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 were 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.

Stinky honey

“Help! My bees need a bath!”

“My honey stinks.”

“There’s a foul smell coming from my hive entrance.”

“I have reeky bees.”

“My bees are collecting rancid nectar.”

“My hive smells like my husband’s gym locker.”

Every autumn a large number of beekeepers report stinky honey. The source of the smell is nectar, most probably from plants in the aster family, including goldenrod and small daisy-like flowers that grow in clusters.

When your bees start to dry this nectar into honey the smell can be overwhelming and somewhat startling. It’s just not the odor you expect from your sweet bees.

Although goldenrod, dandelion, and aster honeys are often not favorites, they aren’t terrible, and they taste nothing like the odor they give off. Nevertheless, many beekeepers prefer to let the bees keep the aster honey for themselves.

This actually works quite well since asters are largely fall-flowing plants. Beekeepers can harvest in early fall and then let the bees keep the fall honey for overwintering.

Some beekeepers fear AFB when they smell aster nectar, but the odors are quite different. Aster nectar has been described as musty, musky, funky, rank, moldy, sour, and rancid. AFB has more of a dead animal smell . . . think rotting meat or fly-riddled carcass on the side of the road.

If you are uncertain, look at your capped brood. If your brood is healthy-looking you are probably smelling aster honey. If you see shrunken brood caps, discoloration, holes in the caps, and the brood frames smell like death, then you need to test for AFB.


Asters by photofarmer
Many plants in the Asteraceae family produce odoriferous honey. Flickr photo by photofarmer.

How long does it take bees to change sugar syrup to honey?

A really, really long time. In fact, it ain’t gonna happen. Not ever. Sugar syrup is made from table sugar, sucrose, which is a disaccharide of fructose and glucose. Honey is made from the nectar of flowers. Bees are clever, but not clever enough to make honey from plain old sucrose.

Honey has many things in it—all derived from the plants which produced the nectar. These components include other sugars as well as trace amounts of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and flavorful compounds. It is all these optional extras that give honey its flavor, aroma, and color.

Bees will collect sugar syrup, dehydrate it, and store it as if it were nectar. What they end up with, however, is dehydrated and capped sugar syrup—not honey.

Does pasteurization of honey kill Clostridium botulinum?

The idea that honey should be pasteurized is truly odd. Honey has been used for centuries to dress wounds because of its antibacterial properties, and yet some people want to pasteurize it as if it might cause disease. Honey virtually never goes bad because it provides an inhospitable environment for most pathogens, yet some people want it cleaner.

Clostridium botulinum is a very common soil-borne organism that doesn’t cause problems for humans unless it is allowed to grow and produce toxins. This happens occasionally in low-acid (medium to high pH) foods that are not properly processed. Clostridium botulinum favors anaerobic conditions with a pH of about 4.6 or greater, so it sometimes is found in home-canned jars of fish, beans, mushrooms, and low-acid tomatoes.

As it turns out, the spores of Clostridium botulinum can survive in honey, but they can’t germinate, grow, or produce toxin in the highly acidic and extremely hygroscopic environment of honey. The spores just stay in the spore form. If we eat them, they go through us just as they would if they were stuck on a carrot or potato. The spores are everywhere and not a threat to humans with two exceptions—infants and individuals with compromised immune systems.

Very young children, usually during the first few months of life, have an underdeveloped intestine that sometimes allows Clostridium botulinum spores to grow within the gut and produce toxins. The condition is quite rare, but it most frequently happens after the ingestion of honey. The infant digestive system matures early and within a few months, the spores will pass straight through a child just as they do in an adult. Although the vulnerable stage is short, to be on the safe side, it is recommended that parents wait until a child is at least one year old before feeding honey.

Some people believe that if the honey is pasteurized it will be safe to give to infants. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pasteurization does nothing to botulism spores. Nothing.

Both the actual Clostridium botulinum bacteria and the toxins it produces are easily destroyed by boiling for several minutes or by holding them at lower temperatures for longer times. The spores, on the other hand, are extremely resistant. Pressure cooking at 250° F (121° C) for three minutes will kill the spores, as will other combinations of temperature, pressure, time, and acidity. At standard pressures, it could take hours of boiling to kill them.

But honey is pasteurized at much lower temperatures. Most sources I found recommended heating the honey to 145° F (63° C) for 30 minutes. Some preferred 150° (65.5° C) for 30 minutes. One suggested that the temperature be brought to 170° F (77° C) momentarily. In this environment, Clostridium botulinum spores are going to take off their little t-shirts and luxuriate in the sauna-like conditions.

The only thing that pasteurization does to honey is destroy many of the nuanced flavors and aromas, as well as many of the phytochemicals, antioxidants, and nutrients. In other words pasteurization degrades the product yet provides no clear benefit.