was a kid my grandfather would ask, “What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?”

I would shrug, trying to imagine something worse.

Then he would laugh merrily and say, “Finding a half a worm!” He though that was hilarious; I thought it was gross.

One day, as he was loading bushel baskets of apples into the trunk of his car, I poked around, looking for one to eat. “These are all wormy,” I complained, tossing them back.

“Of course!” he said. “That’s why we’re pressing them for cider!”

Needless to say, cider didn’t pass my lips for many months. But people don’t get sick drinking cider or grape juice or cranberry juice, worms and all. It all goes back to the aesthetic: we dress up our food to make it look nice, but the harmless contaminants are still there. The trouble is, we do such a great job hiding the truth, that people believe their food is pure.

My point? Don’t worry. Honey is one of the safest foods around. If you don’t like insects on your toast, remove the ones you can see, then chill. There are things out there we should be worried about, but a bug in your honey doesn’t make the list.


What lurks within?

Meadowfoam honey?

Last time I was in Oregon, I picked up a sample of meadowfoam (Limnanthes alba) honey and it’s been sitting on the shelf. Three days ago, I opened it for a taste. My first thought was “bubble gum.” Hmm, not good. I put it away and tried it again yesterday. My first thought was “marshmallow.” Not good at all. Today was my third try, and I’m going to stick with marshmallow.

The primary flavor is just over-the-top sweet with a slightly artificial taste, almost metallic—what pennies must taste like only sweet, sweet, sweet.

I tried meadowfoam honey once before and I don’t recall this flavor. I looked up the ingredients for marshmallows and they are made primarily from high-fructose corn syrup. How interesting. I’m not accusing anyone of anything, I’m just saying.

Does anyone know what meadowfoam honey is supposed to taste like? Has anyone else noticed a cloying sweetness with no floral overtones? Does anyone who produces this stuff have some insight? It was probably my worst honey experience ever, but now I’m really curious. I will try to find another source so I can compare.